Rather than opening with a gentle description of the humble origins of an artist aesthete, George Gittoes’ memoir, Blood Mystic, starts with the Australian war artist barrelling from an Afghani airstrip into the heart of Jalalabad, clutching a letter from the Pakistani Taliban promising to remove his head if he sets foot in the city.
The pace hardly lets up from there. Blood Mystic weaves together Gittoes’ photography, illustrations, paintings and past and present written recollections to present the reader with an aesthetically stunning representation of a life lived large. Through letters, dream journals, field diaries and autobiographical writing, Gittoes documents his roughhouse beginnings as the heir apparent to a gangster grandfather, his time spent risking beatings as a young artist in raucous Kings Cross, and – of course – his experience of violence and misery in the world’s worst conflict zones. With its wild stories shot through with extraordinary images, Blood Mystic is a memoir like no other.
Press still of Steel, a ten year old razor-wielding gangster who features heavily in Snow Monkey
Of course, as the artist himself will proudly remind you, George Gittoes is an artist like no other.
Having spent four decades in the public eye, Gittoes resides as an almost mythic figure in the Australian imagination, as famous for his emotive expressionistic aesthetic as for the lengths to which he will drive himself to expose and examine the nature of humanity stretched to its limits.
George Gittoes with self-portrait Photo: Supplied
As a young artist, Gittoes started his career with a bang by co-establishing the infamous Yellow House, an avant-garde artist collective in Sydney’s Kings Cross devoted to providing a creative refuge for Sydney’s emerging talents. While Gittoes revelled in the psychedelic energy of the Yellow House, his desire to make art that transcended entertainment led him to leave Sydney and embark on a journey of personal discovery and artistic development.
In 1984, this journey swept him far from Kings Cross to the battlefields of Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, Gittoes sought out female Sandinista revolutionaries who used poetry as a means of finding inspiration and strength in everyday life, eventually capturing their story into his first war documentary, The Bullets of the Poets.
With his reputation as a war artist consequently established, Gittoes was granted permission to travel with Australian peacekeeping troops through Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda and the Western Sahara. Over the course of his career, the artist has also worked in the Phillipines, Palestine, South Africa, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Mozambique, Bosnia, Iraq, and , most recently, Afghanistan. A consummate filmmaker, Gittoes has produced a number of documentaries from his new artist co-operative in the heart of Jalalabad, affectionately named after his Eastern suburbs alma mater. At the Jalalabad Yellow House, he and his partner, Hellen Rose, train local men and women in music, art, performance and film – a difficult, dangerous and controversial endeavour in Afghanistan’s Taliban heartland.
Adamantly rejecting the labels of daredevil or thrill seeker, Gittoes views his pursuit of war as a reflection of his conviction in the value of art as a weapon for social change. He notes, “It’s not easy going back to these difficult places. It’s not like I’m some young guy going to prove his courage – I’ve proven my courage to myself a thousand times. But I believe, absolutely, that whenever there is war, there need to be artists willing to create in the face of it – the ultimate act of resilience to the destroyers.”
Mirow and Awliya II, 1996. Painted during George Gittoes’ time in Somalia.? Photo: Supplied
Gittoes’ staunch belief in the value of creatives in war zones informed his choice of Blood Mystic as memoir title. Gittoes started to think of himself as a ‘blood mystic’ after speaking to a Greek monk at the monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert. Having related to the monk his experiences in Nicaragua, Cambodia and Somalia, the old man told Gittoes about the spiritual men of medieval times who were able to work within sites of destruction because “their mystical experience of life beyond their physical bodies took away all fear of their own death”.
Gittoes explains that his approach to working within sites of carnage is similarly informed by the mystic’s need to bring aid to those who are suffering, and declares that his practice is defined by his adamant refusal to “ignore any trauma”. With conviction, he states, “I’ve always put human life and helping people in front of shooting my film or taking my photographs or drawing”.
Gittoes is nothing if not an outspoken and controversial figure. He openly praises the Afghani Taliban – “these are just militia farmers defending their country, as courageous and nationalistic as any of our Anzacs in Gallipoli” – and acknowledges that his detractors have accused him of “putting lives at risk” by creating a space in Jalalabad where men and women can work side by side. For his part, Gittoes eloquently defends his work in Afghanistan, stating, “The scripts have been run past the community before we make the films. We’ve made films that are about women with female stars, and we’ve made them within the boundaries of the culture so no one gets into trouble. We don’t feel censored, we just feel like we’ve just gotten to know the guidelines.” The artist’s last three documentaries, The Miscreants of Taliwood, Love City Jalalabad, and Snow Monkey, provide a fascinating exploration of the ways in which film is being claimed as an alternative means of bringing peace and social opportunity to Afghanistan. In Blood Mystic, Gittoes posits himself as a kind of artist-warrior within the conflict-ridden nation, declaring, “Soldiers die for flags. There is nothing I believe in more than freedom of expression, than art.”
In his memoir, Gittoes presents himself as part of an important tradition of creative critical inquiry – a bold talker with a backbone of steel, committed to exposing that which would otherwise be rendered invisible. Part memoir, part art journal, Blood Mystic is both a testament to Giootoes’ ongoing mission and a reflection of his legacy. Visually spectacular and full of gripping, emotional, and often hellishly confronting stories, Blood Mystic provides insight into an inimitable character who has lived a remarkable life, and isn’t done yet.
“I feel that I have been born to this planet and not to a nation, and now record the barbaric things which people do to themselves and to others in order to stop it happening again,” he says.
“I’m 66 now, and a lot of people told me I should retire, that I’d done enough. But why buy a place on the beach and wait to die when I can live to the max and do the most I can do while I can do it? As long as my body holds together, I’ll keep working.”
George Gittoes will launch Blood Mystic at the National Portrait Gallery on October 23 at 3.15 pm. Blood Mystic is published by PanMacmillan, and is out October 25.