Art as Activism

In 2014, ISIS invaded the Sinjar Mountains, home to the Yazidi community in Kurdish Iraq. They bombed and burned the houses, killed most of the men, and captured the women and girls to be traded as sex slaves in Raqqa.

In 2017, artist Hannah Rose Thomas went to Northern Iraq and ran an art workshop with a group of Yazidi women who had managed to escape from ISIS captivity. She encouraged them to express their identities and tell their stories by painting self-portraits. Many of the women had never picked up a paintbrush before, but over the course of two weeks each of them produced incredibly poignant and expressive works of art. Hannah has since painted her own portraits of the women, and is exhibiting her paintings alongside theirs, together with a short testimonial from the women, as a way to share their stories around the world, and raise awareness of their suffering at the hands of ISIS.

Hannah with Yazidi woman

I felt so inspired by Hannah’s story that I was compelled to capture the journey of these women and their paintings on film. I worked with a UNHCR cameraman to get footage of the art project, and then followed Hannah as she created her portraits of the women back at her home in the UK. I created a short film to accompany Hannah’s exhibition which charts the journey of these paintings from Northern Iraq to the Houses of Parliament, where the exhibition sparked a discussion with the Department for International Development about providing British Government aid to the women. Since then, the paintings have been exhibited at Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, the United Nations and European Parliament. The British Government has funded a trauma specialist to work with the Free Yazidi Foundation and provide trauma therapy to Yazidi women.

The reaction to Hannah’s exhibition around the world has been one of awe and empathy. By taking their self-portraits into the corridors of power, Hannah has enabled these women to communicate directly with the global influencers who can help them. The process of working with Hannah and creating this short film about the project has taught me about the unique power of art for facilitating and encouraging reconciliation in a post-conflict environment. Art is able to transcend language barriers, giving a voice to the voiceless. Art creates a safe, neutral space to prompt discussion. Art brings us face to face with its creator, allowing us to experience the creator’s message firsthand. Art, as a visual medium, is arguably the most effective way to raise awareness.

The project has also inspired me to continue exploring how the arts can make a positive difference to society. My film about Hannah’s art project with the Yazidi women went on to win the International Documentary Award at the 300 Seconds Film Festival, and I am currently working on developing a series of films that each take one art form and explore the impact it can have on people, on society, and on the world as a whole.

By Zenia Selby

Zenia Selby is a Producer. She produces history documentaries for broadcast TV, short arts documentaries for online distribution, and live comedy. She is passionate about making her work count towards social change. You can view her work at or by following her on Twitter