We are delighted that acclaimed British artist Hannah Rose Thomas is part of our Voices of Iraq premiere event next month at Westminster Abbey. Hannah is one of a tiny number of British artists to visit Iraq. In this exclusive interview, she talks to us about her inspiring art project working with Yazidi women.
1). You travelled to northern Iraq for an art project with Yazidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. What led you to this?
Last summer I had the privilege of organising an art project for a group of Yazidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. The project was based at the Jinda Centre, a rehabilitation facility in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. For the two-week art project I worked alongside clinical psychologist Dr. Sarah Whittaker-Howe. I taught the women how to draw and paint and Sarah recorded their testimonies.
I first heard about the Yazidi women when the plight of the Yazidis became global news in 2014 – thousands stranded on mount Sinjar, having fled the ISIS invasion of their homeland in northern Iraq. The heart-rending stories that followed from Yazidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity made me want to do something to help.
2). You taught the women to paint their self-portraits. How did they choose to represent themselves?
The self-portrait paintings by the women convey their dignity, resilience and unspeakable grief. The story that the Yazidi women wanted to tell through their paintings was their grief for loved ones who were killed or still in captivity. It was the first time that they had painted in their lives.
3). You have talked about ‘art as advocacy’. How can art help those who have suffered sectarian or sexual violence?
The hope was to use these paintings as a tool for advocacy and a way to bring their stories to places of influence in the West. Their self-portraits were shown in a powerful juxtaposition alongside my paintings and their testimonies in the Houses of Parliament and the Department for International Development earlier this year, to advocate on behalf of the Yazidi community and ensure that their voices are heard.
4). Your portraits of Yazidi women were recently selected by Prince Charles for his 70th birthday exhibition (the Prince & Patron Exhibition at Buckingham Palace). Is it important that people in the West see this work?
After learning to draw and paint for the first time, the women requested that I also paint their portraits. The gold leaf shows the sacred value of these Yazidi women, in spite of all they have suffered at the hands of ISIS. It is symbolic of the restoration of dignity. I hope these paintings remind us of our shared humanity and that we have more in common than what divides us. It is important to remember that we are all made in the image of God and equally valuable in His eyes, regardless of religion, race or gender.
5). Having spent time in the Middle East and worked with refugees, what are the biggest challenges these people face?
The suffering of the Yazidi community and other religious minorities in the region highlights the importance of ensuring accountability and protection to safeguard them from further persecution. There is urgent need for support to enable those who have been displaced to rebuild their lives and for education and empowerment of women and girls.
A selection of Hannah’s paintings will be exhibited at our Voices of Iraq premiere at Westminster Abbey on 7th September*. For more information about Hannah’s art, including an online portfolio of her work, please visit her website – www.hannahrosethomas.com. Hannah’s work can also be viewed on Instagram – @hannahrosethomas. Information about the Prince & Patron Exhibition at Buckingham Palace can be found by clicking here.
Supporting our work in Iraq and Jordan
The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East has provided care packages for Yazidi women in Dohuk. As part of our Nineveh SEED programme we plan to help develop economic projects for the Yazidi communities in the Nineveh Plain. We continue to provide vital relief, including food and medical supplies, to Christian refugees in northern Iraq and Jordan, as well as other persecuted minorities in the region. To support our work, please make a donation via our website here. Alternatively, you can send us a cheque made out to ‘FRRME’ to: FRRME, PO Box 229, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 9DL. Thank you.
* Please note, tickets for Voices of Iraq are now fully allocated. If you would like to be added to a reserve list, please email us at email@example.com or call us on 01730 267 673