Sara Shamma, Q (2011)


A queue is a Q is a question. Perhaps ‘what are we waiting for’ or ‘why are we waiting’. The answer will depend on your location, class and political circumstances.

In the West we are on the whole happy to queue for a checkout or a cash point. It is, as Jessica Lack points out in the publication for this show, the sign of a ‘civilised way of life’.

But artist Sara Shamma lines up some 10 characters who would surprise you if you met them at your local post office. They are at times translucent, weightless and ethereal.

So, another question, why might ghosts join a queue? Perhaps the queue in this painting represents the scene of a trauma, such as the flight of Shamma’s Syrian compatriots.

Her monumental work is 17m long and is to be read as a series and a circular one at that. Panel one features a mother and child, panel ten: a child and a foetus.

This loops her sad procession into infinity. It would be interesting to know of the first queue in history, just as it would be frightening to receive advance warning of the last.

There is also a menagerie on this road to ruin: elephant, ostrich, ape and shark alike are in line for a so-called promised land. They give the whole scene a certain freakiness.

But what could be more freaky than the frightened population of one city all packing up, leaving home, and heading for a border. The animals tell it like it is.

Another widespread motif is the ironic balloon. Were it not for the anguished expressions here and there you might conclude this was a carnival.

Many of those faces, however, show the skull beneath the skin. Some are treated with the grainy black and white of newsprint. Some feature thick, expressionistic daubing.

The queue has many facets. Shamma breaks the continuity in panel five by painting a line of faceless figures snaking off to the horizon and back. Newsworthy numbers here.

And in a Dalí-esque touch the artist hints at comfort with a tiny chair suspended above a vast abyss. If society breaks down, this epic painting may come back to you.

Q ends on December 2 2013. So get in line at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery at the Royal College of Art, London.

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