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Image supplied: Self-portrait with Memories (2021), Amani Haydar

The right side of my face is painted in creamy mocha and beige, but the left side is washed out like an over-exposed photo. A single long curl casts a winding shadow near my eye and down my cheek, the rest of my fuzzy hair hovers like a dark cloud at the back of my head. My smile is soft and pale in contrast to my wide eyes and dark, arched eyebrows.

The first time I painted myself was for a high school art assignment. For a long time, the painting hung at the entry of my childhood home because my dad liked it so much. I assumed that it had been lost or discarded after my parents separated and moved, but I found it while clearing out my mum’s garage after her death. It surprised me a little; the canvas itself was smaller than I remembered but my head took up more than half the surface. I am amused that I chose to paint the portrait in landscape orientation, an attempt at originality perhaps. It reminds me that art was a site of rebellion for me as a teenager. The nondescript brown background has chipped and degraded over time. Tiny cracks and faint bumps reveal an earlier attempt at a yellow background, a failure I hastily painted over.

But there I am, captured in a moment in time, leaning forward as though attempting to tell the viewer a secret or share a private joke.

Image supplied: Untitled Self-portrait (2004), Amani Haydar


Writing or painting? Which comes first? This is a common question I’ve been asked at exhibition openings and author talks. At times, I have struggled to articulate an answer that captures the strong interplay between these artforms. When I sought feedback on my manuscript of The Mother Wound, a mentor remarked, ‘I know you are a painter, but I think you are a writer first.’ This was encouraging because writing my memoir left me feeling vulnerable in a way that no other creative project had before. However, I have doubts that my writing practice could exist without my visual arts practice, and I am sure my visual arts practice would stagnate if I wasn’t also writing.

I’ve been practicing visual art and writing in a professional capacity for about five years, and informally for about seven years. They started as therapeutic habits rather than as deliberate career choices. Both grew from a need to express and investigate traumatic experience after losing my mum, Salwa Haydar, to domestic violence in 2015. In the same period, a counsellor I was seeing at the Homicide Victims Support Group encouraged me to journal as a way of making space for feelings of rage and grief that seemed too heavy, extreme and undignified to speak out loud at the time. Both mediums provided me with a safe space to contemplate these feelings without fear of repercussion, regret or further harm. They helped me pass time and create something tangible amid betrayal, destruction and helplessness.

The growth of my writing and visual arts practice mirrors the well-documented link between creativity and healing from trauma.

The growth of my writing and visual arts practice mirrors the well-documented link between creativity and healing from trauma. I write in The Mother Wound that visual art, at first, came more naturally to me; it was immediately available. It had been a personal interest and private pursuit since childhood, and therefore something I already loved and understood well enough to do in a self-guided manner. My confidence in my ability to articulate myself through art came before I developed the confidence to share my words as a public speaker or writer, even though I’d relied on the written word in all of my work as a lawyer up until the date of my mother’s death. I hesitated to share my experiences in writing; I felt that if I did not refine my writing first, I would repeat the shortcomings of the systems I wanted to interrogate and do Mum’s story further disservice.


There are neurological reasons why survivors may find visual narratives more empowering and accessible than verbal or written forms. Research shows that traumatic experience is initially stored in the right side of the brain, ‘the emotional centre’, where it is more readily accessed through creativity, music, visual art and symbolism. The left hemisphere, ‘verbal, analytical, and rational’, is responsible for providing coherence to our experiences. It isn’t until the right side has processed negative experiences that the left side of the brain can verbalise them and place them into a narrative structure. This is where creativity comes in, as the studies show:

Creative arts offer a unique benefit in promoting communication between the right hemisphere, where images and negative unconscious emotions are stored, and the left hemisphere, which houses logic and language. Creative art therapies allow for repressed memories and feelings to surface and for them to be processed and reconsolidated in a way that is less threatening.

Communication between the creative and the logical brain is a powerful thing for a writer to harness. The experiences I wanted to write about in my book were easier to articulate when I’d already revisited them as a painter. For instance, when I compared the women in my lineage to ‘a set of Russian dolls’ and described matrilineal trauma as a ‘wound within a wound’, it was because I had already visualised this in my self-portrait Insert Headline Here (2018). This painting was one of my earliest creative responses to my mother’s murder and, in turn, that image had captured a surreal, swirling sense of loss, dread and powerlessness I once felt but could not describe. Painting was my book emerging from me before I was ready to put it into words.


My visual arts practice and writing practice exist in a loop with inspiration running in both directions. Sometimes an artwork prompts me to write, and sometimes ideas for artworks emerge from something I am writing. I often move between my desk and art table to capture some of the thoughts that surface, and I am almost always working on multiple projects.

A visual arts practice provides me with an opportunity to observe and absorb details. The act of looking in a deliberate, mindful sense enhances our familiarity with the characteristics of people, objects and places. This is an important part of my writing practice, however, with the speed at which images and information are shared in the digital age, it can be difficult to take the time to transform the passive act of seeing into an active and contemplative experience and to truly appreciate things for what they are.

It can be difficult to take the time to transform the passive act of seeing into an active and contemplative experience.

When I first started writing, I noticed that I’d romanticised a lot of memories from family trips to Lebanon during my youth: rose bushes, rolling hills and friendly faces. Writing purely from memory can lead to an over-reliance on assumptions, nostalgia and cliché. However, by learning to pause and hold images in my mind, I realised that initial recall seldom includes the full depth of details. Rather than being idyllic and other-worldly, the landscape of some parts of Lebanon was polluted and life was inconvenienced by things like toilets that don’t flush.

When I was a paralegal, I spent a lot of time near St Mary’s Cathedral, a grand, towering Gothic building built mostly from Sydney sandstone. When I got home one evening, I was inspired to sketch and paint the cathedral. I thought I was already familiar with the building, but it wasn’t until I made art about it that I fully appreciated the complexity of its structure, and the beauty of its details including the buttresses, carvings and ornate windows. Similarly, just as the act of self-portraiture allows me to become familiar with the geometry of my face, it also allows me to become familiar with my inner world, doubts and desires. Memoir writing requires this level of intimacy with the self.


I have come to see the dialogue between my creative practices as complex and fluid. Logic is not superior to emotion, nor are instinctive and spiritual ways of knowing and interpreting the world inferior to imperial or scientific methods. I can make space for the surreal and the sensory, the analytical and the academic, the personal and the political. I have learned that when I feel ‘stuck’ as a writer, my visual arts practice can provide a gateway to the underlying questions, and what my visual work lacks in specificity, I can investigate through writing.

Likewise, my writing feeds back into my visual arts practice. A self-portrait I painted in 2019, depicting myself about to be engulfed by raging flames, was inspired by reading and writing about human rights activism and burnout. A series of small portraits of angry men, made around the same time, was born out of my struggle to articulate my father’s behaviour in early drafts of my book. Writing about the impacts of abuse, islamophobia and the nature of victimhood has prompted me to think about the ways Muslim women are depicted in art and popular culture. Writing encourages me to consider how I might expand on or challenge those representations, as well as providing me with an opportunity to pay attention to the stories other artists are telling.

Images supplied: Of Prior Good Character (2019), Amani Haydar

I have reclaimed my narrative and retell my mum’s story in a way that feels dignified and empowered—rather than from a place of helplessness—independent of intermediaries and free from the constraints of the courtroom. What started as an intimate, therapeutic process ended up giving me back some agency. Art became a way to challenge the power structures that compound the difficulties faced by survivors of abuse. It has allowed me to share my lived experience in a way that feels meaningful to me, in a way that reflects my cultural and religious contexts as a Lebanese Muslim woman.

Art became a way to challenge the power structures that compound the difficulties faced by survivors of abuse.

Painting and writing allow me to contribute to conversations about domestic violence and, crucially, a way to connect with other storytellers whose perspectives and expertise can supplement and inform my own. Both artforms have become tools of advocacy, with both text and image playing an integral role. This is not so different to working in litigation; collecting bits and pieces of evidence and looking at them from different angles in order to gain a nuanced understanding of the big picture.


I painted my most recent self-portrait as I finished editing my memoir. It is a reflection on the process of writing which, despite some catharsis, brought with it a sense of dread. The differences between this self-portrait and the one I painted back in high school are stark; the canvas is much bigger, and my body, which is invisible in my earliest self-portrait, is big and bulky here. Instead of leaning forward, my figure sits back from the surface, surrounded by symbols of memories and ideas I’d unearthed while researching and writing. My expression seems demure and doubtful, my mouth downturned in one corner. My face is painted in shades of hot pink and blue and, rather than blending the paint to soften my features as I had as a teenager, the strokes are fresh and rough. I wear a hijab now; the layers of pink fabric, suggested by wide transparent strokes, seem loose and alive. Phrases from my final draft are hand-painted onto my body; the background is filled with Islamic geometry, native flowers, suburban scenes depicting places I have lived and rural scenes representing my homeland. Elements are drawn, painted, stuck on and drawn over again. There is colour for the sake of colour and markings for the sake of markings. Mistakes and imperfections are embraced rather than erased.

In this painting, I can see my writing process and how it has encouraged me to be more creative, more honest with myself and more self-forgiving. As it was in my teenage years, my art is still a site for my rebellion. I am there, attempting to share myself and my story, aware of my limitations, braced for the response, and sure of who I am and what I stand for.


Want to learn more about the powerful connections between visual art and literature and how to establish and sustain a long-term multidisciplinary practice? Enrol in our new online writing course How Art Can Enrich Your Writing with Amani Haydar.