As with many other populations in history, it seems that it is the turn of the Syrians to flee their homeland and scatter around the world. This is a real diaspora because it forms a mass dispersion of an involuntary nature; of a group of people maintaining a myth about their peaceful homeland. They regard the cities they left as their true home, to which they will eventually return; they are committed to the restoration or rebuilding of that homeland and they still do not really believe what has happened.

I moved out of Damascus in the end of 2012 when the situation deteriorated significantly. I went with my two young children to Lebanon, to the hometown of my mother. With me I shipped all my paintings, canvases, colors and brushes. My husband remained in Damascus because of his business, risking the roads to come to see us every weekend. My country is destroyed and Lebanon is not very stable. The future is very blurry and worrying. I think that this is the status of most of the Syrians living this diaspora, one of the significant side-effects of what is happening in Syria.

The body of work for this exhibition consists of 12 paintings; half of them created in Damascus in the last few months before I left, the other half in Lebanon just after I arrived.

The paintings are about people, people in “diaspora”. I wouldn't call them Syrians, they could be any men, women and children who were obliged to leave their homeland to try and establish a life somewhere else, With them they carry the fragments of their lives, the memories of peace whilst they chase one common dream, the dream of a new peace.



Boy with monkey, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 175x175, 2013

Untitled, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 200x200, 2013

Panic attack, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 2x(155x175), 2012

Self Portrait, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 2x(125x200), 2013

Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2x(155x175), 2012

Smoke observer, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 155x175, 2012

Untitled, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 150x150, 2012

Untitled, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 100x120, 2013

Untitled, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 100x120, 2013

Untitled, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 100x120, 2013

Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 100x120, 2013

Untitled, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 100x120, 2013

An Introduction by Edward Lucie – Smith

Much more so than most artists based in the Middle East, Sara Shamma possessed an international reputation long before the pictures presented in this exhibition were made. She has been the recipient of major prizes in countries as far apart from one another as Britain and Australia, and has participated regularly in major international exhibitions in Britain, Germany and the U.A.E. In 2010 she was invited to become a United Nations World Food Programme ‘Celebrity Partner’.

However, because of the current situation in her native Syria, both tragic and dramatic as all the world now knows, the images shown here possess a special resonance, and are perhaps the most powerful that she has created in the course of an already distinguished career. Half of them, as she tells us in a note included in this catalogue, were created in Syria itself. The others were made in Lebanon, where she and her two small children have taken refuge from the war.

If one looks to see what the paintings have in common with one another, and what seems to divide the later ones, made in Lebanon, from those painted while she was still living in Syria, the similarities and the differences are instructive.

The style of all the canvases is extremely bold and painterly, and underlying the swirls of paint there is a very solid structure of drawing, which demonstrates her firm grip on three-dimensional form. There are images of very young children, and others, combined with these, that we can read as self-portraits. In some paintings there is a sudden shift of texture. Parts are rendered in near monochrome, in a quasi-photographic way, but are they juxtaposed with forms rendered in bold swirls of paint. Some paintings play with the idea of double vision. There are also moments when the swirls of paint threaten to swallow the forms completely, and reduce them to incoherent chaos.

Underlying all the images, even those made before the artist’s move to her place of exile in Lebanon, there is a powerful, unmistakable feeling of anxiety – an emotion focused, one senses, on the threat to her children, rather than herself. Though no overt statement about it is made, one can read these earlier compositions in the series as allegories about the way in which the situation in Syria was then deteriorating. They are, however, much less forceful in this respect than the more recent compositions.

The later paintings in the group belong to a tradition that is, in its remoter reaches, rooted in the Sturm und Drang painting of the late 18th century – I am thinking here particularly of Fuseli’s celebrated canvas The Nightmare (1781) – and also perhaps in the Caprichos of Goya (1797). One can also point to certain aspects of early 19th century political art, notably an early masterpiece by Delacroix, The Massacres at Chios (1824). One might also cite a work from somewhat later in the 19th century, the Russian artist Vassily Vereshchagin’s terrifying Pyramid of Skulls (1871).

A major difference, however, is that both the Delacroix and the Vereshchagin are direct references to public events. Pyramid of Skulls evokes the campaigns of the Scourge of God, Tamerlane.

In contrast to this, the imagery of these recent paintings by Sara Shamma is carefully non-specific. They are not ‘war pictures’ in any descriptive way. What they do is to evoke a climate of metaphysical horror. They put together images that have much greater power when placed in (apparently irrational) conjunction with one another than they could possess if viewed in isolation.

In part, our ability to read these images is due to our experience of Surrealism. There is, nevertheless, a distinction to be made. Surrealist paintings usually – in fact almost invariably – refer to the interior self of the artist. The major exceptions to this are certain paintings by Dali, for example his Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936), now in the Arensberg Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dali’s own description of the picture “as a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation” certainly resonates with the vibe one gets from some of Sara Shamma’s recent paintings, though her compositions are much more painterly in handling.

This painterliness might perhaps prompt a different comparison – with the work of Francis Bacon, but this, I think, would be misguided. Under the swirling paint that is such a feature of some of Shamma’s work one is always conscious of a firm structure of  ‘academic’ (in the good sense) drawing. In Bacon, who was self-taught, this kind of structure doesn’t really exist.

There is also, however, yet another comparison to be made, which is one with the world of film. In the most recent paintings in this exhibition images slide in and out of focus, are present and then dissolve, in a way that invites the spectator to recreate the composition, internalizing it rather than simply passively looking at it. This is something that is essentially cinematic. The old traditional way of making images is subtly reconciled with our experience of modern technology. This is interesting in itself, at a time when many enthusiasts for new technological forms of art, video in particular, have tended to imply that images made with paint on canvas are somehow archaic, and therefore in the process of being marginalized.

Most people know the much-quoted Chinese malediction: “May you live in interesting times.” The impressive images exhibited here demonstrate that personal and public misfortunes, the high drama of those “interesting times”, do have the power to provoke the creation of major art.

“Edward Lucie – Smith, internationally renowned critic and curator”.

London September 2014


Press Release

Sara Shamma’s powerful and mesmeric painting, displayed to such effect in Diaspora at Art Sawa Gallery from 27th October, have won the artist an international reputation in recent years far beyond her native Syria. Shamma has been the recipient of major prizes in Britain and Australia and has participated in important international exhibitions in Britain, Germany and the U.A.E. In 2010 she was invited to become a United Nations World Food Programme ‘Celebrity Partner’.

The paintings on show at Diaspora possess a special resonance and are perhaps the most powerful works she has created in the course of an already distinguished career. Half of them were created in Syria whilst the rest were made in Lebanon, where she and her two small children now reside.

Shamma’s background makes her the prefect commentator for the troubled times in which she makes her work, and now based in the Lebanon having been displaced by the war from her native Damascus.

The style of the canvases show a masterly and bold approach to painting which is almost three dimensional, with swirls and distorted passages adding an often nightmarish quality to otherwise realistic portraits of subjects including her children. One is immediately struck by an underlying and powerful sense of anxiety which pervades Shamma’s work and which is particularly pervasive when the paintings are viewed as a group.

In their construction and use of narrative, the paintings call to mind the works of Goya and Delacroix and particularly Fuseli with his celebrated painting The Nightmare. There is also the obvious connection with the great ‘masters of war’ and history paintings such as Delacroix’s The Massacres at Chios, but herethere is a major difference - although Sara’s work is rooted in the effects  of war her paintings are avowedly not ‘war paintings’.

The noted Art Historian Edward Lucie Smith  describes Shamma’s approach thus:

She has also had the courage to react to and comment upon what is happening now, particularly the tragedy now unfolding in her native Syria. Her recent paintings are not in any way journalistic, but they resonate with the tragedy of the current situation in her country.

Shamma’s  influences  go far beyond both the current political situation and the tradition of western painting however, Lucie-Smith  also noting influences  from  both Latin American Art and the Sufi tradition of the Whirling Dervishes which are evoked in the swirling movement and distortion found in many of the works shown at Diaspora.

In essence, Shamma’s paintings take us on a journey of displacement in an almost cinematic sense, conjuring up the films of Surrealist artists such as Dali and Brunel as they do so. One experiences this perhaps most powerfully in Shamma’s monumental series Q from 2011, that was exhibited in the Royal College of Art in London in November 2013, where the line of paintings which make up this series suggest both a queue of displaced people and the cells from the celluloid of  a moving picture.

These are paintings which have the power to draw you in, to move and unsettle you and as Lucie-Smith comments:

Most people know the much-quoted Chinese malediction: “May you live in interesting times.” The impressive images exhibited here demonstrate that personal and public misfortunes, the high drama of those “interesting times”, do have the power to provoke the creation of major art.

Notes to Editors:

Diaspora will feature selected paintings by Sara Shamma from 2012 and 2013 at Art Sawa Gallery, Dubai.


Vernissage  will take place on Monday 27th Oct 2014 at 07:00 pm and will conclude with a curator’s talk with Edward Lucie- Smith and Sara Shamma  at 08:30 pm.


A fully illustrated catalogue with Essays by Edward Lucie-Smith will accompany this exhibition.

For press information:

Will Paget

 Paget PR

+44 (0) 20 7323 6963

For Gallery information: 

Art Sawa Gallery




T: +971 4 3408660

F: +971 4 3408661


Sara Shamma was born in Damascus, Syria (1975), to a family of intellectuals. They encouraged her love of painting which she developed as a small child, and by the age of 14, Shamma decided she would train as a painter. Shamma graduated from the Painting Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus in 1998.


Following her graduation, Shamma participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions including (solo): “Q” Royal College of Art, London, UK, 2013, Birth, Art House, Damascus, Syria, 2011, Love, Curated by Fatina Al-Sayed, 360 MALL, Kuwait, 2009, and (group): The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition, The Mall Galleries, London, 2013, Nord Art 2012, Annual International Exhibition, organized by KiC – Kunst in der Carlshütte, Büdelsdorf, Germany, Art Prize 2010, Kendall College, UAE Through Arabian Eyes, the International Financial Centre, Dubai, UAE, 2008, Syrian Artists, Art House Damascus at Souq Wakef Art Center, Doha, Qatar, 2008, The Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize, ETSA Utilities Gallery, South Australian Museum, Adelaide, South Australia and the National Archives of Australia in Canberra, Australia, 2008, Panorama of Syrian Arts, Catzen Arts Centre at The American University Washington, D.C. USA, 2007, International Painting Prize of the Castellon County Council, ESPAI (the Contemporary Art Centre), Castellon and the Municipal Arts Centre of Alcorcon, Madrid, Spain 2005, Women and Arts, International Vision, Expo Sharjah, Sharjah, UAE, 2005, BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK, 2004.


Shamma was invited to join the teaching staff of the Adham Ismail Fine Arts Institute in Damascus, where she taught for three years from 1998. Besides her own practice and her involvement in the education of young artists, Shamma has been consistently active in the Syrian art scene. She was a member of the jury for The Annual Exhibition for Syrian Artists held by the Ministry Of Culture, Damascus, Syria in 2006.


Shamma has been the recipient of various regional and international art awards including First Prize (The Golden Medal) in the 2001 Latakia Biennial, Syria, Fourth Prize in the 2004 BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK and First Prize in Painting, The Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize, The South Australian Museum, Adelaide, Australia in 2008, Fourth prize in painting, and Special Mention, Florence Biennial, Florence, Italy 2013.


Shamma's works can be found across the world. Selected public collections include: The National Museum of Damascus, The British Council Collection Damascus, The Spanish Cultural Center Collection, Damascus. Shamma's paintings can be found amongst private collections in: Austria, Canada, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Qatar, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.


In 2010, Shamma was invited to become the United Nations World Food Programme 'Celebrity Partner'. In 2010 she created a painting for them entitled: Fighting Hunger (2010). impressed and touched by their work she continues to support them as her chosen charity.