Sara Shamma, Q – interview

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Sara Shamma’s paintings give off a hallucinogenic aura, so I guess I had expected her appearance to correspond to this. To be honest, I could not have been more wrong; the woman with whom I met on Thursday was unrecognisable from my imagination—I had anticipated someone with an airy-fairy demeanour and slightly vacant eyes. However, Shamma had a very strong presence. Her striking looks made her seem very grounded, and made me even more excited to talk to her, as I could not immediately reconcile her glamorous dress with the phantasmagoria she produces.

As one might expect, the first thing Shamma did was to ask me how much of her work I had seen. As November marks the unveiling of her first solo exhibition in London, I had to admit that I’d only seen her works online. On telling her this, she moved over to the laptop, revealing the full contents of Q, which is comprised of ten individual paintings; these paintings also work together to create a whole. This idea of the singular becoming part of the collective is a recurring theme throughout her exhibition. Q also reflects the psychology of a literal queue, and is used by Shamma to explore the concept of the collective consciousness.

Whilst Shamma was pre-occupied with the computer, it occurred to me that she really cared about her work. Even the positioning of her laptop on the middle of the table reflected this; symbolically, it was made clear that her art was to be the centre of this interview. Now, this might seem like an obvious point but so much of the art world is taken over by personality—just think Damien Hurst—so it is really comforting to feel like you are sitting with somebody genuine.


Q4, oil on canvas, 200 x 200cm, 2011 Picture: Sara Shamma

I don’t plan. I build up the works slowly, one after another. In a way, the process of creating the pieces reflects the theme of the queue. The pieces accumulate up behind one another. My work is not overtly political, but the situation in Syria reaffirmed my interest in group psychology. The people seem random because anyone can be persuaded to do stupid things under pressure.

How did you go about selecting the colours?

Again, I don’t. The colours I use naturally fit with the works and I feel that it gives each piece a more natural quality—it is this natural and unconscious element that I like to draw upon and I think is important.

Whilst on the topic of natural and un-natural, would you say that drawing upon other artists’ works affects the organic element to your work?

Of course, I do look at the work of other artists. However, I would not say that one particular artist influences me—yes, they enrich my knowledge but what really inspires me is music.

Aha! So, what tunes could I find on your iPod then?

(laughing) Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen—a lot of rock music and blues really. I think music is very pure and insensitive and creates a good atmosphere for my work.

I don’t know whether you have heard this before, but your work has quite an eerie dreamlike quality. Actually, it reminds me of some of Francis Bacon’s work. Do you think it is your resistance to planning your images that brings out this element in your pieces?

Yes, I think what reminds you of Bacon is the movement in my work. My imagination is constantly going all the time and I am trying to take in so many things. I love observing things. Consequently, it means my mind is always on the go so I have to be able to work with lots of facts and ideas. In order to convey this, I have to be free from the constraints of over-planning. I can be connected with my unconscious image which allows me to be truly expressive and real. Most importantly, it is this freedom that gives me the ability to question my surroundings.

Is that what art should do? I mean, should art be a medium by which people can change their perspectives?

Art should be a form of communication. It does not have to change people’s perspectives. For me, art should be something that is received freely and understood. Of course, it should create a kind of communication between the viewer and the piece but it does not have to strive to challenge or alter anything.

I am going to ask you a pretty standard question now, in a time of oppression. Many people would perceive your artistic voice as unique, being a woman from the Middle East. But, do you think being a woman affects your work or has a particular impact on your art?

No, not really. Each individual sees something special and something uniquely imaginative to bring to the art world.

On that note, is there something that you would like your artwork to be known for? (At first, Sara looks to the interpreter and she asks something in Syrian. I can feel my palms get sweaty. I panic. Am I being too convoluted? Then, he laughs and says ‘penetrate’. Phew, I think she has also got a sense of humour!)

(laughing) Penetrate. I want my works to penetrate the unconscious mind of every viewer.

Sorry about this, but I am going to ask you another ‘stock’ question now. Is there another profession you would have wanted to go into?


Wow, no hesitation there. Some people would say that your decision to become an artist was brave. Do you agree with that?

No! In order to be brave, you have to be afraid! What is there to be afraid about? I love art, and it is my dream and passion. I do not think that anyone should be afraid or be in fear, if you are scared of something, it is more likely to happen to you. Everyone needs to stay true to what they want to do. You really have to do what you want to do.

Sara Shamma was born in Damascus, Syria in 1975 and graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus, in 1998. Q is being shown at Upper Gulbenkian Gallery, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU. Admission is free. More information is available here.

Pictures: Sara Shamma