Sara Shamsavari

Sara is a practicing artist and lectures on art, photography, migration, and identity at Central Saint Martins and LCF where she leads courses on Art Ethics and Social Change, Art and Migration and Photography and identity.

She is also a visiting lecturer at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her work has been widely published in books and media including Aperture, Guardian, New York Times, and the BBC. Born during the Iranian Revolution, Sara recovered from infant cancer while fleeing war and impending persecution of her family in Iran and was granted asylum at the age of two in the UK where she and her family have resided ever since. Her early experience surviving war and her rich Iranian heritage and upbringing as a foreign child from a refugee background in the UK shaped her perspective and continue to inform her artistic subject matter. Shamsavari explores themes of global identity, inclusion, and transformation. Several of her photographic project’s center around challenging stereotypes and common preconceived judgements based on labels including appearance, culture, religion, and sexuality. Her abstract expressionist paintings are reflections of her own journey as a refugee and migrant in London and the ongoing trauma faced by refugees and minorities around the world.

Sara is launching her first capsule jewellery collection ‘Kimiya’ in collaboration with Frida and Florence in 2024. The collection is inspired by her journey and Iranian heritage, promoting the importance of freedom to be ourselves without fear of persecution, oppression, or judgement.

My name is Sara Shamsavari and I was born in Iran in 1979, the year of the revolution. As an infant I had cancer of the kidney. After being operated on, I received very little post operative treatment before we found ourselves during a war in Iran. My family, being from a religious minority, were under threat of persecution. Many of their friends and colleagues had been murdered due to their religious beliefs or cultural background. In the face of these threats my parents took me (then a baby), my brother, who was a toddler and one suitcase and fled Iran. We originally fled to Brazil, where I received some after treatment but was still unwell. Within three months, our family were granted asylum in the UK. Here I was cured at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. Miraculously I survived war, cancer, running from country to country, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, all before the age of 2. This miracle has filled me with determination throughout my life.

I grew up here in the UK and experienced the kind of vocal racism which was typical in the 80’s. I was often told to go back to my own country, however as a refugee, I could not have gone back to my country even if I had wanted to. So many refugees probably experience this kind of abuse even now. School was a tough environment; I was dyslexic but undiagnosed until later in life. Regardless, I was focused on the humanity subjects and found my love of writing, music, and art. I studied art at Richmond College which was an inspiring place that allowed me to focus completely on art. I received my BA (Hons) from Camberwell School of Art and a CertHE in Music from Westminster University and my Masters in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries at Central Saint Martins.

Often in our quest for clarity, stability, justice, safety, or the definition of our identities, we find our situations continually transforming almost as soon as they have been defined.

Throughout college and after graduating University I curated several exhibitions of my own work, in London while working as a photographer for lifestyle and fashion magazines. I was always aware of the disparity between the media representation and misrepresented and maligned by the mainstream media whether it is because they are refugees or because of the visibility of their cultural or religious background. This dehumanisation is deeply troubling to me, and I wanted to create photographic portraits explored identity and helped participants see themselves as they are seen by those who love them. In my painting work I use words in Farsi such as cycle, journey, connection, justice, duality, immortality, and partition. These words are not always legible and are often obscured, sometimes becoming absent in the process of creating the work. Through this work I hope the audience will consider the sensations that many migrants and particularly refugees feel, the desire and need to make sense of the world while nothing is certain. Often in our quest for clarity, stability, justice, safety, or the definition of our identities, we find our situations continually transforming almost as soon as they have been defined.

The exhibitions that I curated provided spaces where people could connect and think about ideas such as representation and identity as well as share their experiences of being treated differently because of their background.

My work has gone on to exhibit internationally in some of the world’s most prestigious Museums and art spaces in the world. By extension my work has led me to give both performances in solidarity with refugees and to lecture internationally about my work and the ideas they encourage. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with organisations such as the Migrant Resource Centre and the Citizens of the World Choir and exhibiting at spaces including Museo Bardini, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Southbank Centre, and City Hall. In 2019 I began designing and delivering courses that address similar subjects to my artwork for the University of Arts. These courses include Art and Migration, Art, Ethics and Social Change and Photography and Identity. I hope that through these courses and my work as an artist, to encourage conversation, empathy, and critical thinking about the experiences of migrants, refugees and others who are treated negatively because of their appearance, cultural, religious backgrounds, gender, or sexuality.

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