Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


“The invisible light that radiates from the other” – Jonathan Evens interviews Hannah Rose Thomas
British artist Hannah Rose Thomas is also an author, human rights activist and a UNESCO PhD Scholar at the University of Glasgow. She has organized art projects for Syrian refugees in Jordan; Yazidi women who escaped ISIS captivity in Iraqi Kurdistan; Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps and Nigerian women survivors of Boko Haram. Her paintings of displaced women, which are a testament to their strength and dignity, have been exhibited at prestigious places including the UK Houses of Parliament, European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, Westminster Abbey, the International Peace Institute in New York and The Saatchi Gallery.
Her exhibition Tears of Gold was featured in the virtual exhibition for the UN’s Official 75th Anniversary, “The Future is Unwritten: Artists for Tomorrow.” She has been: selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 2019 Art & Culture; shortlisted for the Women of the Future Award 2020; and selected for British Vogue Future Visionaries 2022. Her debut art book Tears of Gold: Portraits of Yazidi, Rohingya and Nigerian Women was published this year, with a foreword by HM King Charles III.
I have greatly appreciated the opportunities I have had to follow the development of her career from showing her portrait paintings from refugee camps in Jordan and Calais alongside her art projects with Syrian refugees, while at St Stephen Walbrook, to interviewing her for Artlyst at the time of “The Future is Unwritten: Artists for Tomorrow” and then involving her in an online discussion about art and social impact for HeartEdge. As a result, it was a particular joy to see her again at the launch event for her latest show at London’s Garden Court Chambers and then to follow that contact with some questions reviewing her career to date. 
Image 1: Thomas, Hannah Rose. 2017. 'Nazu' (tempera and 24ct gold leaf on panel)
JE: Your involvement in art projects with refugees began in 2014 in Jordan. Could you tell us more about the ways in which your current practice came about and what it was you understood yourself to be doing at that point?
HT: It was while living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for the UN Refugee Agency – an experience which opened my eyes to the magnitude of the refugee crisis confronting our world today. I began to paint the portraits of some of the refugees I had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise obscured by statistics.
According to the UNHCR Global Trends report, the number of displaced people has now ‘exceeded 100 million’ (UNHCR, 2022, 7).[1] The sheer scale of these statistics is overwhelming and does not shine a light upon the lived realities of those caught up in the search for refuge from war and persecution. As a result of my experience in Jordan I became interested in both the healing potential of the arts and its role as a tool for advocacy and awareness-raising.
On reflection, this initial work, nearly a decade ago now, was perhaps more reactive both to the immediacy of the refugee crisis and also in many ways intertwined with my own healing journey from trauma. I had not yet begun studying my MA at the King’s Foundation School of Traditional Art (formerly, the Prince’s Foundation), therefore my approach towards painting and the techniques that I used were completely different. The opportunity to study iconography and early Renaissance painting techniques, involving making my own paints from natural pigments combined with egg yolk or oil, influenced a more contemplative, reflective approach to the painting process
JE: How has your understanding of what you are doing by painting portraits of women who have experienced varying forms of trauma developed, particularly in relation to the concept of paying attention?
HT: I have come to perceive portrait painting as a gift of attention, a way for the subjects to feel ‘seen’ and heard, that they may perhaps have never experienced before. ‘What is indispensable for this task,’ Weil asserts, ‘is a passionate interest in human beings, whoever they may be, and in their minds and souls; the ability to place oneself in their position and to recognize by signs thoughts which go unexpressed; a certain intuitive sense of history in process of being enacted; and the faculty of expressing in writing delicate shades of meaning and complex relationships.’[2]  The time-consuming early Renaissance egg tempera and oil painting methods, and gilding that I use are how I seek to attend to, and honour the stories I have heard. The time taken with the women whom I have painted, listening to their stories and cultivating relationship through the art workshops, is extended through the time spent painting their portraits.
Conflict leaves many wounds, but perhaps the most significant of all is the invisible stigma that so many survivors of sexual violence face. We can never underestimate the healing power of giving time, attending to, listening and bearing witness to another’s story, and I seek to do this through painting. It is a form of hospitality and makes space for their voices to be respected and valued. In Iris Murdoch’s words, attention is ‘a just and loving gaze directed at an individual reality.’[3]
Image 2: Thomas, Hannah Rose. 2018. 'Aisha' (tempera and 24ct gold leaf on panel)
The art projects and portraits started out as an attempt to pay attention to those who are all too frequently spoken of and much too rarely spoken with, or allowed to speak in their own right.[4]  According to Weil, what the afflicted most need is ‘people capable of giving them their attention.’[5] Particularly with regard to those who suffer from grave suffering, social degradation and exclusion, who are barely seen or heard.[6]  For Weil, attention is able to see individuals whom suffering has rendered invisible and can even restore a sense of their own human value and dignity.[7] Therefore, attention is a form of justice.
JE: What attracts you to Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas, and Mother Theresa, who are among those to have influenced your thinking in this regard?
HT: Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas and Mother Teresa, in their own unique way, all remind us that each and every person is endowed with an intrinsic and inalienable dignity, imbued with a worth, sacredness and fundamental rights that cannot be eroded. This is a message that is especially needed in our world today. How different would it be if we treated each and every individual as a reflection of the image of God and of equal value in His eyes?
JE: How has your work on your PhD shaped your thinking?
HT: My PhD research became a theoretical and philosophical deep dive into the precepts underpinning my artistic practice. Since I started it during the Pandemic, unable to travel to facilitate art workshops and hold exhibitions, there was plenty of time to follow my curiosity and delve into an unusual interdisciplinary combination of Philosophy, Phenomenology, Ethics, Aesthetics, Art History, Psychology and Theology. It has been enriching and has had a profound impact upon my approach to and understanding of my work. Nonetheless, as I draw near to the end, I certainly have become increasingly restless to put this into practice and to begin painting again!
JE: What did your training as an iconographer add to this developing understanding?
HT: The tradition of iconography, from which Renaissance egg tempera painting originates, imbues the art making process with a spiritual, sacred basis to attendance, as well as an aura of honour and reverence. The practice of artistic creation can be considered a profound expression of Weil’s philosophy of attention. Weil writes that this ‘attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’[8]
The purpose of icons is to support prayer and contemplation. My portrait paintings of displaced women are a gentle invitation to hesitate in a way that lets us attend to the overwhelming and disorienting reality of suffering, because it is all too easy to turn away, to avoid, to deflect.[9] It is my prayer that God would open my eyes to see each person as He sees them, to reverently behold the imago Dei, especially in the places where it has been denied. I chose to use the religious symbolism and gold leaf, in the hope of communicating something of the sacred value of each and every individual regardless of gender, race or religion.
Image 3: Thomas, Hannah Rose. 2022, 'Zainab' (tempera, oil and 24ct gold leaf on panel)
JE: As a portrait painter, how do you identify and capture the essence of the person you are painting?
HT: I am not sure whether it is ever possible to fully capture the essence or interiority of someone in a painting. Is it possible to paint ‘the invisible light that radiates from the other’?[10] Nonetheless, in approaching each individual whom one paints with reverence and humility, to use the words of Rowan Williams, as ‘an independent and in some important respects, inaccessible and unrepeatable hinterland’[11] that will always remain mysterious and elusive to us, then maybe a glimpse of that ‘invisible light’ will shine through the painting.
JE: What have you gained personally from the women whose portraits you have painted?
HT: It is hard to begin to put to words what it was like meeting these women and the privilege it felt to be trusted to paint their portraits. I hoped to capture something of their strength, resilience and dignity, which, in light of all that they have suffered, is nothing short of a miracle. Often, I couldn’t hold back the tears while I was painting; holding each of the women in my heart and prayers as I did so. I never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary dignity and resilience of the human spirit, even in the midst of unimaginable suffering. It is this that gives me hope. The women’s kindness and generosity of spirit, even when they had so little to give away and had endured so much, was humbling. This has left an imprint on my heart that I trust will remain with me for my whole life.
JE: What do you hope the Tears of Gold book and exhibitions will achieve?
HT: My hope is that the portraits in Tears of Gold bear witness to survivors of forced displacement and sexual violence with grace and compassion, and help to shine a light on their often suppressed, silenced and marginalised realities. These paintings have been displayed in places of influence in the Global North, such as the Houses of Parliament, alongside the women’s self-portraits, to enable their voices to be heard and to advocate on their behalf. As Weil reminds us:The contemplation of veritable works of art, and much more still that of the beauty of the world, and again much more that of the unrealized good to which we aspire, can sustain us in our efforts to think continually about that human order which should be the subject uppermost in our minds.’[12]
JE: Your work is a plea for compassion, understanding and healing at a time when those are approaches to refugees in particular that are increasingly being rejected politically in favour of ever harsher environments for those who migrate for whatever reason. To what extent does it seem to you as though your work is counter-cultural and is, as a result, increasingly a prophetic stance?
HT: We live in a time of increasing division and the rise in authoritarianism along the well-wrought lines of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality. We also are witnessing increasing state hostility and in-hospitality towards those who are forced to flee their homes to seek refuge. Now more than ever, we must keep the borders of our heart open to those who are different from us. For only by reaching out in love and understanding can we overcome the distorted agendas of violence and polarisation that seek to divide us. Therefore, there is an urgent need to cultivate practices and opportunities to turn towards one another, to move beyond the limitations of our fears, to be able to truly behold one another. At the root of much conflict and division is the inability, or refusal, to genuinely see and acknowledge the full humanity of the other, or to show respect for what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks described as 'the dignity of difference.’
My work is certainly a plea for compassion however, I am not sure whether I could consider it prophetic. Sometimes it feels as though it is but a drop in the ocean, in the face of deepening division, fragmentation and escalating conflicts. But, as Mother Teresa once said, ‘if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.’ Perhaps we may never understand the ripples that our gentle gestures and works of art may produce; we can all contribute to expanding the ‘circle of human concern’[13] and building the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King visualised.
JE: When I interviewed you in 2020 you said “What I’ve experienced so far is but a glimpse of the potential healing and restorative power of the arts. I’ve witnessed first-hand the comfort that art and creativity can bring, but there is so much more to learn.” What do think you have learnt about the healing and restorative power of the arts since that point?
HT: Research has shown how the arts can be used as a tool to transform negative cultural and social norms and contribute to peace and reconciliation efforts, through creating spaces for dialogue; rebuilding trust and empathy; promoting tolerance and diversity; helping individual healing and enabling intercultural understanding. However, it is important to note that not all art achieves this and that it has sometimes been wielded to promote the exact opposite.
The arts are not necessarily inherently healing or restorative. However, art can help to create space for the openness, receptivity and compassion necessary for empathy and understanding. Art is born of contemplation, therefore can help to create the space for others to contemplate. Through the strokes of a brush, the gestures of dance, the transcendence of music, it can serve as a catalyst for transformation and imagination. Art is fuelled by continual questioning, reflexivity, and a desire to move beyond one’s limited perspective. The language of art overcomes barriers, whether geographic, linguistic, cultural or national. Art is also communal and participatory and can contribute to building bridges between diverse communities and therefore carries profound healing potential.
JE: What is your next major project and what are the possibilities that you hope might be realised through that initiative?
HT: This summer I will be travelling to Bosnia to paint a series of portraits of the Mothers of Srebrenica. This will form an exhibition in partnership with Remembering Srebrenica UK and Bellwether International to mark the 30th Anniversary of the Genocide in July 2025. The Mothers of Srebrenica, founded in 2002, is an association that unites thousands of mothers, sisters, and wives who lost loved ones in the massacre; over 8,300 men and boys were killed in the town of Srebrenica alone. The Mothers’ mission is to ensure that no one else would have to endure the horrors of genocide. I hope that the exhibition will honour their testimonies and serve as a gentle reminder that the common bonds we share are far more important than the differences which divide us.
Tears of Gold, 15 March – 14 June 2024, Garden Court Chambers, London
Thomas, Hannah Rose. 2024. Tears of Gold: Portraits of Yazidi, Rohingya, and Nigerian Women.  Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House.
Maria and Nadiia
The war is endless and thousands of people
there are waiting to be heard in prayer.
My mother and I were among them.
It is a traumatic experience to have
to leave home without a plan.
Image 4: Thomas, Hannah Rose. 2022, 'Maria and Nadiia' (tempera on panel)
Maria and her mother Nadiia were living in Kyiv when the war began on February 24, 2022. Maria awoke to her mother screaming: “Masha, wake up! The war has started.” Initially they were in denial, but after twelve sleepless days and nights hiding in their basement as a bomb shelter, they decided to leave the country and seek refuge in the United Kingdom.
Since the onset of the Russian invasion, one-third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes. This is the largest movement of refugees in Europe since World War II,[14] with nearly eight million refugees from Ukraine spread across Europe.[15] There has been an outpouring of support, which has led many to hope that this could set a precedent for treating all refugees more humanely. If nothing else, it has exposed the politicized, and often discriminatory, nature of refugee protection. Refugees arriving in Europe from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are far more likely to face border violence, detention, and drawn-out asylum procedures.[16] Who are we to determine which refugees are worthy of compassion? As Maria herself expresses it: “It does not matter what nationality you are; what matters is what you are doing in this present moment. For humanity has no geography, and kindness has no nationality.”
Thomas, Hannah Rose. 2024. Tears of Gold: Portraits of Yazidi, Rohingya, and Nigerian Women.  Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House.

[2] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. Arthur F. Wills (New York, NY: Routledge, 1952), 190-192
[3] Iris Murdoch, “The Idea of Perfection,” The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge, 1970. p. 33. Cited in Gehring, Stephanie (2018). Attention to Suffering in the Work of Simone Weil and Käthe Kollwitz. Dissertation, Duke University. pp.56-9. Retrieved from
[4] Dr Anna Rowlands. For our welfare and not for our harm: a faith-based report on the experience of the refugee and refugee support community. JRS UK 2017–2019. See p. 8.
[5] Weil, Waiting for God, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1951. p. 64
[6] Weil, S., Attente de Dieu (Paris: La Colombe, 1950). pp. 99-102
[7] Gehring, Stephanie (2018). Attention to Suffering in the Work of Simone Weil and Käthe Kollwitz. Dissertation, Duke University. p. 235. 
[8] Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 117
[9] Gehring, Stephanie (2018). Attention to Suffering in the Work of Simone Weil and Käthe Kollwitz. Dissertation, Duke University. p. 4, 11. Retrieved from
[10] Irigaray, L. (2004) To paint the invisible. Continental Philosophy Review 37, 399.
[11] Rowan Williams (2024). The Bampton Lectures. Lecture 4 - Solidarity, Rights and the Image of God: Ethics and Christian Anthropology. Tuesday 5 March 2024, The University Church, Oxford.
[12] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. Arthur F. Wills (New York, NY: Routledge, 1952), 10
[13] Tom Rudd, “Marc Anthony and the Circles of Cognitive Caring,” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, August 2, 2013. Cited in Powell, J., & Menendian, S. (2016). The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging. Othering and Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern, Issue 1, pp. 14-39.
[14] United Nations Security Council, Women and Peace and Security, III.C.36.
[15] UNHCR Data Portal, “Ukraine Refugee Situation,” accessed January 16, 2023.
[16] Emily Venturi and Anna Iasmi Vallianatou, “Ukraine Exposes Europe’s Double Standards for Refugees,” Chatham House, March 30, 2022.