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Published 02/09/2013 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Community, War and the Role of Art: an interview with George Gittoes

by CHRISTIANA SPENS

George Gittoes has worked in many war zones over the past 40 years, including Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. His work depicts a variety of horrors that he has observed in his visits, or which have been relayed to him. He has also made films about artists in areas of conflict, and is interested in the use of art to escape one’s situation, especially through comedy and storytelling, while exposing political violence and the absurdity and insanity of war.

Gittoes has used films, notably The Bullets of the Poets (1987) and most recently The Miscreants of Taliwood (2009), as well as large figurative canvases, installations, graphic novels and journals that include drawings, cartoons, collage and writing. Rwanda Maconde (1995) for example, details a massacre at the Kibeho refugee camp, and includes drawings of a mother and child in a mass grave, and a boy staring into space, traumatised. Gittoes’ recent series of paintings, related to a graphic novel of the same title, Night Vision (2010), depicts US soldiers and their experiences in a fictionalised war zone, based on Gittoes’ own time in Iraq and Afghanistan during the war on terror. His body of work is expansive and varied, but the subject of political violence and war runs throughout.

Christiana Spens talks to him about his relationship with, and understanding of, war and terror, and his insights into the role of art more generally in the healing of communities affected by violence.  

Christiana Spens: What is your personal drive for accessing and portraying the subjects of war and political violence?

George Gittoes: My drive and focused aim can be summarised in one word – compassion. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Australia in the late 1990s, he requested a meeting with me and wanted me to do his portrait. I asked him why, and he said: “I have seen a book of your work and it is all about compassion and that is also what I am about.”

Back in 1972, when I was 22, I read Malcolm Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa, and I wrote to her. I was concerned I had taken the wrong direction by becoming an artist and asked her if I could better serve humanity by going back to university and studying either medicine or social work. She wrote back and, summarising, said: “If you use the talents God has given you, and you use them to help others, you will know both fulfilment and happiness.” I am fulfilled because I have never let doubt get in the way of following the path my better instincts have dictated, and I am happy that I have used every talent I possess and stretched my endurance to the limit, both mentally and physically, throughout all of my adult life, and am presently doing some of the most productive work ever. And I am glad I have never backed away when faced with danger.

CS: What is hardest about working on this subject matter?

GG: I do not see anything particularly hard about my work. It is very rewarding and I would not swap my life for anyone else’s. The three things that must be achieved, however, when working in war zones are access, trust and community involvement. These are the three pillars that success depends on. Once I have access to the frontline area of conflict, the trust of those I want to work with and the local community, I have to do everything I can to ensure no harm comes to anyone associated with the project. I have a huge security responsibility, which is certainly the most important consideration I have, and could be seen as my hardest challenge. If I fail in this and someone is hurt, imprisoned, sacked or killed as a result of my project, I have to take the blame and the inner heartache that comes from this. In a long career, I am not aware of anyone suffering as a result of my work, but the potential risk has always been very high.

CS: Which reactions from people who have seen your work or been otherwise involved have been most interesting or moving for you?

GG: Whenever my work is shown in a country that has known long periods of suffering and war, I get my best and best-informed reactions. I had a show called Lives in the Balance, which toured the State and National Galleries of South Africa (Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban). I spoke to many groups of school kids and found they were better informed about the conflicts my show covered, and, more importantly, they were able to put themselves more completely into the situations I was describing, particularly in the cases of victims of violence.

When showing similar work in the wealthy cities of Europe, Australia and America, I always get questions about how I can cope with the things I have witnessed. People in wealthy cities seem to need to hear me confess that I am really a psychological cripple suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. They seem disappointed and surprised when I tell them I am happy and rarely suffer from loss of sleep. My theory is that people living in comfortable circumstances do not want to be challenged to do work similar to mine, and need to think I am either some kind of lunatic or an adrenaline junkie in order to let themselves off the hook. But people from places where there has been long suffering under violent regimes or war always welcome my work and see me as an advocate. The Kurdish people who ran the apartments where I lived in Baghdad would always greet me with: “Mr George, we love you being here because you are always creating while everyone else who comes here is destroying.”

CS: How do the reactions of viewers inform your further work and sense of purpose as an artist?

GG: I am highly influenced by the reactions of viewers to my work. When I am in the final stages of editing a film, I ask as many groups of viewers as possible to come to screenings, and I take their criticisms very seriously – acting on most of them to improve the editing or the film or to make the meaning clearer. Even when the film is finished, I spend the whole time during the screening reading the reactions of the audience. I am always most happy when they get the jokes. Some people have described my films as a series of well-constructed gags, and while this is an extreme simplification, there is an element of truth in it. I see all my art as the work of a showman. If the audience does not respond, I think I have failed. 

CS: Do you think, or hope, that your work has a healing/cathartic effect on people, and how would you explain this process?

GG: When I was in Tibet, I visited Nechung monastery. This is a very unusual monastery as all the murals on its many painted walls are of horrific monsters and terrible atrocities, such as the skinning of live humans. They were similar to the images of Hell by Hieronymus Bosch. I have never felt so at peace anywhere else in the world. More so than in the most beautiful tiled mosques designed by Sinan in Istanbul. I sought out the head monk – a very wise lama and asked him why I felt so peaceful while surrounded by such images of horror. He smiled and said: “This is very simple – when all the demons and all the horror is externalised, then the inner-self feels at peace.”

CS: Do you think art’s value, in a wider sense, is in the cathartic and healing nature of art (in relation to the wider community)?

GG: I have taught art therapy in a mental institution and have seen the power of art to help the mentally ill, and I believe this function should not be underestimated as an alternative to harsh medications. In the wider sense, when art is combined with love it can do miracles to heal both humanity and the planet. I like the work of Henri Matisse and, as someone who appreciates beautiful design and things, I can relate to his often quoted line about art needing to be like a comfortable chair. But I prefer Picasso, who always sought a balance between beauty and destruction. There are artists such as Matisse, Degas, Renoir and Ingres, who drew with a beautiful light line, and then others such as Albrecht Dürer, Otto Dix, Goya, Leon Golub, Francis Bacon and myself who draw with a dark line. I love both types of drawing, but I belong to the dark-line team and think it can be as inspiring and uplifting. The first artist I fell in love with because of line was Aubrey Beardsley: his dark line was beautifully perverse and totally seductive to me as a 12-year-old because it matched what I could already see in my own developing style.

CS: Do you believe in any notion of “poetic justice” – that is, art as a kind of protest and expression of otherwise unresolved issues and criminal actions? (In art’s function as exposing the otherwise unexpressed realities of personal and communal experience?)

GG: The great thing about art is that, regardless of how the state may try to control its distribution, the artists themselves have unlimited freedom to explore what it is to be human. I look at the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin and although, even for me, they are too creepy and I cannot contemplate them for very long, I have to acknowledge that he has delved into strange areas of the human psyche in an original way. I would never deny the value of his work. It is the same with some of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who included the most beautiful studies of flowers in vases with images of horrendous self-mutilation from the freak show world of leather bars and S&M parlours. I have books of both Witkin’s work and Mapplethorpe’s in my library, alongside Odilon Redon and Claude Monet. Artists should remain like explorers of old in their sailing ships, or modern day astronauts – pushing the limits of humanity’s understanding of itself.

CS: Do you yourself feel a moral responsibility to use your artistic talent to explore the reality of war and political violence in your work, and if so, could you explain that further?  

GG: When I hear news reports of the ongoing conflict in Mali and Syria and see the new atrocities every night on the news, I want to be there, as I feel I can contribute my lifetime of experience to assisting the people there, and to bring a different kind of message about what is happening to the world.

In the past, I have felt this about Nicaragua, Bosnia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Somalia, Rwanda, Tibet, Western Sahara, Bougainville, East Timor, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Southern Lebanon, the tribal belt of Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, I have gone [to the places] and risked my life to try to contribute in some way. I am presently organising to make films and do art in both Mali and Syria because I find it impossible to ignore the plight of the people there when I know I can make some kind of difference.

Over most of my career I have focused on creativity in war. When you think about it, I am always looking at the artists. My Nicaraguan film The Bullets of the Poets was about the women poets who were also revolutionary fighters (and that was in 1986). Soundtrack to War was about musicians and the role of music in the Iraq war. Rampage was about rappers in the hood creating word sculptures amid poverty and drug violence. The Miscreants of Taliwood was about Pakistani film-makers who wanted to create entertainment and joy and were prepared to risk death threats and bombing by the Taliban. Love City Jalalabad, my new Afghan film, is about a bunch of Afghan artists creating art from out of the Yellow House in Jalalabad, which is where there is a huge American airbase and where Osama bin Laden lived when he planned and executed the 9/11 attacks.

The thing I am proudest of is my Cinema Circus where, together with my monkey Dali and a brave band of Jalalabad artists, we are taking art and film to the most remote areas of Afghanistan. I walk ahead of our blue circus truck in to one of the villages of Tora Bora, an old showman with a grey beard who stands and smiles as Dali entertains the children with his tricks, while the tent rises from the dust and stones of war. These raggedy children have never been to school or known modern medicine or warm clothing against the cold, so imagine the delight I feel to bring them film, art, acting and music.  After the show most of the kids tell us they want to discover how to be artists rather than soldiers for the Taliban.

CS: Do you think that sensationalism is a danger in the portrayal of war and other political violence and, if so, how do you minimise that potential problem? Do you think that art that uses violent subject matter or imagery has a social responsibility? How does art avoid being gratuitous?

GG: In art I find much of Damien Hirst’s work designed to shock and I suspect this is for nothing more than sensationalism in a formula that has worked to make him internationally rich and famous. I recently saw a piece of his where two bodies are lying on hospital-style metal stretchers. Their entire bodies are covered except for their genital area. A dark-skinned man has his penis and testicles revealed through a jagged hole in the blue sheet. I see this as pure sensationalism: a crude shock, a horror gimmick. I think Hirst does make us all think about death and our physical mortality, but this idea becomes that of a “Johnny One Note” – the same idea is repeated over and over again.

The vast majority of artists do art to sell, so it usually has to be pleasant and decorative, or to make their names in the art world. Neither of these aims interests me.

War is barbaric and I describe my life work as a “war on war”. I want to see humans evolve socially beyond the need for violent physical aggression. My art has developed through trial and error. Humour has become a bigger and bigger factor. When serious subjects have humour inserted into their structure, it is a huge relief and assists people to absorb the impact of the more shocking aspects. 

I cannot think of any example in my art where I have used violence gratuitously. It has only ever been depicted as a means either to alert the world to atrocities or to make an important point, as with the decapitation in Miscreants.

I have always been involved with the people and communities where I have worked and witnessed war. In Kibeho, I helped to collect babies from the killing field and organised to get them trucked to the Mother Teresa orphanage in Kigali. When the horror of the events were over, I was able to live with the memories not because of the art I had created, but because of the memory of those I had helped and the sense that, if I had not been there, these people would have died or not been treated by doctors. I spent many years assisting the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and travelled to most countries in the world where there were active minefields and collected the stories and pictures of the victims.

CS: Your current exhibition, Nothing is Enough, draws on your experiences of Rwanda in 2005. Could you tell us a little more about your time there, and the processes you went through to create the “synthages” on show at Light Work?

GG: Being a witness to the massacre at Kibeho in Rwanda, where thousands of people were killed before my eyes, left me feeling that nothing was enough to convey the experience. My first priority was to try to save as many lives as possible and my second was to get the story and images out, with the hope that the world outrage might stop the killing. When it was appropriate, I did drawings and, in rare moments of rest, I wrote in my diaries.

Before and since Kibeho I have seen a lot of war, but Rwanda was by far the worst. Rwanda is a theme I never stop struggling with, and when I look over my life work in painting and drawing, a third of the images produced are about Rwanda.

In early 2013, I had the opportunity to collaborate, for one month, at Light Work in Syracuse, New York, with the master printer John Wesley Mannion.  My challenge was to find a way, with John’s help, to express the inexpressible finiteness of the lives I had seen blinking out. While caught up in the massacre, I did photographs and drawings, but neither were adequate to show what it was like to be an artist amidst hundreds of people who were dying – intimately spending time with people as they passed from this world to the next.

John and I started with the key image, “Eyewitness”. I had dodged a lot of bullets to get a young woman, Immaculee, to the only UN doctor, Carol Vaughan-Evans, who had improvised an outdoor treatment centre. Immaculee had a deep machete slash across her face and another deep wound across her skull and into her brain. A girlfriend had stitched up the skull wound, but this had only sealed the infection. Carol told me there was nothing she could do and Immaculee probably only had another 20 minutes to live. I suggested I give her some morphine, but Carol said: “Why don’t you just sit down and draw her? What she needs is company.” When I took out my drawing paper and began to sketch, Immaculee asked me what the drawing was for. I said: “The world needs to know what has been allowed to happen to you.”

From that moment we worked together to make this “witness” drawing, something that would move whoever saw it. As my pencil inscribed the paper, Imaculee was flickering between life and death like a faulty neon light.  When I showed it to her, she nodded, satisfied to have achieved something with the last moments of her life. I kept my word to her and made  “Eyewitness’” into many large paintings that have been exhibited around the world, but none of these captured what I had experienced as I sat with Immaculee while her soul seemed to be leaving and then returning to allow me to finish. The hope with the synthages is that by allowing the drawing to show through the photographs and combining the two mediums, this sense of the transience of the subject’s life has been captured.

It is up to those who view the synthages to decide whether we have come closer to expressing something so disturbing and profound, [that] nothing can ever seem enough.

George Gittoes: Nothing is Enough is at Light Work in Syracuse, 19 August – 25 October 2013. His films will be shown at the Syracuse film festival. 



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