Interview: Hannah Rose Thomas’s stunning portraits demonstrate art as advocacy

A pioneer of arts projects with refugees, the English artist talks about her process and motivation

Tue 07 Aug, 2018

Hannah Rose Thomas is an English artist creating stunning portrait paintings of refugees, whose work has been shown at the Saatchi Gallery, the Houses of Parliament and Durham Cathedral.

As part of the process, Hannah has organised art projects in Kurdistan with Yezidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity, and for Rohingya children in refugee camps on the Myanmar border. We asked Hannah to talk about her journey a little – if you’d like to find out more, see Hannah’s website, and follow her on Instagram.

You’ve said you’re influenced by Islamic art and poetry – and of course you’re an Arabic speaker. Where does that connection with Middle Eastern cultures stem from?

I studied History and Arabic at Durham due to a desire to understand different cultures. Arabic is a beautiful language, and the written script an artform in itself.

I first travelled to Iran when I was eighteen years old, and was captivated by the breathtaking beauty of the mosques of Isfahan and Shiraz. I draw inspiration from Islamic art and poetry to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the Middle East which is so often forgotten and overshadowed by war.

You’ve been involved with humanitarian work for some time, and presumably painting for a while too. Have they always felt connected, or was there a particular event or story that caused you to bring them together?

I have always loved to paint ever since I was very young, but my interest in portraiture began as a result of my travels and humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East. While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR – an experience which opened my eyes to the magnitude of the refugee crisis confronting our world today. I began to paint the portraits of some of the refugees I had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise often shrouded by statistics.

My unusual position as an English artist who is fluent in Arabic has enabled me to cross cultural barriers and communicate their stories, and I’ve been deeply moved by the stories of the refugees I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Each person I have spoken with has a story of suffering and remarkable resilience. It was to share their stories that I began painting their portraits.

Hannah Rose Thomas Yezidi Women: ISIS Survivors Art Sputnik Faith
Panels from ‘Yezidi Women: ISIS Survivors’

Your portraits give the viewer a very tangible sense of empathy: the sense that you’re looking at a real and complex person. What’s that process like for you – how do you go about capturing a person’s essence?

I love these words from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” What does it truly mean to imagine yourselves in another persons skin, to feel what they feel? How can we begin to imagine how it feels to flee our homes and the unimaginable horrors of war? There is nothing more important than empathy for another’s suffering. We have to feel compassion for one another if we are going to survive with dignity.

“I don’t think I could go to these places if I didn’t have art as a way to process and express all that I have seen.”

The ‘art of empathy’ is a concept that has been on my heart while painting the portraits of Yezidi women and Rohingya women this last year. Often tears would fall while painting and thinking about their stories and ongoing suffering: the paintings are a way of offering a prayer for them to God.

I don’t think I could go to these places if I didn’t have art as a way to process and express all that I have seen. My work has taught me to look for the sacred beauty, dignity and value of the human spirit, even in places of darkness and suffering. I hope that these paintings remind us of our shared humanity and that we have more in common than what divides us.

Hannah Rose Thomas Yezidi Women Project Sputnik Faith Art
A Yezidi woman, former ISIS captive, paints a self-portrait

Who’s the primary audience in your mind: the portrait subjects themselves, or the folks far away?

The hope was to use the art projects and paintings as a tool for advocacy and a way to bring their stories to places of influence in the West. This year the paintings by Yezidi women from an art project I organised in Northern Iraq last year were shown alongside my paintings in the Houses of Parliament and DfID.

Ever since I was young I have wanted to be a voice for the voiceless somehow, and never imagined it could be through art.

The start of your process is so personal; have you also been able to share moments with your audience, to witness their reaction to your work?

There have been many times when people I’ve spoken to have been visibly moved by the paintings. I think that this is because a portrait painting is intensely personal, and also it provides space for people to contemplate and reflect. We are so frequently bombarded with tragic stories in the news that I think we become a little numb; however a portrait painting can bring us face to face with the human stories behind the refugee crisis, which makes it much more real.

The MPs and Peers who visited my exhibition Yezidi women: ISIS Survivors  in the houses of Parliament March 2018 were profoundly moved, and as a consequence the plight of Yezidi women was raised in the House on a number of occasions, including a mention by Theresa May during PMQs.

hannahrosethomas.com  •  @hannahrosethomas

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