A Damascene revolution: Syrian artist Sara Shamma revives women lost in time
Sara Shamma is a renowned painter hailing from Damascus, Syria. Her works are highly acclaimed and can be found in prominent public and private collections across the globe.
In 2016, she relocated to London with her family on an Exceptional Talent Visa. However, this wasn't her first visit to the UK. For the past two decades, she has been frequently visiting London for both work and leisure.
Her latest exhibition, Bold Spirits, will be held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from September 26 this year until February 25, 2024.
The exhibition is curated by Helen Hillyard and is inspired by the gallery's historic paintings, specifically the women whose names have been forgotten over time. The displays aim to provide new ways of narrating stories from the gallery's collection.
"Death is a powerful source of inspiration as it triggers creation. We all experience death in our daily lives, whether it's leaving a person or a country behind"
Sara was inspired by the Old Masters and their paintings for the Bold Spirits exhibition. These include Peter Paul Rubens' Venus, Mars and Cupid, Antony van Dyck's Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn's Girl at a Window, Francesco Guarino's Saint Agatha, and Peter Levy's Nymphs by a Fountain.
Her extensive reading about their techniques when she was 16 made her develop a strong connection with the Old Masters. To practice before entering the Painting Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus and even during her studies, she copied hundreds of their paintings using the same techniques.
Sara found Venus, Mars and Cupid by Peter Paul Rubens particularly inspiring because it presents motherhood in such an innocent and pure way. As Sara is a mother herself, she tries to capture her feelings in the painting. Even though Rubens is not Syrian or Arab, Sara can relate to the old master.
The style in Syria is very different, and when she reproduced the painting, she used her unique style, history, and tradition. Motherhood changed all her life aspects, and she became emotionally richer.
The Syrian painter's recreation of Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window was a highly personal work in which she included her children, who are always present in her life and work. This experience brought about a sense of 'rebirth' in the artist, and it served as a source of inspiration and energy for her daily life.
Sara primarily uses oil colours and applies them in layers. She waits for each layer to dry completely before applying the subsequent one, creating a sense of depth and dimensionality in her work. Working with transparent layers on top of one another gives the impression of a 3D painting.
The artist doesn't plan her colour choices. Instead, she chooses colours spontaneously as she works on the canvas, often driven by certain colours that catch her eye. Sara doesn't create sketches beforehand and isn't interested in knowing the result of the painting in advance, as it would be boring for her.
Levy's Nymphs By a Fountain, on the other hand, holds a more personal connection for the artist, as she wanted to recreate it. She used green colour by coincidence but found a way to incorporate it into the painting. Discovering beauty is a crucial part of her creative process.
As a painter, the journey of creating a piece of art is the most interesting and exciting part for the artist. It is a process of discovery, and she likes to surprise herself along the way until the painting is complete. The artist also enjoys surprising her viewers through her work.
Sara has a particular interest in themes such as the Syrian civil war, modern slavery, and death, which is evident in her art. Her work is a reflection of her prolonged research on these subjects.
"I take pictures of everything, including nature and the sky. I love the colours of the sky. Throughout my career, I have always been obsessed with research. My mind is constantly painting, and I never miss a moment," she told The New Arab.
Regarding the painting of van Dyck's Lady Digby, the Syrian artist initially assumed that the Lady was asleep because one of her eyes was slightly open while the other was closed.
However, when her curator, Helen Hillyard, suggested that Lady Digby be portrayed on her deathbed, Sara became intrigued.
According to Sara, death is a powerful source of inspiration as it triggers creation. We all experience death in our daily lives, whether it's leaving a person or a country behind. Sara believes that these experiences of death help us grow and attract new opportunities, bringing greater richness to our lives.
Guarino's Saint Agatha needed a lot of research by the painter, as Sara wasn’t initially aware of its history.
Saint Agatha was one of the Christian martyrs who was subjected to a lot of violence, as she had her breasts cut off. The artist included a very realistic depiction of a figure. "She felt that she pushed her boundary in some way." The blurring technique that the artist used is "a way of layering of covering up, of creating hyper-realistic elements and then destroying them."
In 2010, Sara was chosen by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to be their 'Celebrity Partner' artist. She created some paintings and donated them to help Iraqi refugees.
If you're interested in hearing about Sara's inspiration and creative process, you can attend a conversation with her at the Dulwich Gallery on December 8 at 6:30 pm.
Additionally, on December 17 at noon, the Dulwich Gallery is offering a self-portrait masterclass by Sara Shamma, where she will demonstrate her layered oil painting technique. This is a great opportunity for art lovers to learn from a talented artist.
Katerina Tiliakou is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and a freelance NCTJ multiplatform journalist. She has worked for well-known media organisations, such as the BBC, Associated Press, TRT World, Sky News, Eagle Radio, Finbuzz and London Greek Radio
Follow her on X: @TiliakouK