Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

How the 'Arab Mona Lisa' became an actress for the Emirati flick 'A Tale of Shadows'

Artist Samar Al Shamsi downs the paintbrush to hone her acting skills in a new horror sequel.

Samar Al Shamsi is a celebrated UAE artist who is starring in a new UAE movie. Courtesy Madwriters
Samar Al Shamsi is a celebrated UAE artist who is starring in a new UAE movie. Courtesy Madwriters

Samar Al Shamsi is undoubtedly best known as an artist, in particular as the creator of what has been called the “Arab Mona Lisa”, hung in The Avenue at Etihad Towers as part of the Samar Arts Exhibition to great fanfare back in 2013. The moniker has even been attached to Al Shamsi herself. “When I painted the ‘Arab Mona Lisa’, people said it looked like me, and I sort of got the nickname, too,” she tells The National.

“When Leonardo da Vinci did the Mona Lisa, everybody said it was actually Leonardo. I think 99 per cent of artists, when they make a portrait, they use elements of themselves in it. So it’s not quite a self-portrait, but there’s definitely something of me there.”

The artist is much more than a one-canvas wonder, however, and her activities extend far beyond painting.

Her portraits in famous places

Al Shamsi studied art in Milan and held her first international exhibition in the city back in 2003. Since then, the multitalented Emirati artist has added a doctorate in architecture to her CV, recently qualified as a lawyer, and now intends to add a master’s degree and a doctorate in law to her list of achievements. In the art word, she also gained fame for her official portraits of world leaders including Barack Obama and Jacques Chirac.

The portrait Samar Al Shamsi painted of Obama was sent to the White House. Courtesy Samar Al Shamsi
The portrait Samar Al Shamsi painted of Obama was sent to the White House. Courtesy Samar Al Shamsi

The Obama portrait spent a year hanging in the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a special room for visiting members of congress. Al Shamsi was even invited to design the room, and chose a cinema-inspired theme with the portrait as the focal point. It was then sent to the White House in 2011. Al Shamsi says that, to the best of her knowledge, the portrait still hangs in the seat of US power, though given the incumbent’s feelings about his predecessor, that may not be the case.

Turning to acting

For her next chameleon-like change of direction, Al Shamsi has signed up to star in the Emirati horror film A Tale of Shadows: Illusions, the second movie in Tariq Al Kazim’s Tale of Shadows series. It seems a huge leap – from solitary artist in her studio to leading actress on a bustling film set – but Al Shamsi is not a complete novice in the field of filmmaking.

“I’ve visited Syrian children in refugee camps in Jordan doing art therapy for three or four years, and seeing these poor children with nothing, no food, no home, inspired me to make a short film in which I compared the lives of a child from a very rich family to that of a very poor one,” she says.

Emirati visual artist Samar Al Shamsi directs refugee children on painting as she visits them at their caravan at the Emirati camp for Syrian refugees at Mreijib Al Fohoud in Jordan on May 29, 2016. (Salah Malkawi for The National) *** Local Caption *** SM007_Shamsi.jpg
The Emirati artist visited refugee children at their caravan at the Emirati camp for Syrian refugees at Mreijib Al Fohoud in Jordan in 2016. Salah Malkawi for The National.

Al Shamsi conceived and also acted in short film The Art of Humanitarianism, which has been screened mostly at humanitarian events, and she says she hopes it offered some lessons to the more privileged audiences who might have watched it. “I did it to try and help the refugees, to try and show this contrast,” she says. “There are kids who have everything out there, so I just wanted to make these children and their families see how poor children feel.”

Art and film are one and the same

But it seems a far cry from a small-scale, highly personal, humanitarian-inspired short to a feature film set complete with a cast and crew from all over the world and a budget that, although Illusions’ producers aren’t giving away figures, sounds notable. How did she find the move to such a large scale? “For me it’s all art. Film, painting, it’s all in the same circle called art. It’s no different, especially since I already have experience in film,” she says. The grander scale doesn’t seem to have fazed Al Shamsi either. “The team is like a family, all working altogether to make the film succeed. I like to work with the team.”

The Arab Mona Lisa by Samar Al Shamsi. Courtesy Samar Al Shamsi
The Arab Mona Lisa by Samar Al Shamsi. Courtesy Samar Al Shamsi

The people behind Illusions should perhaps be flattered that they have finally coaxed Al Shamsi into taking a major role in a feature – this isn’t the first time she has been asked. “In 2015, I was in San Diego, and a quite famous author asked me to be in her film.

I refused because I didn’t like the film. It just wasn’t right for me.” So what changed her mind this time around? “There are so many things,” she says. “The actors, the story, the director is Emirati and I like the team. I just liked the whole combination, so I decided I’d go for this one. It’s a very nice story, I like it a lot. A horror story with lots of action.”

Why horror is a lot like law

Al Shamsi seems so enamoured with the script that she has even managed to find comparisons to her most recent studies: “I love horror. It’s kind of a lot like law,” she says. “To study law, sometimes you have to really investigate the case, and it’s similar with this kind of film. Putting the puzzle together.”

The movie is still in the early stages of production, with at least one major casting announcement still to be made. The cinema release is scheduled for the end of this year or the beginning of next, and so far, the team have only shot a trailer. But Al Shamsi already seems to be a big fan of the latest string in her bow. “After this maybe I will move into film full time; I can imagine that,” she says. “Though I’ll probably never stop with my art, and the architecture.”

Al Shamsi has just qualified to practise law and plans to carry on with her law studies. “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop studying,” she says. “So who knows where I could be next really?”

Updated: July 23, 2019 08:15 PM

SHARE

SHARE