Hannah Thomas Jigsaw Stories
Tell us about your work. How and why did it start?
I have always loved to paint ever since I was very young. My interest in portraiture began as a result of my travels in Africa and the Middle East. Following my return from volunteering in an orphanage in Mozambique when I was eighteen years old, I painted my first portrait of a woman I met in a remote village. I hoped to capture her radiant joy in the midst of poverty and also something of the vibrancy and vividness of my first few months in Africa. I often struggle to put to words the intensity of all I have experienced, and find that painting is the way in which I can express this and share the stories of the people that I have met.
Your most recent project involved working with Yezidi women in Iraq who have escaped ISIS captivity. Could you tell us more about that?
This summer I had the privilege of organizing an art project for a group of Yezidi women who have escaped ISIS captivity. The project was based at the Jinda Centere – Jinda is Kurdish for New Life – a rehabilitation facility in Dohuk, Kurdistan. The aim was to teach the Yezidi women to paint their self-portraits as a means to share their stories with the rest of the world.
The portraits you have painted of those women are astonishing. What process does each of your paintings take, from the conception to the execution?
For these portraits I have chosen the early Renaissance egg tempera technique, which was used by Botticelli and Fra Lippo Lippi. This technique is very delicate and requires countless translucent layers of pigment. I have applied gold leaf for the background of each painting to show the sacred value of these Yezidi women, in spite of all they have suffered at the hands of ISIS.
You have also run art workshops and painted subjects in refugee camps in Jordan and France. What role can art play in the humanitarian and environmental crises we are facing in the world today?
While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an amazing opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR. This experience opened my eyes to the refugee crisis conforonting 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. I think art has the potential to be a powerful tool for advocacy and raising awareness.
What would you say is the most significant piece or body of work you have created?
I think the sacred traditional techniques used for my most recent portraits of Yezidi women symbolises the restoration of dignity and I hope will help to counteract the stigma of sexual violence.
Who do you look to as being key influences or inspirations in your life, work and art?
I love these words of Mother Teresa: ‘Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion..’
What has your work taught you?
My work has taught me to look for the sacred beauty, dignity and value of the human spirit, even in the most unlikely of places. Also, that we have more in common than what divides us.
You have previously mentioned the need to celebrate the richness of Arab art and culture that it all-too often overshadowed by war. Which three artists in the Arab world do you think people should know of?
I love the exquisite miniature paintings of Imran Qureshi, which convey poetry and yet violence at the same time, and the work of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. This quote of hers has been an inspiration to me: “I’m really interested in social justice, and if an artist has a certain power of being heard and voicing something important, it’s right to do it. It could still be done in such a way that it’s not aggressive or overly didactic. I’m trying to find that form.” Also the paintings of Fahrelnissa Zeid, recently shown at the Tate Modern, are fascinating.
What would you say is most important for people to be aware of?
That we must keep the borders of our heart open to those who are different from us. This is essential if we are to overcome the distorted agendas of violence and extremism that seek to divide us.