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Sara Shamma (Syrian, b. 1975) Self Portrait

Interview with ‘Q’ artist Sara Shamma

17 October 2013

Queuing is very much a part of British culture. We queue all over the place, whether it is for the latest iPhone, or overnight for the RCA secret postcard sale. But there are also other types for queues, queues that elicit fear rather than excitement such as the photographs we have seen showing queues of Syrians in exodus crossing the border. Taking the queue as the starting point, Artist Sara Shamma’s work delves into the broader issues of the war in Syria and its effects. London Calling finds out more…

London Calling: Can you tell us a little about this latest exhibition?

Sara Shamma: Q consists of 10 paintings in oil and acrylic depicting a queue of people and animals.  They are all the same height but are of different lengths and although they can stand alone they will be exhibited on one wall totalling 16.5 metres.

I have always been curious about the philosophy of the queue and the people in it.  Mostly, we think of a queue as a composite, negative entity; a person in the queue may have good individual qualities but once he becomes embodied within the queue he sacrifices his uniqueness. 

For me there is a sense of foreboding, and somewhat military, about a queue whereby a person queuing ignores the aim of the queue of which he is a part, feeling noble for waiting patiently, while actually he is being manipulated by the queue's initiator into becoming part of a herd.  Where animals herd together for protection against something menacing or are herded together at the control of a forceful power, humans feels at ease in a group - if something good happens to others it will happens to them too.  Even if something bad happens it may happens to others first or be diluted.  In a harmless queue everyone wishes to get to the front, but there are also some sinister queues, in which you never want to move forward.

LC: Do you have much experience of London and its arts scene?

SS: I have always considered London as the world capital of contemporary art.  The few collective London exhibitions in which I've participated have been important to me, in particular the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery.  I travel to London almost every year and I visit many of the important exhibitions that take places in the different galleries and museums. 

LC: When painting a portrait, how well do you get to know the sitter?

SS: I never paint a portrait if the sitter doesn't inspire me, I need to find something in a person that speaks to me, attracts me and touches my feelings, in order to transfer those emotions to canvas. Otherwise, I prefer to create personages from my imagination for my paintings.

LC: Do you work from life, photographs or memory?

SS: Mainly I use my memory and subconscious to create the people my paintings, I have millions of images in my head. Sometimes I use photographs, in which case I prefer to take them myself, mainly using models and recreating their faces. I rarely work from life, but if I include myself or part of myself in a painting, then I work using a mirror.

LC: Many of your paintings are untitled, why is this?

SS: I am always concerned that if I put a title to a painting I am directing the viewer to see it as I did when I named it. Because I see my paintings in a new way every time I look at them. I don't want to limit the freedom of the spectator.  I believe that good art is in a state of flux not only for the creator of that art but also for the receiver.  There are always many levels and concepts to explore.

LC: How do you prepare before you start a painting?

SS: I don't plan my paintings, I don't do any sketches, when I begin I don't know how a painting will end up, I just see where my brush will take me.  This adventure is the only way I enjoy painting.  The only preparation I do is in selecting what music I play while painting and what colours I squeeze onto my pallet from the many possibilities I have. In this way my paintings emerge from me with their own life.

LC: You say you don’t plan your paintings, how does this work when you are painting someone’s portrait?

SS: It is the same, the only difference is that I know face from the outset, but the painting itself is always new. When you see the portraits I create you will understand that they are not the work of classic portraiture.

LC: And finally, what creative plans do you have for 2014?

SS: I have started working on a project that will hopefully be exhibited in 2014. It is another body of work trying to study and explain human psychology on canvas, I am trying to explore and understand the collective behaviour of people through the life, state and activity of individuals.

Q will run from 28 November - 2 December 2013 at the Royal College of Art's Upper Gulbenkian Gallery.

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