When her breathtaking illustrations of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery went viral, Shirien Damra, a Palestinian refugee artist, activist, and cancer survivor, helped spark a digital movement.
For the September/October issue of The Advocate, Damra beautifully illustrated a group of queer activsts marching for Black Lives. Here, the artist explains what fuels her creative process.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the cover. The inspiration comes from my deep admiration I have for the queer and trans people in my life, who know what it’s like to be marginalized and show up in such beautiful and profound ways for social justice, challenging the boxes that society tries to confine us all in. I am also particularly inspired by what we are seeing emerge on the streets in cities across the U.S. where Black trans women are taking the lead letting folks know that when we say Black Lives Matter, we must include all Black lives. It’s heartbreaking that trans Black women, in particular, are being murdered at a crisis-level rate. We as a society need to come together to build a safer world in which misogyny, transphobia, and racism no longer exist. I truly believe that we will not be free until we’re all free.
When did you start illustrating, and what inspired your unique aesthetic and voice? Coming from a family of Palestinian refugees who are Muslim, early on I had a sense of what injustice and racism looked like through my own family’s experience and intergenerational trauma. As I grew older, I started learning and understanding more of how structural oppression functions and who it targets.
I reached a turning point in my life when, having been burnt out from my work in the community, I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. Since then, I made a promise to myself to continue to cultivate my creative side because, for me, my art and creativity are crucial to my self-care. Whether it was sketching with pencil on paper, graphic design, or UX design, I began finding ways to use my art and design skills alongside my social justice and advocacy work. As far as aesthetic, I love combining soft colors to create a dreamy and calming feel with bold, vibrant colors to uplift and inspire the viewer to take action. I love to include floral or natural elements when I can, symbolizing life and growth in defiance of systemic violence and oppression.
Illustrated by Shirien Damra
Can you explain the meaning of why the subjects in your work have their eyes closed? Characters in all my illustrations have their eyes closed, which in many forms of Eastern art is symbolic of inward reflection. Healing and growth, whether it’s within ourselves or within the scope of systemic change in our society, require deep reflection.
How would you describe the work you’re doing? We’d like to call it illustration, but even that word feels limiting. Art in all forms, including illustration, has always been part of the fight for social justice throughout the ages. I’m just one of so many that has used this medium as a tool.
I don’t know if our society will ever go back to how we knew it before the pandemic and before the recent large scale of BLM uprisings we’ve had. Artists have the ability to create visions of a more just, equitable world. This type of art can help shift culture, bring people together, move people into action, and ultimately help achieve systemic change.
Your images of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and AhmaudArbery struck a chord around the world. How does that feel? I created the tribute illustrations for Ahmaud, Breonna, and George as a gesture of solidarity with Black communities in their time of grieving. I noticed a lot of people sharing the videos of Ahmaud and George’s deaths on social media, so I wanted to create an alternative that wasn’t so triggering and traumatic. I wanted to honor their lives in a way that’s soft yet powerful and dignified. I’m not entirely sure why my stuff happened to become viral, but lots of my new followers have told me that my work has helped them process the sadness and anger they feel in response to these tragic events. Although it’s exciting that celebrities and influencers on Instagram have been raising awareness by sharing my illustrations, I think more about the response from everyday people who are now engaging with my work. My George Floyd illustration was painted as a mural in Raleigh, N.C. Georgia’s NAACP chapter reached out to me when my Ahmaud piece went viral, asking me to create and gift an illustration for Ahmaud Arbery’s family. A follower in Minneapolis also let me know that George Floyd’s girlfriend was moved by my portrait of him. I also heard his daughter loved the portrait as well. These reactions mean a lot to me.
What are your hopes for the rest of this year? My biggest hope is that I will get to witness the oppressive systems and structures start to tear down while the seeds of healing and hope is sown into the roots so new beginnings will flourish. We need to sustain the fire and we do that by supporting and truly being present with one another. It’s an ongoing struggle, but as Angela Davis says, we have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And we have to do it all the time. I hope we can all commit to long-term social change even after the mass protests have ended and the hashtags become less trendy.
Shirien Damra is part of the Cambridge, Mass. exhibit “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth & Faces of the Divine: A Travelling Art Exhibition,” paying homage to the histories of global freedom dreams. (@Shirien.Creates)