Sara Shamma was born in Damascus in 1975 to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. Encouraged by her family in her love of painting, by the age of 14 she had decided to become an artist. Shamma went on to study painting at the University of Damascus. Graduating first amongst her peers in 1998, Shamma's talent continued to be recognised in Syria with her work widely exhibited in her country of birth and the surrounding region.
Shamma focuses on the human figure as her chosen subject matter. However, the characters she creates are imagined. Shamma talks of how she likes to create individuals who don't actually exist. They appear enhanced and their characteristics and preoccupations, intensified. For Shamma it is as if her protagonists have come from a different planet, a perfect world, in alignment with Plato's: 'theory of forms' that allows for humans to recognise the concept of an ideal form without having experienced it.
Shamma's works can be divided into series that reflect often prolonged periods of research, sometimes extending over years. Death and grief are persistent subjects. Shamma believes that death gives meaning to life, and rather than steering away from a subject that is increasingly taboo in contemporary culture, she considers the impact of grief and deep internal emotions on the outside of the body. Sometimes these emotions manifest themselves in distortion; the faces of her depicted figures appear changed, often dramatically so, be they elongated in the manner of El Greco or squashed as if pressed against glass, the light reflected and refracted around the individual. In other works, Shamma distorts her characters by subjecting them to what appears to be an extreme natural force. Always there is the suggestion that though at times isolated, the figure is interrelated with both its surroundings, and nature. Shamma confronts us with the inescapable fact that we are not alone and neither are we a hermetically sealed vessel; rather, we are connected, and, like everyone and everything else, spinning through the universe, a mass of jostling, whirring material.
With her interest in movement and distortion, it is unsurprising that Shamma decided to explore the subject of the Dervish. She talks of how she was more attracted by the physicality of the symbol of the 'Whirling Dervish', than the spiritual dimension. Always fascinated by music, Shamma took on the challenge of evoking the effect of music on the body, choosing to allow her decidedly figurative approach to open out into a more abstract, painterly language. The nature of her medium and its plasticity is something Shamma well understands. She often works with glazes, allowing the state of semi transparency to convey movement as well as atmosphere. Shamma is acutely aware of paint's ability to bring together different languages in one pictorial plane. It can unite past with present, the real with the imagined, and Shamma pushes and pulls until she has achieved her chosen state of balance. Lest we should be in danger of becoming too comfortable in her world, Shamma disrupts our gaze with a distinct, vertical line that appears in many of her paintings. When confronted with such a work, the viewer notes how it seems to stand between him and the painting itself, as if projecting a metre out from the canvas. Sometimes Shamma incorporates it into a work, giving it a purpose within the nature of the composition itself, at other times she uses it as a device intent on separation. It is possible to read the line as both an act of defiance and as a symbol of isolation, even alienation; in part between the artist and the rest of the world, but also as the personification of an artist who at one and the same time is within the context she depicts while simultaneously managing to detach herself from it so she can observe and critique that which surrounds her.
Recently, Shamma has become increasingly fascinated by the subject of the queue and it has become the focus for a series of new works. She talks of how she has always been curious about the psychology behind a group situation, and the situation of the queue in particular: 'I have often seen the queue in a negative light but I am still interested to know about the people in it: the facial expressions and poses they adopt, the hopes they allow themselves to think about while queueing, and their states of mind. Everything about the activity of queueing has always disturbed me. Each person in the queue might have something nice about him as an individual, but once he becomes part of the queue he looses his uniqueness and becomes part of the group, gang or troop. This gives me a bad feeling. A person might stand in a queue without really thinking about it. He may not even need what he will receive at the end. Often, he may join simply because he knows people in the queue, or because he just sees people in a queue and therefore thinks instinctively that he should take his place behind them. Many times a man in a queue is deliberately choosing to ignore the real aim behind the reason for the line. The truth is, that whoever created that queue or initiated it has different targets or reasons, maybe even evil ones. The state of the herd in the animal kingdom is a justifiable one, but the group mentality in the human world is complicated by expectations and anxiety, and this can often lead to trouble.'
Shamma is not a political artist but she is a very human one. In 2011, Shamma was selected as the 'Celebrity Partner' artist to the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP). In response she made and donated a painting entitled 'Fighting Hunger' (2011), which was sold at Christie's Dubai, 2012" with all proceeds going to the WFP.
Shamma was forced in the end of 2012 to flee Damascus in Syria because of the conflict. She left behind her home and studio and lived and worked in the country of her mother's birth; the Lebanon, for 3 years. Recently she moved to London, UK, where she lives and works now.