World renowned artist and PhD scholar Hannah Rose Thomas has spoken about her exhibition Tears of Gold and her experiences working with women fleeing conflict around the world, after her work was displayed at the RSE as part of Refugee Festival Scotland.
Hannah was living in Jordan as an Arabic student and was asked by the United Nations Refugee Agency to do art workshops for refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.
“This exhibition in particular I’ve been working on for nearly a decade,” Hannah said.
“I started painting portraits of the refugees I had met to show the human stories behind the refugee crisis, a shared humanity away from the statistics.”
Hannah began to work with some Yazidi women who escaped captivity under ISIS, teaching them how to paint self-portraits as a way to tell their stories. Many of these women still had their own children in the hands of ISIS.
“Their stories are heart-rending,” Hannah explained, “but after I had taught them to paint they then asked if I would paint their portraits, as way to give them a voice by showing them in places, including in the Houses of Parliament.
“It was incredibly moving to be asked, and to be entrusted with telling their story in this way.”
The painting was done initially to help the women begin to grapple with and process their traumatic experiences. Those that Hannah has been able to maintain contact with now know too that their own work, and Hannah’s portraits of them, have been displayed throughout the world.
The portraits have been displayed at the Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, at the International Peace Institute in New York and at the European Parliament to name but a few. Without efforts such as this, each woman’s individual story of what they have endured would be lost, Hannah explained.
“It’s looking at the role that art can play in advocacy, so I show their own self-portraits alongside my paintings and alongside their stories, looking at the power that art can be in elevating the voice of these women,” she said.
“I was so impacted by my time with them. I had about two weeks with them and hearing their stories at such a poignant time for them.”
Creating these idol-style paintings is a delicate and intricate process using paint made with egg yolks and incorporating gold leaf, to bring a sense of identity to people who would otherwise have been lost among statistics.
“The title of the exhibition actually came from them when they painted themselves with tears of gold to show their grief for their loved ones lost.”
From working with the Yazidi women, Hannah then moved on to Bangladesh to work with Rohingya women fleeing Myanmar, and survivors of sexual violence in Northern Nigeria in 2018. Her focus then returned to her academic studies, before she was called again to work with female refugees from Ukraine, Gaza and Afghanistan in 2022.
Hannah still keeps in contact with some of them, via the support organisations in the various countries, however maintaining these links is sometimes difficult due to the sheer size of the populations that have been displaced.
Hannah’s work has been on display at the RSE all week, and she says that the impact and feedback has been impressive to see.
“People have been moved to tears who have come in, and the stories hit me again. It is incredibly touching to see those responses,” she said.
Hannah recalled the shared bond that was created when teaching some of the women how to paint. The powerful combination of her own painting and theirs, and the workshops created a safe place for that bond to be fostered between all of them.
One woman had not so much as written her own name before, and so to be able to paint a self-portrait made her incredibly happy, Hannah said.
“It was a time for laughter and a time for tears in those workshops. It was an intense process but a remarkable privilege.”
Hannah’s exhibition is part of an online exhibition for the UN with Google Arts & Culture “The future is Unwritten: Artists for Tomorrow” to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary.