Exile paints horrors of Syrian war

01:52 - Source: CNN
Artist's works show agony of war in Syria

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Graphic paintings depict the human toll of Syria's war

Sara Shamma did a portrait of Syria's first lady, Asma al-Assad, before the conflict

CNN  — 

A naked man hangs from a chain, heavy brushstrokes depicting his suspended body.

Painted tears fill a woman’s eyes, while human flesh dangles from metal hook in front of her.

These agonizing works are the response to the horrors of the Syrian civil war by artist Sara Shamma – her way of humanizing what she saw and what she fled.

“The country is totally destroyed, and the people also are destroyed,” Shamma says.

“People are fighting their own countrymen, so it is a civil war in a way, and it is a world civil war because it is happening everywhere now. I think it is the third war.” Shamma reflects from her Beirut studio.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Shamma was well-known before the war and painted a portrait of Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad. It hung in Assad’s office, though she doesn’t say much about that. “The portrait I have made for Asma … I stopped doing portraits five years ago, because I think artistically I’ve had enough.”

Her turning point came in 2012, when a car bomb exploded outside her home. “I decided to leave my home two days after this car bomb. So I packed everything, and I shipped my paintings, and moved immediately to Lebanon with my two young children.”

It was a tough decision. Her husband stayed behind to take care of his business.

But Shamma had had enough. “I don’t think that life deserved to be lived under the noise of war and fear,” she explains.

“The civil war in Syria has a big impact on my life, so normally it has a big impact on my work,” says Shamma. “Everything I saw and everything I see, I humanize it.”

Syria is “another country” now, Shamma says. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever return. “I can’t see anything positive in the near future or at least 10 years from now.”

But these portraits – now on display in London with individual titles such as “Butcher” or “Mass Grave”and a collective name of “World Civil War Portraits” – these are her people, she explains:

“Sometimes I feel that one person could stand for the whole humanity.”

CNN’s Ryan Sheridan interviewed Shamma in Beirut and Jessica King wrote the story in Atlanta