The British Prime Minister has praised the activism of the artist and One Young World Ambassador, Hannah Rose Thomas, and pledged to do more to help the Yezidi women who she has been campaigning for.
Theresa May spoke in the UK Parliament, where an exhibition of Hannah’s portraits of Yezidi women is being staged this week in the Upper Waiting Hall of the House of Commons. “I’m very happy to welcome this awareness-raising exhibition that is taking place and to commend Hannah Rose Thomas and others involved in bringing to the attention of the House, and those visiting the House, the plight of the Yezidi women,” said Mrs. May.
“This is something which I know caused horror and consternation for people when we first saw the treatment…of Yezidi people, particularly Yezidi women. But this is still continuing and…we must not forget and we must do everything we can to ensure that these women are freed from what is in many cases a life of slavery.”
In 2014, so called Islamic State (ISIS) took control of the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq and forced into captivity more than 6,000 Yezidi women and children. Around half are still unaccounted for.
After reading of the women’s plight, Hannah travelled to Kurdistan with the clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Whittaker-Howe to engage Yezidi women in an art project in an effort to help them recover from their experiences. Yezidi women who had spent time in ISIS captivity created self-portraits in what was often their first experience of painting.
When Hannah returned from Kurdistan she painted her own portraits of the women, painted on backgrounds of gold leaf, which she says is “to show the sacred value of these Yezidi women, in spite of all they have suffered at the hands of ISIS”. The gold leaf, she says, also conveys the women’s “dignity, resilience and unspeakable grief”. In one painting a woman’s falling tears are depicted in gold.
In the exhibition, “Yezidi Women: ISIS Survivors”, Hannah’s portraits are placed directly alongside the self-portraiture of the women themselves in a striking juxtaposition.
“Art can be used as a powerful tool for advocacy and to give a voice to the voiceless,” says Hannah. “Teaching the Yezidi women to paint their self-portraits has enabled those who have never been to school or learned to read and write to share their stories with the rest of the world. Testimony is an important element of the recovery process post-torture and sexual violence. These paintings are a testament to the strength, dignity and unimaginable grief of the Yezidi women, many of whom still have children in ISIS captivity.”
The exhibition, supported by the charity Open Doors, has attracted considerable media interest and Hannah appeared on Sky News where her portraits were described as “incredible works of art” by journalist Stephen Dixon.
Hannah told the audience that some of the women she had painted still had children missing in captivity. The art project, she said, had been a way for the Yezidi women to express their grief and to challenge a media narrative that portrayed the women only as victims. The project, with its portraits and self-portraits, had been “a way to contradict that narrative and show their dignity, strength and resilience’, she said.
It has also been a way to ensure that the world keeps the plight of the Yezidi in mind. “This project was a way in which their story could be heard and a sense that they had not been forgotten,” Hannah says. Prime Minister May has endorsed that sentiment.