THE exhibition “Tears of Gold” presents three sets of portraits created by Hannah Rose Thomas which depict Yezidi women who escaped IS captivity, Rohingya women who fled violence in Myanmar, and Nigerian women who survived Boko Haram and Fulani violence. Many of the women depicted in Thomas’s paintings personally suffered sexual violence; others represent their wider community and the countless untold stories of horror.
Thomas met these women while they were respectively in a rehabilitation facility, in a refugee camp, and on a trauma-healing programme. While with them, Thomas taught them to paint their self-portraits. It was after doing so that they asked her to paint their portraits. Both sets of portraits feature in this exhibition, with the women’s self-portraits offered as a way in which to share their stories with the rest of the world.
As Thomas has explained, however, the self-portraits began life as a healing experience after trauma and conflict: “For survivors of human rights violations, everyday verbal language is inadequate to convey the depth of the trauma and the emotions that they have experienced. The (visual) Arts provide a new powerful tool for them to communicate where words fail.”
The simple act of painting their self-portraits was a way to affirm identity and value— an act so important considering the isolation and shame that these women have experienced because of the violence, trauma, and stigma that they have faced. The primary need of survivors of violation and violence is to feel like a person again, to rediscover their own sense of personhood and voice.
© Hannah ThomasPortrait of Basse by Hannah Thomas
That was what Thomas hoped the art projects would do for the women — as with Ladi, captured by Boko Haram and forcibly married, who said: “I drew myself and, when I looked at it this morning, I saw how beautiful I am.” Aisha, a survivor of sexual violence at the hands of Fulani militants, said that “In the course of the programme, I saw how God thinks about me and how he looks at me.”
Many of the Yezidi women chose to paint themselves with tears of gold; their paintings conveying their dignity, resilience, and unspeakable grief. The Yezidi community have been targeted innumerable times in their history, denounced as “devil worshippers”. The gold-leaf background that Thomas used in their portraits is reminiscent of icon-painting, with that sacred imagery and symbolism deliberately used to convey that we are all created equal, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender.
Aisha also focused on communication of her story: “I want the whole world to know that I have pain, I have gone through a lot and many other women in my village are going through a lot and that is what is happening here in my country. Women are going through a lot and they do not have anybody to speak out for them.”
In this way, Thomas seeks to use her art as a tool for advocacy and bringing the stories of these women into places of influence in the West. “Tears of Gold” is part of “The Future is Unwritten”, a landmark UN75 exhibition in partnership with Google Arts & Culture. The UN75 initiative aims to become the world’s largest conversation about current global challenges, and the gap between the future that we want and the one towards which we are heading if current trends continue.
© Hannah ThomasPortrait of Charity by Hannah Thomas
In bringing the voices of artists together at this time, “The Future is Unwritten” seeks to amplify their visions of what might be possible by 2045, the United Nations’ centenary. As society recalibrates itself in response to the dual crisis of a global pandemic and environmental emergency, this is a cultural call to action in response to the challenges that the next decade will bring. Artists and cultural practitioners such as Thomas are the purveyors of a more beautiful, sustainable, and equitable future for all. So, the hope is that their work will lead the way by amplifying and accelerating the values, actions, and creativity that enable society to operate from a more united and universal posture locally and globally.
Through her portraits, Thomas seeks to convey that each of us is created in the image of God and equally valuable in his eyes, regardless of race, religion, economic circumstance, or social status. These paintings ask us to keep the borders of our hearts open to those who are different from us. For Thomas, this is essential “if we are to overcome the distorted agendas of violence and extremism that seek to divide us”.
“Tears of Gold: An Exhibition by The Future Is Unwritten and UN75: Artists of Tomorrow” can be viewed at artsandculture.google.com