Bushfires, COVID-19 And Beirut Blast: Artist's Painting 'Takes On New Meaning In 2020'

Australian Amani Haydar's self portrait was painted a year ago, but now more relatable than ever.

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Social distancing, working from home and facing the world of uncertainty in a sterile mask has led many of us to feel burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sydney artist Amani Haydar’s self portrait was painted last year to depict her own burnout after endless anti-violence activism work. But she’s now realised the artwork is more relatable than ever, encapsulating people’s hopelessness amid the pandemic and beyond.

Her painting “takes on a new meaning” in 2020. We see the savaging flames of the Australian bushfires and the chaotic Beirut blast, the latter of which hits home for Haydar who has Lebanese heritage.

Here, HuffPost Australia speaks to the former lawyer about how her moving artwork is a symbol of trauma and grief, but also connections and culture.

What was the inspiration behind the artwork when you painted it in 2019?

This painting was a spontaneous response to mixed feelings of burnout, exhaustion and hopelessness that I was experiencing last year. A lot of my advocacy against gender-based violence relies on me drawing on my personal experiences.

At the same time, it can feel like changes are not taking place quickly enough. I wanted to be honest about this; doing things you love or are extremely dedicated to can still give rise to these feelings.

My creative practice is heavily influenced by my legal background and interest in human rights. The symbolism of the flames started as a reference to a famous press photo of a self-immolating Vietnamese monk taken in 1963 which I came across while doing some research several years ago. The photo garnered international attention and concern at the time.

Lawyer and artist Amani Haydar speaks about how her moving artwork is a symbol of trauma and grief, but also connections and culture.
Lawyer and artist Amani Haydar speaks about how her moving artwork is a symbol of trauma and grief, but also connections and culture.

I wanted to link this literal reference to contemporary ideas about activism and mental burnout as well as the way we consume trauma online on a day-to-day basis.

The black lines and colours reference pop art which is commentary on how activism can lose touch with its essence if it becomes more about an individual than a cause.

How has this artwork on a new meaning in 2020?

Looking back at the work recently, I realised how the artwork had moved with the times. The flames have an added meaning given the impact of the bushfires earlier this year and the human and environmental losses caused by the fires.

The tears can be seen as a response to the feelings of isolation and loneliness that COVID-19 has exacerbated and the grief of the recent explosion in Beirut.

The background of the painting is abstract and disjointed. I think a lot of us are feeling swamped by events outside our control and this is reflected in my painting where the figure is engulfed by swirling paint and flames.

There is an element of hope, however, which I try to include in all of my work; the way that I have painted myself looking straight ahead for example, the patterns and the warm glowing gold in the background.

How did the devastating Beirut blast impact you and your loved ones?

I have Lebanese heritage and a cultural connection to Lebanon as well as loved ones who still live there. A lot of my friends share that heritage and feel emotionally tied to or affected by overseas events.

Our families have been affected by wars and violence so while we are safe in terms of geographic distance, seeing the explosion and witnessing injury online can bring up past traumas as well as anxieties about the safety of relatives and friends overseas. Compounded with the effects of COVID-19, a lot of us found ourselves feeling quite hopeless.

At the same time, it is important that we keep the focus on how to support people directly affected and vulnerable groups such as domestic workers in Lebanon who do not have access to the same rights and supports as others – for example this fundraiser which aims to repatriate workers.

That said, I don’t think we should need a cultural connection to a place in order to be able to empathise with its residents. Empathy can be learned and taught and that is part of what I try to achieve in both my art and my writing.

A man wearing a protective mask against the coronavirus stands across the road from the damaged grain silos of Beirut's harbour August 5, 2020, one day after a powerful twin explosion tore through Lebanon's capital, resulting from the ignition of a huge depot of ammonium nitrate at the city's main port.
A man wearing a protective mask against the coronavirus stands across the road from the damaged grain silos of Beirut's harbour August 5, 2020, one day after a powerful twin explosion tore through Lebanon's capital, resulting from the ignition of a huge depot of ammonium nitrate at the city's main port.

How powerful can art be in depicting feelings and emotions?

For me, creative output is the most powerful form of expression. Making art allows me to communicate in a way that feels authentic and natural. It also encourages both the artist and the audience to reflect on complex subjects slowly and deliberately, which is so different to the way that we often express ourselves in the social media age.

I love the way a piece of art can allow a conversation on an emotional level; capturing things in a way that words sometimes cannot. The process itself is usually pleasurable and therapeutic and this means that I can tackle a big or sad idea in a way that isn’t completely overwhelming.

Having lost my mum to domestic violence and my maternal grandmother in war, I am currently writing a book about those experiences. I have used visual art as a form of storytelling around those events and their ongoing consequences as well as a form of activism. In this way art links personal experiences with political and social issues, inviting people to connect and engage with the subject.