Owls know everything, this is what Shamma Esoof knows. They are wise and perceptive, and behind that piercing gaze, they are very much sentient creatures. “I am fascinated with owls firstly because they are visually striking,” says Shamma, a Malaysia-based Mauritian artist and photographer.
“They have huge front-facing eyes and expressive faces. After seeing them in real life, I observed that unlike other animals who shy away from making eye contact, owls will gaze directly into your soul.”
Shamma specialises in wildlife portraits, a selection of which were included in the travelling exhibition A Beautiful World, which toured Britain from 2012 to 2016. “The recurring theme that emerges in my images is sentience. My animal portraits seek to radiate the subjects’ ability to feel and experience the world as conscious beings,” adds the 31-year-old.
Soft And Savage, a solo exhibition in Cyberjaya featuring a series of 18 mesmerising owl portraits shot in various locations around Malaysia, is her labour of love. Shamma’s belief that owls are more intelligent and emotionally complex than we imagine was validated after reading a book called Wesley The Owl about a barn owl with an injured wing that was nursed back to health by the author.
“The Malay language word for owl is ‘burung hantu’, which translates to ‘ghost bird’. I did not understand the full meaning of the term until I saw a wild Barn Owl in flight. It is almost a mystical experience. They look like an ethereal, ghost-like flash of white feathers. The sight always leaves me with a sense of awe and wonder,” she shares.
Soft And Savage is a chance to get up close and personal with these gorgeous creatures and delve into the dual nature of their personalities. Owls might be cute and fluffy, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.
These are also formidable predators who have no qualms being lethal and merciless hunters when the need arises. But as the name suggests, Soft And Savage presents a warm and fuzzy side to these mysterious, solitary creatures of the night as well.
Through this show, Shamma, who is also an animal welfare advocate, wishes to draw attention to the fact that owls are victims of the illegal wildlife trade. “Owls belong to the wild, it is cruel to cage them. They are not meant to be pets,” she says.
Shamma’s photographic awards include 2014’s Capture the Moment International Contest (grand prize winner) and the Smithsonian Altered Image Category Award. In 2013, she won the Maybank Photography People’s Choice Award. Her work has been widely published across a variety of media platforms, including BBC Nature, CBS News, My Modern Met, Aperture magazine and Lens magazine.
Soft And Savage is her second solo exhibition in Malaysia.