An art exhibit opened in the Tower Gallery in Crickhowell echoes the ongoing Gaza conflict in its new art exhibition.

Running for several weeks, the artist, Sophie Macdonald, has painted a series of portraits of both Muslim and Jewish women – all wearing traditional head coverings. Sophie says that she hopes at this time of heightened ethnic antagonisms her painting can be seen as a move towards understanding and an exploration of the relationship between different faiths.

On October 7th, the Hamas militant group attacked Israel, prompting Israel to fight back. There have since been calls for a ceasefire, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steadfastly refused.

Sophie comes from a family of painters. Her father, Robert, is a founder member of the Tower Gallery Collective, a group of artists who share the organisation and running of the gallery. But while Roberts’s work as an artist is strongly based in the rural life of the Usk Valley Sophie’s picture-making has urban roots and relates very closely to the immigrant communities she has grown up with in north-west London. Sophie’s daughter Lily attended a school where many of her fellow pupils were from Muslim backgrounds and Sophie befriended a number of the mothers there. She entered into an artistic collaboration with one of them, Nadia, a writer from Morocco. “She told me a traditional story from her hometown, which she inscribed in Arabic on a canvas scroll for me. I began translating this story into a painting.”

At the time Sophie was a student at the Chelsea College of Art and this painting became the final piece she exhibited for her postgraduate diploma at Chelsea.

After primary school in north-west London Lily moved on to a new London academy, Kensington Aldridge School, which was built at the base of the ill-fated Grenfell Tower. Sophie befriended some of the Muslim parents at the school and even attended Islamic cooking classes. She also began painting some of these ladies. In her art, she began exploring her feelings about the veil and the floor-length hijab worn by many of the mothers. She was able to persuade a couple of her Muslim friends to jump skipping ropes while wearing floor-length costumes, and she took photographs on which she based several paintings. “When I made these images I was moved by the juxtaposition of the image of a woman skipping with a veil – it was challenging my preconceived ideas about the veil being something to inhibit and something about it being not free, and through the action of skipping which is an iconic childhood image evoking a sense of innocence and freedom, I was able to play with this judgement.”

Her first pictures of these skipping women were small monoprints but then she moved to larger canvases. From a skip on a pavement near her home, she removed the skeleton of a large double bed and used the wooden base as a frame over which to stretch a huge canvas, and on this, she painted the most striking of her Muslim images. This is on show in the Tower Gallery though its size caused quite a problem when it was being manhandled up the gallery’s narrow staircase.

The North Kensington school, Kensington Aldridge Academy, was disastrously affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, being directly below the conflagration. It was damaged by falling debris and Sophie’s daughter Lily, aged 12 at the time, lost two of her closest friends in the fire (altogether seven of the school pupils died). Lily and her schoolmates spent the next year being taught in Portakabins erected in the grounds of a nearby Academy. Shortly afterwards Sophie held an exhibition in London of her portraits of her Muslim friends, all of whom were members of the local community and all affected by Grenfell.

Sophie was inspired to make her first paintings of veiled women over a decade ago when she made a trip to Morocco. From early on in her painting career she was attracted to painting strong women and at first, these were often naked, based on life drawings. “ I went to a multicultural school myself and have grown up around many cultures,” she says. “In the last 10 years, I have noticed my judgement and prejudiced thought processes about the veil. There was something about women covering themselves from head to foot in the hot summer heat which disturbed me. So instead of sitting with my ignorant reactions and biased judgements, I decided to explore my feelings about the veil through painting.”

For many of her works, she makes use of found materials – old breadboards and even scaffolding planks. In the exhibition, there is a very striking portrait of her daughter Lily on one such plank. A few months ago she was invited to take part in an exhibition in the West Wharf Gallery, Cardiff, marking International Women’s Day. The other exhibitors included some of Wales’s best-known female artists. Until recently she shared with friends the rent of a cottage in the Brecon Beacons which had formerly been the studio of her artist father and she feels a deep connection with Wales – her mother’s birthplace – though her painting has a very different base. Preparing for the Crickhowell exhibition she extended the range of her subject matter to include images of Jewish women. She has a painting of a Sephardic bride and pictures of Jewish women wearing their head coverings. She has explored in her work the contrast between Western displays of female nakedness and the cultures which cover women up. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Sophie’s maternal grandmother entered an Anglican convent in her later years and adopted the Anglican nun’s habit. So Sophie was brought up in a world where women she was close to sheltered behind elaborately concealing costumes.

It was a coincidence that the launch of Sophie’s exhibition coincided with the outbreak of the terrible conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. In her painting, she would like to make her own small contribution towards understanding the different cultures now at loggerheads in the Middle East.

The exhibition continues at the Tower Gallery, 49 High Street, Crickhowell, until Sunday 17th March. Opening times are Thursday – Saturday 11am – 4pm.