Hannah Rose Thomas is this month’s featured blogger on a-n’s Instagram. Currently studying an MA at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, her work focuses on the people she meets during her travels, predominantly refugees, who live in communities that experience hardship and poverty.
Her portraits, and at times murals, look to draw out the vibrancy these people display as well as their great resilience in maintaining traditional cultural ways of living and surviving.
With help from an a-n Travel Bursary, this year Thomas organised a project in Kurdistan for Yezidi women who escaped ISIS captivity. For the women, many of whom are illiterate, the project was the first time they had explored painting and drawing to express their stories and experiences. The artist kept a blog about her time in Kurdistan.
Prior to this project, Thomas worked with communities in Mozambique, Jordan and Calais up to and during her studies in Arabic and History at Durham University. In April 2016 she returned to Jordan to work with children in Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps for Relief International.
Thomas’s background and her fluency in the Arabic language provides a unique gaze for a painting practice driven by social engagement across the globe, and has led the artist to exhibit in Jordan as well as around the UK.
During Refugee Week 2016, Thomas’s portraits were exhibited in The Divine Image: For Mercy Has A Human Heart at the Crypt Gallery in London. This exhibition then travelled to Durham Cathedral, the Scottish Parliament and the Saatchi Gallery.
What is it that makes you paint portraits?
My interest in portraiture began as a result of travels in Africa and the Middle East. Following my return from volunteering in an orphanage in Mozambique when I was 18, I painted my first portrait of a woman I met in a remote village. I hoped to capture her radiant joy in the midst of poverty and also something of the vibrancy and vividness of my time in Africa. I often struggle to put into words the intensity of all I have experienced, and find that painting is the way in which I can express and also process what I have seen.
You previously studied Arabic and History at Durham University. How does this push and inform your artwork?
My interest in studying Arabic and History was due to my curiosity in people and culture; this is also expressed through my painting practice. However, although I am fascinated by different cultures and people, above all I seek to express our common humanity; how we are all inextricably connected to one another. This is especially important in the current tense political climate that accentuates difference and fear. Whilst living in Jordan as a student in 2014 I had an amazing opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR, which were exhibited in Amman on World Refugee Day. These paintings using refugee tents have since travelled around the world to raise awareness for the refugee crisis. Following my time in Jordan I began to paint the portraits of the refugees I met. For many of my portraits of Syrian refugees, I have drawn inspiration from Islamic art and Arabic poetry, to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the Middle East which is so often forgotten and overshadowed by war.
What brings you to work in a socially engaged way?
I think art has the potential to be a powerful tool for advocacy and raising awareness. My exhibition of refugee portraits was motivated by a desire to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are often shrouded by statistics. Whilst living in Jordan, I had the opportunity to hear many different stories and longed to be able to do something to help. We are all worthy of telling our stories, and having them heard.
What is it like funding MA studies in London – do you find there is room to sustain a practice with the expense of living there?
I have struggled with funding for my MA, but have been generously given a scholarship to The Prince’s School of Traditional Art and the student loan is also an amazing help. Fortunately, I am able to live with my parents in Surrey and there is space for me to be able to work and paint from home.
What’s next for your practice?
Currently I cannot afford to live in London but hope to be able to do so again in the future; I would love to be able to have a studio space there one day. I also hope to continue to travel and paint portraits, and to celebrate the beauty of people in this diverse world we live in. I want to keep on exploring the potential of art as a powerful tool for advocacy, for shifting perspectives, and for inspiring compassion.
Hannah Rose Thomas is this week’s featured a-n blogger at www.instagram.com/anartistsinfo
1. Hannah Rose Thomas, pictured working in Northern Iraq with Yezidi women, 2017. Courtesy; artist.
2. Hannah Rose Thomas, Mozambican woman. Courtesy; artist.
3. Hannah Rose Thomas, Yezidi women at Lalish, their Holy Temple in Northern Iraq, 2017. Courtesry; artist.
4. Hannah Rose Thomas, painted UNHCR refugee tent, 2014. Courtesy; artist.
5. Hannah Rose Thomas, pictured painting a mural in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, in a school for Syrian refugees, April 2015. Courtesy; artist.