Right now, there are 70 million displaced people in the world who have been forced to leave their homes because of conflict or crisis. Among those displaced, it is nearly always women and children who suffer the most.
For us in the West, it is difficult to fathom the devastating loss that comes with being displaced. Sometimes it is losing everything you own. Sometimes it is losing autonomy over your body. Sometimes it is losing a child or a spouse.
Sometimes it is all these things at once.
For women and children affected by displacement, art has become an unexpected method of healing – a way to process the pain of loss and suffering.
Hannah Rose Thomas, an artist whose work has been displayed in places like Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, is heralding the use of art as a mode of self-restoration for displaced women.
From a young age, painting interested her, but her captivation with portraiture began with a series of trips to Africa and the Middle East. “While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an opportunity to organize art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR – an experience which opened my eyes to the magnitude of the refugee crisis confronting our world today. I began to paint the portraits of some of the refugees I had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise often shrouded by statistics,” says Hannah. “As part of the preparation for these projects, I sought to understand the psychology underpinning the use of expressive and creative arts for trauma survivors.”
Hannah has spent the last several years organizing art projects. She’s worked with Syrian refugees in Jordan; Yezidi women who escaped ISIS captivity in Iraqi Kurdistan; Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps and survivors of sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen in Northern Nigeria.
The purpose of these visits is to help the women learn how to tell their stories. Hannah explains, “Language is often insufficient to convey the experiences of trauma in conflict. For societies emerging from conflict, the arts can provide a new form of communication and a creative tool to address the conspiracy of silence and unspeakable pain.” By integrating traumatic memories into the creative process, gradually the women are able to begin a journey of healing. Through painting themselves, they reclaim their dignity and find restoration from their shattering experiences.
For women who bear the wounds of trauma and sexual violence, painting works as a salve.
Hannah reveres Mother Teresa who spoke of “seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time.” When people view her portraits, she hopes they are provoked to think about how different the world would be if humans treated each and every individual as a reflection of the image of God and of equal value in His eyes.
“Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time.”
- Mother Teresa
On one of her humanitarian trips, Hannah visited Cox’s Bazaar, the world’s largest refugee camp. There she met Rohingya women, some of whom were sexually assaulted when fleeing Myanmar to find safety in Bangladesh. Hannah painted their portraits using the traditional oil painting techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumato, as if to create an impression of flames flickering in the women’s faces, from the terrifying experience of witnessing their villages burning.
Currently, Tearfund is working in the Rohingya camp to meet the essential needs of those sheltering in the crowded camps. With the additional challenges of coronavirus, Tearfund knows how important it is for women who have suffered sexual assault to have a safe place to practice sanitation without feeling afraid. Our goal is to equip 10,000 Rohingya refugees with sanitation supplies, gloves, masks, and information about Covid-19 prevention. These kinds of things can’t undo what’s happened, but they can make a difference.
“There is nothing more important than compassion for one another. It is my prayer that God would open my eyes to see each person as He sees them and that His heart of compassion would shine through my paintings,” says Hannah. “I long for my work to give something of a glimpse of God’s love that this aching world so desperately needs. Painting their portraits is my way of offering a prayer for them to God – the God who weeps and suffers alongside us.”
This week, Hannah will be running a workshop for The Breath and The Clay conference alongside many other artists and contributors including Tearfund USA Vice President, Jason Fileta. You can follow Hannah on Instagram @hannahrosethomas and Facebook at Hannah Rose Thomas Art.