Shamma, Sara (1975–)

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Shamma, Sara

Syrian painter Sara Shamma, best known for portraiture, was born in Damascus, Syria, to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. By nineteen, she was working as a full-time artist and graduated by 1995 from Adham Isma'il Fine Arts Institute in Damascus. In addition, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University in 1998. She also taught from 1997 to 2000 at Adham Isma'il. A member of the Fine Arts Syndicate in Damascus, she actively exhibits in Syria and abroad. Shamma has shown all over the United Kingdom as well as throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Canada, and in 2004 was short-listed for the BP Portrait Award. She has work in private collections around the world, continues producing portrait commissions, and regularly updates a website of work and activities.


Shamma (also Shama) was born in Damascus, Syria on 26 November 1975 to a family steeped in arts appreciation, as her mother was the owner of a private art gallery. By the age of four, Shamma was painting. From 1982 to 1985 she attended children's drawing classes at Adham Isma'il Fine Arts Institute. She graduated from the same institution in 1995. By 1998, she also received a B.A. in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University, ranking first among her fellow graduates. During her last year in school and for two years afterward, she returned to Adham Isma'il to teach.

One technique for which Shamma has become renown involves scoring the canvas with a blade-cutter, a signature gesture with which she finalizes numerous paintings. These scarifications dramatically underscore myriad tensions with which her work engages. Her phantasms look back at viewers in a manner not unlike Sumerian temple figurines, representing some of the oldest examples of Western civilization's cultural heritage, on view in Damascus. Equally disconcerting, her surrogate human forms with exaggerated eyes and bodily gestures are designed not just for being seen, but also for looking.

As the votives once veiled by ziggurat temples yet now voyeuristically on view in museums, Shamma's humanist tributes are continually interrupted by such startling tactics as razor-blading the canvas. Each incision exposes unmarked white cotton in stark lines that tangle with the illusionistic surface. In later works, she continues to explore the lie of material transparencies, as when simulating Plexiglas barriers between viewers and protagonists, the latter encased within painted realities whose inscriptions nevertheless mark and render visible the transparent plane.


Although a predominantly Islamic country, Syria has nevertheless served as a site for multiple religions, ethnicities, and dynastic empires, clearly on view at such cultural institutions as the National Museum. Most Syrian artists consciously regard this rich and ancient cultural legacy as personal, whether drawing upon Mesopotamian, African, Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, Byzantine, or Islamic roots. For example, Eastern Orthodox icon-painting and Mesopotamian forms of art have come to be regarded as peculiarly Syrian, with deeply embedded forms, abiding traditions, and ritual practices, often reliant upon portraiture. Sara Shamma's lifelong attempt to particularize human figures builds around these and other regional legacies that include Sufi (Islamic mystic) figure Jalal al-Din Rumi, Sufism, and whirling dervishes, the sources for yet another body of work. Her seemingly traditional formal choices in medium are always wed to radical distortions, instigating viewer reflection on the modernist and perhaps contemporary challenges, whether in painting or sculpture, of seeing, being seen, and becoming selfaware, if not divinely engaged.


From the mid-1990s, Shamma has actively pursued opportunities to exhibit work throughout the world, winning several awards since 1998. Syria's steady and undeniable patronage emerges in not only Damascus, where she was honored in 2004 by the Presidential Palace, but also in Aleppo and Lattakia, where she received top honors at the 2001 Biennale. The considerable support from home has nevertheless been eclipsed by the international recognition she has received abroad, as exemplified by the British reception of her work. In 2004, she was short-listed for the prestigious and competitive BP Portrait Award presented by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London, her work subsequently touring the United Kingdom (Exeter, Bristol, Wales, and Aberdeen). That year, the NPG received nearly a thousand submissions (955) for the painted portraiture exhibition. Exhibiting alongside fifty-three others, Shamma won fourth place.


Given the scant visibility of Syrian artists, much less those of female gender, Sara Shamma's successes online and abroad (especially the United Kingdom) may well break ground for expanded appreciation of her homeland's multifarious roots. Damascus has yet to join international contemporary art biennale ranks but if and when it does, Shamma will have forged paths for future cultural exchange.


Name: Sara Shamma

Born: 1975, Damascus, Syria

Nationality: Syrian

Education: BA, Adham Isma'il Fine Arts Institute and Damascus University Faculty of Fine Arts, Damascus, Syria, 1998


  • 1994: Begins working as full-time artist
  • 1997–2000: Teaches at Adham Isma'il
  • 2004: Short-listed for the BP Portrait Award


Agha, Alia Ayoud. "Sara Shamma: An Explosive Phenomenon." What's On Magazine (July, 2005).

Rizk, Mysoon. "Neutralized Disclosure: Deflecting the Gaze in Contemporary Syrian Art." N.Paradoxa: International Feminist Art Journal 14, (July 2004): 34-43.

Sara Shamma's official Web site. Available from

Shamma, Sara. The Art of Sara Shamma. Seattle, WA: CUNE Press, 2007.

                                               Mysoon Rizk