Hannah Rose Thomas – Art can be used to give a voice to the voiceless

by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. Hannah Rose Thomas is an English artist and Durham graduate in Arabic and History, currently studying for her MA at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London.
Ever since she was eighteen years-old, Hannah has sold her paintings and received commissions to fund her humanitarian work in Mozambique, Sudan, Jordan and Iraq.
Hannah paints the portraits of people she has encountered on her travels; from African women in remote villages in Mozambique to Syrian refugees in Jordanian camps. Her most recent paintings have been of Yezidi women in Kurdistan.
You can find further information about her projects on her website
My interview with Hannah focussed on the importance of art for human rights, and about the engagement of artists in society.

Your life is a great example of the relationship between
art and human rights. Which is the main reason why you move into this
Studying Arabic in Jordan lead to an opportunity to work
with UNHCR organising art projects for Syrian refugees. This lead to an
interest in how art can be used as a powerful tool for advocacy.
Tell us about your project with the ISIS slaves.
Last 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. Following my return I began to paint portraits of each of
the women, using gold leaf. The gold leaf in these paintings is to show the
sacred value of these women, in spite of all that they have suffered in the
hands of ISIS. The purpose of the exhibition is to highlight the plight of the
Yezidi women and advocate on their behalf.
How can art promote feminism?
The aim of the project with Yezidi women was to use art as a
powerful tool for advocacy. Teaching the women to paint their self-portraits
portraits has been a way for these women to share their stories with the rest
of the world. Testimony is an important element of the recovery process
post-torture and sexual violence. 
The paintings by the Yezidi women convey their dignity,
resilience and unspeakable grief; subverting conventional media narratives
which portray the Yezidi women as victims and ‘sex slaves’.
Why can art be so helpful for refugees? How was your
experience in Jordan?
Art is universal and transcends cultural differences. Being
able to speak Arabic was also a great way to connect with the Syrian children I
worked with in Jordan and there was always a lot of laughter during the art
projects! The refugee tents provided a large canvas to work upon with everyone
collaborating together. 

How can art help traumatized people of all ages?
I am not trained as an art therapist however I know from my
own experience as an artist the therapeutic benefits of painting. Art is a
creative way to counteract the conspiracy of silence that so often prevails for
those who have who have experienced trauma.
What have you learnt from the women your worked with in
Middle Eastern societies?
My work has taught me to look for the beauty, dignity and
resilience of the human spirit, even in places full of pain and darkness. Also,
that we have more in common than what divides us and that we must keep our
hearts open.  This is essential if we are to overcome the distorted
agendas of violence and extremism that seek to divide us.
What have you reached up to now and what is your dream
for the future?
The exhibition ‘Yezidi Women: ISIS Survivors’ in the Houses
of Parliament last month and the attention it received from House MPs, Peers
and even the prime minister herself was beyond what I could have imagined. It
opened my eyes to the potential of art to inspire empathy and influence the
hearts and minds of those shaping politics. 
I have recently returned from Bangladesh from a project with
Rohingya women and children in the refugee camps on the Myanmar border. I hope
to be able to continue to learn ways in which art can be used to give a voice
to the voiceless.