All in a row, nine women proudly hold up vibrant paintings to be displayed. Each is a self-portrait with glistening tears of gold, created to tell the world their story. They are stories of violent attack, anger, and shame. But they are also stories of restoration, healing, and hope.
In September 2018 Open Doors ran a trauma healing programme in Nigeria for these women. Each has suffered sexual violence, either at the hands of militant Fulani herdsmen or the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. In a variety of sessions they shared and processed their pain, received teaching on the impact of trauma in their lives, and were led in a workshop to draw and paint their self-portraits, sewing on fabric as the finishing touch to their designs.
The painting of the self-portraits was led by British artist Hannah Rose Thomas. “It was a lot of fun. There was a lot of singing, joyful laughter and smiles - during the sewing in particular - which was beautiful to see. On the first day, the women had been quite subdued. Some said that they had come with heavy hearts because of all that they’d been through.
"The idea behind the project was to affirm both the women and their sense of identity. By using the beautiful local fabric, they received affirmation as Nigerian women. But the project also helped them understand their identity as daughters of God, and how they are valued in His eyes. It was also to empower the women, giving them a voice through painting their self-portraits. As such, they are being a voice for other Christian women in Nigeria who are also doubly vulnerable on account of their Christian faith and as women.”
Patience*, a volunteer trauma care worker in Nigeria, noted the profound impact that creating self-portraits had on each woman. “Some of them had never held a pencil, but now here they are drawing and painting themselves. You could see them realise, ‘Oh, so I am worth something, I am created in God’s image, I am beautiful’.
“That kind of dignity restores their self-worth. For them to draw their images, it’s really a good thing. Hannah would tell them, ‘Wow, you’re doing great!’ And everybody kept saying, ‘Wow, this is beautiful, this is amazing!’ And that gives them courage. It's not what they normally hear. Because of what they have been through they are often told that they are worth nothing, that they are a useless person. But now, there are people telling them that they see good in what they do. So, it’s an encouragement for them.”
Ladi rediscovered her self-worth through the programme. “Before, I could not hold a pen or do anything. Now, through this art project, I have learnt how to draw. I drew myself and when I looked at it this morning, I saw how beautiful I am. Today I am filled with joy as I have learnt a lot and have seen a lot of changes in my life. I am very grateful. I want to thank my brothers and sisters all over the world for their support which has allowed us to have this programme.”
The creation of her self-portrait was a journey for Gambo. “While I was drawing I had mixed feelings. The first was of anger and bitterness, and that is why I drew myself not smiling. Then the second feeling is a feeling of a joy, knowing that God loves me, and still protects and takes care of me.”
For Charity, the art project brought strengthening and confidence.
Charity is a mother to seven children. She was abducted by Boko Haram and, as an ‘infidel’, was forcibly married. In captivity she gave birth to a baby girl called Rahila. Once home the trauma didn’t end as her husband beat her and rejected Rahila. Thankfully the trauma workshops are bringing healing not only to Charity, but also to her husband as she has used the teachings in life back with her family. “I just want to thank God. There’s a change in my husband. He has started liking my daughter and has even carried her.”
Through painting her self-portrait, Aisha was able to communicate how she feels about what happened to her. “When I was painting I was filled with pain. I want the world to know I am worried with a heavy heart because of the things that have happened in my village, and that are still happening. But, in the course of the programme, I saw how God thinks about me and how He looks at me. These things that have happened, He is the only one who can bring comfort to us.
On her return home, Hannah, who has just been named on the 2019 Forbes Europe 30 under 30 list for her work, painted portraits of each woman to be displayed alongside each corresponding self-portrait. The paintings were exhibited during winter 2018 in Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The exhibition was attended by Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Lord Ahmad of the UK government (Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI) and Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion and Belief). They have invited the exhibition to be shown at the UN and at a PSVI conference hosted by the UK government in November 2019 .
“I painted portraits of the women to be shown alongside their self-portraits as a way to share their stories but also to show the sacred value of the women in spite of what they have suffered. There is a lot of stigma surrounding sexual violence and I wanted to show, through the use of gold leaf and the precious pigment of lapis lazuli, traditionally used in paintings of the virgin Mary, how precious they are in the eyes of God. I wanted to convey their strength and dignity in spite of all they have been through to counteract the stigma, and to show that these women have not been defined by what they have suffered.
“It was deeply moving that the women trusted us with their stories, and that they wanted to share what that they had experienced. It was very hard to hear what they had been through. I was shocked to hear of the violence they suffered, particularly how widespread it is. If stories like these weren’t brought to the attention of governments and the UN, they would remain unseen and unheard. It wouldn’t be possible for those who are involved in decision-making to be informed. Persecution would continue with impunity and there wouldn’t be international pressure to change things.”
All in a row, the portraits hung on display on the palace wall. They were created to tell the world the truth about what is happening to women in Nigeria on account of their faith and gender. But also to bring justice and change for them and the countless others they represent.