Arab artists in the UK thank NHS staff by painting their portraits

Painters in London pay tribute to healthcare workers on the front line of the fight against Covid-19

Arab artists in London are saying thank you to the NHS staff on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus by joining an Instagram challenge to paint their portraits.

The hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes was launched on Instagram in early April when artist Tom Croft offered to paint a key worker’s portrait.

The initiative has now led to more than 500 artists giving away free portraits to healthcare workers worldwide.

London’s Arab community was also inspired to join, with Iraqi contemporary artist Mahdi Al Shammary painting a depiction of a woman wearing a surgical face mask with dozens of doves flying around her. It incorporates the names of the first three doctors who died in the UK after contracting Covid-19.

"I painted it to show my appreciation for the NHS, my gratitude for everything they are doing and to thank them," Mr Al Shammary told The National.  

“There are people sitting at home protecting their families from the virus, but there are also people who are in the midst of the crisis,” he said.

Mr Al Shammary said he was inspired by the bravery and sacrifices of medical workers.

“We will forever be indebted to you,” he said.

The artist's first painting sits outside his house in south-west London and shortly after completing it, Mr Al Shammary offered on his social media account to paint the portraits of NHS staff.

"British health workers face death everyday and are attempting to save lives. But are given very little in return for their efforts," he said.

“An individual must be valued for his work and contribution to society and community."

The first request came from an Iraqi doctor.

He painted her in black and white to portray her bravery and struggles.

“The work she does along with many other NHS workers is crucial to our society,” he said.

Next was another Iraqi doctor, Raya Al Mashta, who works directly with Covid-19 patients and whose picture the artist was given by a friend.

“I looked at her smile and her eyes in the picture and you feel that there is hope through her beauty, you can see her struggles and how much she has endured.

“This is something that needs to be addressed and appreciated,” he said.

Artist Lamyae Bennani, who is of Moroccan origin, also offered to paint key workers' portraits in a post on Instagram, and the requests started to pour in.

“I am only giving up my time, these NHS heroes are putting their lives at risk,” said Ms Bennani, who is known for her vibrant portraits and was a visiting academic at University of Sharjah's College of Fine Arts and Design in 2009.

She set up a fundraising page last month that has so far collected almost £500 (Dh2,274).

She aims to create a collection of A3 pastel portraits without leaving home. Her first painting was of a friend who is an NHS midwife and a single mother-of-three.

Ms Bennani wanted to capture what she called her friend’s continued heroism and courage for attempting to save people’s lives.

“Everyday they are confronting the virus, they might not even come home, they may catch the virus and pass it on to their children and family members,” she said.

Among her dozens portraits, Ms Bennani has painted two health workers who have contracted the virus.

Her passion is to “draw faces and capture the characteristics of a human" and to "get the spirit of a person”.

"I started at the age of 8. When I pick up a pencil and start drawing I feel like I’m flying, my soul is so happy,” she said.

Ms Bennani urged the public to utilise their talents “to raise awareness for charities and causes".