When Shirien Damra first heard about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, she started to think about softness. The 33-year-old freelance designer was horrified to hear about the young black man in Georgia who was gunned down while out for a run in broad daylight. She couldn’t bring herself to watch the video of the encounter, which quickly circulated online, and incited protests and finally an arrest. But she did want to create something—a gesture of solidarity with black communities in their time of grieving, an art piece to raise awareness about what had happened, a tribute to combat the racist stereotypes that are often used to justify the killing of black men.
“I was afraid that people would only see the video and remember his soul being taken away from him,” Damra told ELLE.com over the phone from her home in Chicago. So she set out to make something soft, something with humanity that would celebrate his life. She played around with different color palettes to see what kind of emotions they evoked. In the end, she chose bright colors and florals for her portrait of Arbery, attributes that she says are rarely seen in depictions of black men. “There’s this demonization that exists,” she says. “I wanted to challenge that.”
What resulted was a simple and beautiful tribute, a digital illustration of Arbery, eyes closed, wearing a tuxedo. He’s surrounded by a ring of pink, yellow, and blue flowers with the words “Justice for Ahmaud” written in a gentle script above his head. Damra posted the portrait to her Instagram, and it quickly took off. As of now, it’s received more than 325,000 likes and has been shared widely across the platform. In the following weeks, she made similar portraits after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, all black Americans unjustly killed by police.
“I wanted to not only have the art for myself to process, but also in the hopes that other people that are facing similar things can identify with it and help them process, too,” she told ELLE.com. This was always the goal for her account, which she started about a year ago. Damra wanted a place to explore her own artistic style while also holding herself accountable to creating art as a form of healing, for herself but also hopefully for others. “I want to use my art to reimagine what we want in this world.”
Art was one of Damra’s first loves, but for a while, she left it alone. As the daughter of Palestinian Muslim immigrants who come from a refugee family, she was acutely aware of racism growing up. But when September 11th happened during her freshman year of high school, something shifted. “There were a lot of intense hate crimes and really negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the media,” she says. “[That] got me to read more about systems of oppression, Islamophobia, racism across the board.” When she got to college, she started out as an art major but decided she needed to learn about social issues and switched to sociology, eventually getting her master’s degree.
After graduation, Damra did advocacy work, but started to burn out after a few years. Then, in 2015, she was diagnosed with cancer and, for the first time in a while, had to step away from her job. That time of reflection helped Damra realize she needed to start creating again, though this time around, she wanted to combine her art with her social justice work. “I decided I need to use art again as a promise to take care of myself. But it could also be used as a tool for raising awareness. It would take care of two things at once.”
Since starting her Instagram, Damra has posted art in support of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, art in solidarity with people in Sudan, art to celebrate International Women’s Day and frontline workers. But it’s her portraits that have drawn the eyes of politicians, activists, and influencers. (“I was surprised to see people I really look up to, like AOC, sharing it.”) She says overall the feedback has been positive and affirming, and she’s glad that her tributes might be receiving more recognition than the negative imagery that’s out there. The work has also opened up other opportunities, like when the Georgia NAACP contacted her to create a piece specifically for Arbery’s family.
“Art is a tool,” she says. “It’s not the end. It’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. Ultimately, the real work comes when we all come together.”
Damra says that since the pandemic, she’s come to see social media as a more powerful tool than before. “But at the same time, I don’t want people to think a like and a share and a comment is it,” she added.