Katie Tobin

For Sara Shamma, death is beautiful

Sara Shamma: Bold Spirits, runs from 9 September – 25 February, 2024, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

In your new exhibition, Bold Spirits, you explore the reinterpretation of historic paintings of women. I’d love to know what inspired you to connect these female figures to your own life and experiences.

I’ve been fascinated by old masters from a very, very young age. Part of my study is copying so many old masters’ paintings. When I was in my first year of university – even before. I used to read about each artist and the way he created his work, the same technique, and I used to copy the painting exactly with the same technique.

I haven’t done this at all because I graduated as I have my own style, so I moved to something else. But by coincidence, I met the director of Dulwich Gallery. We’ve known each other a long time and we started to discuss doing something together. The idea of taking inspiration from some paintings in this gallery is very new to me, new to my practice, but very interesting. I always like to move outside my comfort zone. This way, I am able to discover new aspects of my work and my personality. That’s the main thing that led me to do this.


Sara Shamma, Untitled, 2023, Oil on canvas, 175×200 cm.

I’d love to know how you approach reinterpreting these works and what kind of challenges and opportunities this process sends you.

There’s no challenge at all. There is joy, there is discovery. Each painting I did was a totally new discovery for me. And you can see that there is some link between some paintings. If you look at this one, if we say that this is inspired by Lady Digby, it’s totally different, see?

There’s only a lady who is resting, could be resting, could be a dancer inside a box and could be a dead lady in the same room. I love to create this kind of contrast, this kind of debate, this kind of question.

Sara Shamma, Untitled, Oil on canvas, 100×120 cm.

The themes of identity, death, motherhood and unexpected beauty feature prominently in your art. Could you elaborate on how these themes resonate with your personal experiences and artistic expression?

It is of course related to my life. Everything I do is related to my life. Being a mother is a very inspiring experience, very inspiring, highly. So you experience how to create, how to create a person. It’s very, very nice. And when I became a mother, I gained more personality. My inspiration became bigger, my anxiety became bigger, my love became bigger, everything is bigger, bigger, bigger. And this by itself is highly inspiring.

Motherhood has always been part of my practice. Death also is very interesting to me because I think we create because of death. Death is the main trigger to creation. Death is part of our life, when you leave a person, something in your life dies, when you leave a country, also something in your life dies, or you kill something inside you in order to create something else. That’s the beauty of death, I want to say. And if we know exactly how to understand death or accept it, we enjoy our life. So death is highly inspiring to me.

Sara Shamma, Untitled, 2023, Oil on canvas, 150×115 cm.

One thing I love about your work is how you fuse classical and contemporary elements. So I’d love to know how you balance using these traditional techniques of your own style to create these interpretations.

I love this contrast between, as you say, or very sometimes the hyper-realistic part of the painting, and sometimes the abstract part of the painting itself. This contrast is very interesting to me. At the same time, you can see a very thin layer in the painting itself, and these very thick layers in other places. I love to sometimes create another dimension of the paintings, like let’s say, you can look at this painting over there, you feel that it is 3D, you can feel that there is depth more than, only because of the technique, because of the thickness of the colour, because of the colour itself.

These kinds of layers or levels in the painting are very interesting to me. Because in the end, I want to look at my work and I want to be amazed, so I need to surprise myself first. I need to like what I do. That’s the most important thing.

Sara Shamma, Untitled, 2023, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 150×115 cm.

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in female artists and their contributions to the art world. How do you see your work contributing to this conversation, both as a female artist and engaging with historical portrayals of women?

Difficult question, because I don’t place myself in art history as a female artist or as some gender artist or some artist of a certain nationality or artists from this side of the world, this country. I don’t find myself fitting into these kinds of labels.

For me, art is art, it’s no matter if the creator is a female or a male, same as the paintings. If I am looking at the portrait of a woman or the body of a woman or the body of a man, it’s all the same for me. There’s no difference. But I can tell you that I admire the male body, and the females in my work, I always see that they look like me in a way.

Sara Shamma, Untitled, 2023, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 750×200 cm.

My final question is, as an artist with international recognition, how do you perceive the role of art in addressing important global issues like cultural heritage, identity and human experience?

I think we created this idea that art should have big roles to, let’s say, toward identity, or let’s say, stop the war, or toward many, many things like that. But I don’t think art has this role. Art has a better role, is to penetrating the subconscious mind of the viewer, letting him ask questions, let him discover aspects of his personality or her personality. And this by itself, a life-changing experience. So that’s the role of the art, or that’s what I want my art to do. And that’s what I want any art to do for me. 


Sara Shamma is a renowned painter whose works can be found in both public and private collections around the globe. Shamma was born in Damascus, Syria (1975) to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. She graduated from the Painting Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus in 1998. She moved to London in 2016 under the auspices of an Exceptional Talent Visa where she currently lives and works. Shamma’s practice focuses on death and humanity expressed mainly through self-portraits and children painted in a life-like visceral way.

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