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Jan 26 / Simon

PORTRAIT OF A NATION’S NIGHTMARE

The Independent, 19-5-2015
Syrian artist Sara Shamma tells Simon Tait about the fear and fury that shaped her disturbing new work
Hanging in the private office in Damascus of Asma al-Assad, the wife of the president of Syria, is a portrait of her commissioned in 2011 from one of her country’s leading young painters. “I will never paint a picture like that again,” says the artist, Sara Shamma. “That Syria will never exist again, and I am a different painter now”.

Now, Shamma paints the visceral nightmare of the Middle East that she sees spreading across the world: men and women trapped in graves; faces distorted by laddered stockings as a garrotte hovers; a man suspended hand and foot by chains like the butchered bull behind; another trapped and taunted by the kidney that is the subject of an enormous illicit and murderous trade; another eating his own foot.

Her exhibition of 15 new paintings opening at Truman’s Brewery in London on May 11 is called World Civil War Portraits, more a collective portrait of a phenomenon that started for her as a local crisis and has grown to a global catastrophe and a fear that dominates her.

In November 2012 Shamma was in her comfortable suburban home in Damascus with her children, waiting for a car to take her to her studio – a ten minute walk normally but by then a complicated one-and-a-half hour drive. Just as she leaned forward to kiss her two year-old son, Amir, a car bomb exploded outside her door, leaving them unharmed but shattering glass and their Syrian lives for ever. As soon as roads were open, she fled with Amir and the baby Amal to Lebanon. She will never return, though her husband Mounzer Nassa continues to work in Syria organising UN food aid convoys.

“The human spirit has died in Syria, and it is dying elsewhere now,” she says, turning to the most recent shock of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in January. “Those are French citizens doing this, not Arab insurgents,” she says in her uncertain English. “I feel the fear now wherever I go”.

She calls this art painting from her unconscious. They are not her dreams which are more surreal, she says, yet there is allegory in most of the images, with ghosts and shadows lurking and menacing. She doesn’t know what will happen when she starts to paint.

Shamma, now 40 and the daughter of a civil engineer and a child psychologist, went to art school in Damascus and was part of a nascent but flourishing movement through the 90s and early 2000s, and her reputation was becoming international. In 2004 she was fourth in the BP Portrait Award with a self-portrait made with barely perceptible brushstrokes, more than competent but unremarkable.

But most of the new paintings, all done in the last nine months, are furious, huge sweeping brush strokes carving out the shapes of her fury on large canvases. Eyes are mostly blue because they are more expressive of the fear and anger she feels. The face of the man whose features are smeared inside a tattered stocking, Incognito 1, was done entirely from her imagination as most of them are, and started as an exercise in figurative painting but became a garrotting: except that the hands holding the ligature are both right hands, one a fist gripping the rope, the other gently guiding it with fingertips.

“I like painting to give me very different facts, like the dream,” she says. “I want it to take me to another world, I don’t want the painting to describe something real. Sometimes it takes me to a horrible place, but I don’t feel that when I’m painting”.

She uses photographs and often takes her camera to a local butcher’s shop for images of carcases, skeletons and organs. The viscera symbolises the shameless inhumanity of the war and contrasts it with the normality humans strive to recapture. So in Butcher a huge cow’s liver is seen next to a tall figure, a benign-looking woman. She is actually the butcher (so sensitive to the task of killing the animals in the halal way, Shamma says, she feels physically sick at having to perform the act), but closer to, the flourishing brushstrokes that make her face show the panic, anger and hopelessness that haunts all these faces.

In her self-portrait she caresses a human skull, a grotesque affection for the lost past, but behind her is a set of bones set like a throne, the actual skeleton of a gorilla; intervening is her daughter’s semi-inflated pink balloon, a sharp intimation of life continuing.

Many in the Syrian art diaspora are finding it impossible to paint, unable to assimilate to life in Lebanon, Dubai or wherever they have escaped to. Shamma says they have to forget the old Syria and move on, as she has.

“The whole country now is destroyed, the people are destroyed as well, their mentality is destroyed, I think the culture is destroyed,” she says. But there is hope, even in her own children. A delightful actual portrait is of her son, Child’s drawing: on one half of the face she has got him to make his own drawing of what he was thinking as the portrait was being made, and could hardly be more affectionately intimate.

“Maybe it can be built again, I don’t know,” she says of the Syrian art scene, “but it will have to evolve in another way. The Syria we knew is gone”.

World Civil War Portraits is presented by StolenSpace at
Tie Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL, May 11-May 25