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International Women’s Day: Portraiture and redemption

08 March 2024

Hannah Rose Thomas has portrayed women affected by violence around the world, and helped some to paint their own portraits for the first time. She talks to Susan Gray

Charity: “Charity was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she was out walking with her husband. Her husband managed to escape, but Charity failed to get away. She was held captive by Boko Haram for three years and was forced to ‘marry’ a militant and convert to Islam. Charity was raped and subsequently gave birth to a baby girl named Rahila.
The Nigerian military rescued Charity; she was reunited with her husband in a camp for internally displaced people. Her pain was magnified when her husband beat her and rejected her baby. In the camp, she faces abuse, rejection, and isolation. Access to food and water is a daily struggle.”

Charity: “Charity was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she was out walking with her husband. Her husband managed to escape, but Charity failed to get away...

HANNAH ROSE THOMAS was a Durham undergraduate on her year abroad in Jordan, in 2014, when she was asked to organise an art project for Syrian refugees. Using recycled, beige UNHCR tents as a giant canvas, children and older refugees covered the surfaces in bright colours and emotionally resonant images, often of homes and gardens that they had left behind, and of picking fruit with their grandparents. The transformed temporary shelters were then re-erected at an exhibition in Amman. The next year, the colourful tents were pitched outside Durham Castle, together with an exhibition of portraits that Ms Thomas had made of women refugees.

Having completed an MA at the Prince’s (now King’s) Foundation School of Traditional Arts, Ms Thomas explains her method for capturing portraits in the challenging environment of refugee camps, which have now been collected into a book, Tears of Gold. “For all of my portraits, I work from photographs and preparatory sketches. The time-consuming early Renaissance egg tempera and oil-painting methods and [the] gilding that I use are how I seek to respond to and honour the stories I have heard.

“The time taken with the women whom I have painted, listening to their stories, and cultivating relationship, is extended through the time spent painting their portraits. Since the painting methods I use are painstakingly slow, I tend to work from photographs, rather than expect subjects to sit for long periods of time.”

Travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan and Nigeria, in 2017, Ms Thomas worked with Yazidi and Northern Nigerian women to create self-portraits. In the Jinda Centre, which sheltered Yazidi survivors of Islamic State violence, Leila, one of the women, asked whether Ms Thomas would paint their portraits. “It is hard to begin to put to words what it was like meeting these women, and the privilege to be trusted to paint their portraits. The conversation with Leila was mediated through a translator at the Jinda Centre, as I do not speak Kurdish.

“Following my return from the art projects in Northern Nigeria and Iraqi Kurdistan, I poured my heart into these paintings. I hoped to capture something of the women’s strength, resilience, and dignity, and also the extraordinary kindness that they showed to me. Often, I couldn’t hold back the tears while I was painting, holding each of the women in my heart and my thoughts as I did so. I found the contemplative process of painting their portraits a form of prayer, enhanced in part by the sacred and traditional painting techniques and gold leaf that I used.”


FOR Ms Thomas, art is a means to process trauma, and to give expression to feelings that words and language are too limited to convey. “Many of the Yazidi and Nigerian women chose to paint their self-portraits with tears glistening in gold. This inspired the title of the book. The Yazidi women chose to paint themselves wearing the white robes of Yazidi traditional dress, and the Nigerian women sewed vibrant fabric on to their canvases, which were bought from the local market.”

Zainab (22): “On May 16 2021, Zainab al-Qolaq lost 22 members of her family – including her mother, Amal, her only sister, Hana, and two brothers – when an Israeli air strike hit her home in Gaza. Zainab was trapped under the rubble for 12 hours. In the year following the air strike, Zainab devoted herself to processing her grief through her art. Her exhibition in Gaza was entitled: ‘I’m 22, I lost 22 people.’ Her powerful paintings depict her pain and trauma, which cannot be communicated in words. Zainab says that she used the universal language of art to convey her voice and feelings, for others to understand the grief she carries each and every day. She writes: ‘They may have removed the rubble above me, but who will remove the scattered rubble from my heart?’”

The artist also wanted to go beyond the sex-slave label attached to Yazidi women in news reports, where their stories were reported almost exclusively through the lens of violence and victimhood. “In Western media, we have heard countless barbaric accounts of rape, torture, and enslavement of Yazidi women, who are often spoken of and presented through a lens of violence and victimhood.

“However, this was not the story the women wanted to tell through their paintings. These paintings convey their dignity, resilience, and unspeakable grief. In my portraiture representation, I was consciously trying to refute gendered portrayals of refugees as victims, powerless and vulnerable.”

Through painting and testimony, Tears of Gold reveals that, for many refugee women who survive sex trafficking, the end of their time with their captors and their return to their own communities does not mean an end to their suffering. This is particularly vivid in the stories of Charity and Esther, who were ostracised by their families for being mothers of “Boku babies”, after the kidnapping of Christian women by Boko Haram insurgents.

“Conflict leaves many wounds, but perhaps the most significant of all is the invisible stigma that so many survivors like Charity and Esther face. The perceived association of survivors and their children born of wartime rape with the enemy compounds the pain, shame, isolation, and trauma,” Ms Thomas says.

“There is an absence of cultural narratives that allow women to look upon their survival as heroic, courageous, and resilient. We need to show compassion and kindness to all survivors, not the opposite. We can never underestimate the healing power of listening and bearing witness to another’s story, and I seek to do this through painting. It is a form of hospitality and makes space for their voices to be respected and valued.”


THE volatility of regions where refugees are able to settle makes for an unpredictable working environment for Ms Thomas. In Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, now home to Rohingya people fleeing violence and persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, it was not possible to facilitate self-portraiture during her visit in April 2018. Instead, the women’s stories are related through Ms Thomas’s images and distilled biography and reflection.

Fahima (25): “Fahima’s son was nearly four years old when he was taken by Daesh. She has heard nothing about him in the three years since. I ask, “What do you think has happened to him?” She answers with a mournful silence. Fahima was imprisoned in Syria for a year, where she gave birth to her second child. She was never sold or taken by a Daesh fighter; she reflects that this is because she was not seen as beautiful compared to the other girls. In an act of self-preservation, she cut her long eyelashes several times so Daesh fighters wouldn’t choose her”

Adapting her working methods to the conditions on the ground is part of Ms Thomas’s practice. “When working in refugee settings, especially in large refugee camps such as in Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, I try not to come with fixed expectations of what may be possible, as this tends to change on a day-by-day basis, and it is necessary to be flexible and open.”

The artist also changed from quick-drying tempera to oil paint in portraying the displaced women from the Rohingya community. “I used oil paint for the Rohingya portraits as I wanted to evoke the chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques from the Renaissance, whereby the figures seem to almost disappear into the background. The fiery colours of the headscarves and flickering light on the women’s faces evoke a sense of the women reliving their terrifying ordeals in Myanmar, when the military attacked and burned their villages to the ground.”

Gaza’s inaccessibility necessitated another adaptation to create the portrait of 22-year-old Zainab, who lost 22 members of her family in an Israeli air strike in May 2021. Ms Thomas painted the portrait by seeing her subject on Zoom. “The encounter with Zainab was mediated virtually in March 2022, since I was unable to visit the Gaza Strip. I was introduced to her as a young artist who might be open to the possibility of having her portrait painted. Zainab later told me that she agreed because I shared a name with her beloved sister Hana, who was killed in an Israeli air strike.”

Tears of Gold’s portraits of women refugees, including from Yazidi, Rohingya, and Nigerian communities, have been exhibited in Lambeth Palace and the Palace of Westminster, and online during the lockdown (Arts, 19 February 2021). Living in Surrey and studying for a Ph.D. at Glasgow University, Ms Thomas draws on her own experience of art in helping her healing from PTSD after an assault: “The arts can build a bridge between the heart and the mind.”

She sees her artistic practice as an expression of Christian faith: “Made in the image and likeness of God, each and every person is endowed with an intrinsic and inalienable dignity, imbued with a worth, sacredness, and fundamental rights that cannot be eroded.

“It is my prayer that God would open my eyes to see each person as he sees them, to reverently behold the imago Dei, especially in the places where it has been denied.”


Tears of Gold: Portraits of Yazidi, Rohingya, and Nigerian women by Hannah Rose Thomas is published by Plough at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £27); 978-1-63608-080-2.

The captions in this feature have been written by Hannah Rose Thomas.

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