The challenges of depicting a humanitarian crisis

Shipwreck, a painting by Karima Brooke.

Shipwreck, a painting by Karima Brooke.


Syrian Boy Dreaming – a painting by Karima Brooke


The Smell of Tomatoes; A painting by Karima Brooke

by Karima Brooke

I first stumbled across the issue of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean by accident. I did an internet image search, back in November 2014, entering ‘shipwreck today’ and what came up were photos, and even videos – many taken by the Italian coastguards. I felt compelled to paint: I wanted to contrast the sunny Mediterranean as somewhere we might go on holiday with the loss of life and suffering of refugees and the anguish of those helping. Thus the first painting, Shipwreck, came about. The second, of three teenagers in a fruit and vegetable warehouse, is called The Smell of Tomatoes. I once asked a refugee who had had a stay in Italy, what he most remembered about his time there. He answered: “The smell of tomatoes.” His time in the tomato fields was perhaps forced labour, I don’t know. The teenagers (from a BBC/Save the Children photo) are unaccompanied child refugees from Eritrea, two sisters and their friend. Here, I wanted to capture both hope and vulnerability. The third, Syrian Boy Dreaming, is set in Sicily, with the mountains and a reception/detention centre in the distance. He sleeps on a sun-lounger, as there are not enough beds for all those arriving. As in the second painting, I wanted to depict an individual as it’s hard to relate with compassion to the numbers – but here is a young lad, just like our children or grandchildren, with his own story, who needs our help.

I felt that, once I had stumbled across these images, then I had been given a mission to pass on a message, similar to ministry – giving it as honestly as I can, in the faith that it will be received by the viewers in ways that I cannot predict. These include asking questions – for me, good visual art, like poetry, rests on ambiguities and poses more questions than answers; lets viewers ask new questions, outside of framing the issue by the mass media; and encourages empathy, perhaps even action.

The challenges are many:

  • Avoiding simplistic propaganda more suited to a poster.
  • Avoiding being voyeuristic and patronising.
  • Being an observer rather than taking action – should I volunteer for working in Calais or one of the Mediterranean landing-points instead?
  • The images are adapted from press photos. I hope that there has been a slow distillation of images through me, leading to the final painting which is more nuanced perhaps than the quick press photo. I often find that, beyond a certain point, the painting takes over and the ‘choices’ you make seem to make sense in the imaginary world you’ve created, so you go with them and usually that just works, not only visually, but in terms of the narrative, too.
  • Finally, I have not been present at the scenes I am depicting. All the central images, all the settings, except for the hills of Sicily, are from press photos. One advantage here is that I can exercise my imagination and get away from the usual tropes.

Cards of the paintings are on sale for £2.50 (though if you want to pay more, please do!) with all profits for refugee organisations.  To order them email 

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