Tom de Freston – I Saw This (Paperback)
Tom de Freston (born 1983) is a British artist and writer, living and working in Oxford. He graduated from Cambridge University in 2007. De Freston’s multimedia art tackles themes of trauma, humanity and intimacy across paintings, films and performance. He builds rich visual narratives, drawing on literature, art history and social issues. A prolific author, Granta published de Freston’s debut non-fiction book, Wreck, in 2022 and his second will be released in 2024. Julia and the Shark (Hachette, 2021), created with his wife Kiran Millwood Hargrave, won the Waterstones Children’s Gift of the Year and was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Children’s Writing on Nature and Conservation. De Freston was chosen to illustrate the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of David Almond’s Skellig, published in 2023.
I Saw This was born out of a collaboration between de Freston, filmmaker Mark Jones and Dr Ali Souleman after de Freston was introduced to the academic in 2017. The paintings and mixed-media works that resulted from the project are an exploration into Souleman’s experiences of terrorism, displacement and war in Syria and ruminate on how art can attempt to represent suffering and terror. In 1996, a bomb explosion in Damascus on New Year’s Eve nearly killed Souleman and left him blind. A sensitive and highly-charged topic, Souleman explained to de Freston the importance of engaging with what is happening in Syria. Disembodied mouths, hands and feet appear frequently in the works. Circles recur as a motif, which bear an uncomfortable resemblance to eyes and eye sockets. In the Mirror paintings which stand upright in black boxes, de Freston embeds ash, screws, thick glue, dirt and bits of wood into the canvas. They are corporeal and volcanic, visceral and abstract. The sense of molten heat in the paintings was compounded by a fire in de Freston’s studio in 2020, which was simultaneously destructive while giving the artist and the collaboration new momentum. The collaborative process involves de Freston describing the paintings to Souleman through words and touch. Souleman brings fresh meaning to the works, grounding them in his psychological landscape. Mark Jones captures these interactions in striking photographs and film footage.
Habda Rashid, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum, introduces I Saw This and considers the challenges of incorporating elements from real life. Journalist Yasmina Floyer’s contribution describes her reaction to de Freston’s work at his 2022 exhibition From Darkness at No 20 Arts, London, where she found that the sooty-black feet stencils and inky circles depicted resonated with her own experience of child loss. The moving text shows how de Freston’s art carries both specific and universal meanings. Editor Matt Price focuses on de Freston’s paintings, structuring his essay with fascinating quotes from Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, the eleventh-century blinded Arab philosopher. Crucially, de Freston, Jones and Souleman’s voices are presentin the book, with each shedding light on their part in the project. De Freston’s art is rooted in empathy and I Saw This is a culmination of this, translating Souleman’s world of memory and metaphor.