Below are a series of articles about and interviews with George Gittoes
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(Please bear with us as we upload more articles, interviews and essays, and sort them into a chronological order, starting with the most recent)
From Kennedy to Augustus, essay by Daniel Herwitz (August 2021)
George Gittoes’ Augustus Suite is a contemporary reincarnation of his earlier Hotel Kennedy Suite begun in 1969 at a San Francisco YMCA while the artist was ill with Hong Kong Flu. Its immediate prompt has been COVID, but the links go deeper. Febrile, hallucinogenic, half-awake, Gittoes describes catastrophic visions that emerged as if of their own free will from his illness, visions of a deranged world on the brink. That he was ill at the Hotel Kennedy is a strange coincidence, since it cannot not help but recall the 1963 assassination, or what Bob Dylan in a recent elegy called Murder Most Foul. Dylan’s long paean to Dallas 1963 blurs the then and the now. It is of a piece with the relationship between the Augustus Suite and the earlier Kennedy Suite. Now more than ever since on January 6th, 2021, the Proud Boys stormed-trooped their way into the Capital Building of the United States with guns and explosives, vowing to lynch their enemies in Senate and the House of Representatives from the pillars of the building, waving Confederate flags and leading hundreds if not thousands of others on a rampage of destruction and photo ops for social media, glorified by one man in Viking War Costume, as if bringing Game of Thrones into the process of sedition. This call to violence, so deep in the tortured soul of America, finally contained but now, thereafter, a moment of celebration and call to arms for the far right, has its precedent in the killing of JFK. And so there could be no better, that is, more appropriate place, to hallucinate a grotesque, nightmarish vision of the world than from the tawdry rooms of Hotel Kennedy in 1969, and then to reincarnate it in today’s Augustus Suite.
“Most of the ideas and dreams that resulted in the Hotel Kennedy Suite drawings and etchings,” Gittoes writes in private correspondence, “originated during this fever. Stains on the dirty walls became faces and monsters which I copied into my diary. One slag mark was the shape of Australia with a marsupial tail.” He goes on to say, “The San Francisco skyline, the mattress, the heater in the room all appeared febrile [to me].” The net effect is that of a Fritz Lang/Superman metropolis breeding beasts slouching towards Jerusalem, waiting to be born (Yeats).
Much of the art of the 19th century comes from fever dreaming, thanks to tuberculosis, syphilis and the other ills of that century. Fever blurs the line between dreaming and seeing. It opens the portal of the unconscious, loosens the flood gates of the deep imagination so that the mind spins out images suspended between real things and phantasmagoric projections. However, it take an artist of significant talent to control such wild chants of the mind in a way that gives them shape and form. Gittoes is an artist who can draw brilliantly and like lightning, an ability cultivated in New York City during his Warhol days when he drew portraits of people on the streets for money. It is the same talent that has allowed him to draw on site over the years in Rwanda, South Africa, Australia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Chicago and New York USA with the brave rapidity that turns his art into a form of witnessing usually occupied by the global media. In this instance the talent was directed within, to those ghostlike and insistent meanderings of the mind which he projected on the walls, ceilings, and sickbed of his hotel room in 1969, as if the room became the cinema screen of a world out of joint, in many ways the truthful double of the real world he, and we, jointly occupy.
When the dreamlike becomes true it means the world is either a paradise or an uninhabitable disaster. Uninhabitability, or what could otherwise be called the loss of any humanized footprint in the world, is the link between the Kennedy and Augustus suites.
The Augustus Suite had as its precipitating incident the shooting of Harith Augustus in that south side of Chicago neighborhood called Chirac, by police. There Gittoes and his wife Helen Rose, herself a performance artist, were living in 2018 while making the documentary film White Light. Chirac is one of the most violent neighborhoods in America. The documentary is about gun violence, community bonding and survival. Gittoes reported that on the fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, there were so many blasts he could not tell which were from fireworks and which from guns. That this neighborhood is four blocks from the University of Chicago, among the most august universities in the world (where I received a PhD in 1984), is hardly august. Harith, a black man, was innocently on his way to his hair salon when he was shot three times in front of local school kids waiting for a bus.
The Suite is mediaeval in its combination of pictorial delicacy and apocalyptic/prophetic intensity. As to the delicacy, Gittoes writes: “Most Gothic portraits such as Jan Van Eyck’s The Chancellor Rolin in Prayer Before the Virgin have a landscape seen through columns in the background – merging interior with exterior … and, sometimes, there are angels to fill the corners. This tradition continued in the Renaissance. The Mona Lisa does not have columns, but she is on some kind of balcony overlooking a landscape which fills the whole background. Leonardo’s Madonna with Carnation has four arches with columns and a landscape similar to the Van Eyck …I have followed this tradition in the Augustus Tower with all the interior spaces. Usually two columns on either side of a vista of New York City – as if they are in the penthouse on top of Trump Tower.”
Augustus Tower/Trump Tower/Augustus Caesar.
Here is the link between the refined and the grotesque. Van Eyck vs. Trump’s crass gold plated buildings. And Trump’s empire in relation to the Roman, with its absolute authority, its Praetorian Guard, its brutality of rule.
“The Augustus Tower Suite has been a vehicle to allow me to imagine my fears about the world,” Gittoes wrote, “a world where ‘the bad guys have won’. I have set them in and above a tower of the kind Trump has built in Chicago, New York and Miami.”
The work recalls Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, James Ensor, and the great painters of Weimar anxiety and collapse: Max Beckmann and George Grosz, when democracy was under a similar threat, unemployment out of control, the cities of Europe filled with homeless veterans of the First World War, blind, shell shocked, limbless, in search of a handout. Today these are the homeless Vietnam Vets sprawled and shivering on Chicago’s sidewalks, begging from the tourists.
The quality of drawing is entirely Gittoes’ own. Each artist of the grotesque is charged with the task of visually reinventing exaggeration and distortion and to do so through drawing in relation to compositional space. This Gittoes does with the colors of bleached coral and topologically interconnected figurative shapes, whose dense conflagration signals a world without liberty and autonomy, a world where figures should rather have their own separability and integrity. One finds, for example, in Hotel Baghdad a contorted half figure who twists between a man in USA stripes and cowboy hat, and a transsexual in a red dress with an enormous bouffon who strokes the man’s sexual organ, legs and torso turned 180 degrees behind. In this weird manage a trois the man’s foot (or is it a hand?) strokes the transsexual’s sex while an Asian teapot or perhaps candelabra with swanlike arms is about to bite into her turban. The place is somewhere between the American wild west and orientalist Arabia with its rugs and a Christmas tree in greenish blue outside the window. This tree is the one seen in footage of the Second Iraq War, in unearthly greenish blue because seen through night vision goggles. From this object grows a sinewy snakelike form that connects it to the oriental rug. These people are caught in the act, in flagrante. They are an ensemble.
Hotel Baghdad refers back to 1991 when during the First Gulf War Gittoes did a series of 12 etchings entitled Empire State Suite, playing on the double entendre Empire State Building in New York and state of empire in US invaded Iraq. One was called Hotel Baghdad and also featured a Texan Cowboy with a large hat engaged in an erotic act with an Iraqi man present. That work juxtaposed the beauty and integrity of traditional Islamic art (which Gittoes has long known and admired) to the degradations of empire. We should not forget the destruction of the Baghdad Museum during that time and the irreparable loss of traditional objects.
Gittoes’ Twilight presents a gold larva from which emerges a humanoid form with a scorpion stinger and a caterpillar arm. The arm encircles a woman with sockets instead of eyes, and a breast pointed like a stiletto. Her torso disappears into a third arm trying to grasp the bedframe from which she is lifted or levitated. Nightmarish religious images abound: a crucifixion, a skeletal nun holding an upside down man splayed like the cross, whose head is that of a scared wolf. A grotesque astronaut with monstrous teeth leans against the other side of the bed while an infant retreats to its fetal position. At the top of the picture a knight rides into columns of Greco-Roman origin. In this compression space, time and history conspire into dream, or synopsis. The extraordinary thing is that the picture makes visual sense, even if intentionally elusive, and that is due to Gittoes’ virtuosic contortions of visual form. The figures are both whole and truncated, integral and discombobulated, halved and whole. They spin out of control. This is the entropy of a system gone haywire and yet stable, as if a momentary glimpse into a process destined to continue out of control into the future. The image is one of actuality and anticipation, a classic formula for horror.
This interpenetration of figures and (as it were) castration of figural wholeness, calls forth situations in which individual autonomy is destroyed: situations of military violence, state control, urban conflagration, climate degradation, global surveillance and pandemic. Pandemic is simply one form of global inflammation: the inflammation of inequality, indecency, rage, sexual violence (especially against the naked and fragile women who appear throughout).
Among the most remarkable images of the suite is One. At its center is a wide angled swimming pool in bluish-gray, with neat rows of greyish-white Greco-Roman statues on both sides, figures of men throwing discus and the like, sheltered in beautifully columned temples or perhaps Roman baths. A cityscape of orange/coral looms in the far distance. The color palette is pleasing, Mediterranean. However the figure swimming in the pool is halved. Split between a propulsive upper body (doing the strokes) and a foot that appears to be sinking. The figure’s torso is absent. He swims as half a man. The scene could almost be bucolic, apart from its fragmentation.
Two shapes tend to predominate in the Augustus Suite: the gun and the insect. As to the second Gittoes says: “the insect represents people like Rupert Murdock who are so indifferent to normal humans that they are closer to alien insects. They are the perverse ruling elite who deny climate change, send others to war and have unimaginable wealth – the zero point zero, zero, one percenters that run the world, including its political leaders who are no more than front men-their puppets.” The insect has no capacity for the moral emotions of shame and guilt, no sense of human responsibility, cares nothing of others, a being whose footprint in the world is one of rage, desecration and violence, as if power were its own aphrodisiac. Here the example of choice is Shedding, in which two golden preying insects fly around a female figure at the top of a high rise building, with a knight also at the chase. The insects are connected to a light box, their arms extending through industrial holes suggestive of the assembling of guns or other machines. Another example is All-Seeing, where the figure’s spiderlike tangle of limbs resemble both insects and tripods, and the night vision glasses emerging from his eyes are weapons of war. His helmet is that of a soldier. The very body is half man half insect assembled like something between organic nature and engineered machine. This brings up the second motif in these pictures, the gun. The visual brilliance of the gun motif consists in its relationship to the insect. When you place a long range assault rifle on a tripod an insect is what it resembles. When insect, gun, machine and humanoid body are fused the body becomes a field of force, a weapon, as if body armor were the very biology of the body.
Part of what holds the suite of paintings together are such motifs running through the work, often in transformative form, as if in natural variation. The insect in Mattress, whose tentacle is sexually thrust inside the woman on the bed, turns into the red line in Red Line, a painting about the red line put down by the police to mark crime scenes (especially in black areas like Chirac). The link is to Gittoes’ film about Chirac, White Light. The line is also an umbilical cord. It reappears as tube of surveillance in Security (about the culture of surveillance). While in Modernist it becomes the link between male sexuality and the female subject. Then, in the painting Fates, it is again the umbilical cord to life itself. It is threaded through the heart of one of the three immortal blind sisters in that picture, while her sister is about to cut the thread. This is a warning, in the form of Greek prophesy, about what is to come.
What is to come is the severance of life as we know it. A science fiction future of right wing brutality and environmental disaster, where destruction is the natural and naturalized principle. Such is the world of neo-liberalism in its most brutal and perhaps purest form, with its links to climate change denialism and war. And of fascism with its virulent nationalism and subversion of political accountability. Balzac said behind every fortune there is a crime. Neo-liberalism has upped the ante by turning the very practice of capital into an ongoing violation. Behind all the ideology of dismantling the deep state these guys are nothing but crooks. All they really want is to eliminate regulation so that their capital gains are unimpeded by any article of justice. In an important respect they eschew the nation state and only care about international banking, tax shelters, brands, markets and the like. On the other hand, anyone who says “we love you” to the Proud Boys (as Trump did on January 6 while they were occupying the Capital Building), is clearly a fascist nationalist. His son (the big game hunter) added, speaking of those republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives who defied Trump, “We’re coming for you”. This is pure authoritarian threat. Most important, Trump’s statement that the Proud Boys and company are the true guardians of the Constitution could only mean: “I am the Constitution and since you are with me, you are its bearers, its foot soldiers”. The philosopher Hannah Arendt defined totalitarian thinking as a unified will emerging from a single individual or party (Nazi, Soviet) and expanded outward to encompass the state and population.
Pride and Prejudice from the series is about the Proud Boys and the 6 January 2021 storming of the Capital (Pride and Prejudice because The Proud Boys are proud and full of prejudice). Naked men stand upside down on the Capital steps and on columns, their sexual organs facing the Capital but their heads turned away. Trump is on screen in the lower right egging them on, bursting out of a cell phone. Three Proud Boys with grossly distended mouths listen on a shared phone smiling, glad that they have a leader who can order them into battle. The burnt orange throughout suggests fire. Or hell.
It is well known that spiraling inequality is a key source of anti-democratic violence, since it leads to middle and working class degradation, which in turn reactivates racist fury, thereby giving an anxious if not disenfranchised populace the illusion that they are reclaiming the national center when they are its fallout. Such virulent nationalism, directed at so called enemies within and without, is a disturbing mirror the 1930s. Also mirroring the 1930s is the role of mass propaganda in rallying the troops, which returns us to Murdoch and Trump, the great manipulators.
What are the implications for humanitarianism in all this? Earlier in his career Gittoes traveled, sometimes with the Australian peace keeping forces to many sites of humanitarian disaster. Notably Rwanda 1994 where humanitarianism had collapsed. Belgian Peacekeeping forces had been withdrawn after 13 had been killed. Then the United Nations had abandoned the country, leaving a skeletal force led by a frantic Colonel from Francophone Canada, Roméo Dallaire with insufficient troops to do more than stand by while the Hutu fanatics of a failed state dismembered the country’s Tutsi minority, along with moderate Hutus. Since the United Nations is required to intervene when genocide is in progress the United States did cartwheels to “prove” that while terrible, what was happening in Rwanda could not clearly be so described in those terms. This legalistic obfuscation (we can’t say for sure it’s genocide, the definition of the term is complicated etc.) took place because the US House of Representatives did not want another Blackhawk Down on their record, and because Rwanda had no “strategic value” for the USA. Other nations (England, France) argued similarly. The spectacular failure of humanitarian peace keeping and intervention that disgraced the 1990s, from Rwanda to Sarajevo seemed to suggest that ours is a world where international cooperation, law and organization, the exfoliation of rights, documents, covenants and courts mean little more than the paper such resolutions are printed on. The failure of humanitarianism with its many rights and contracts between nations is recorded in twenty years’ worth of Gittoes’ drawings and paintings, and then in his fiction and documentary films, covering every continent of the world.
Gittoes’ work has been a refusal to consign those unable to speak to invisibility, a soul cry sung from his own diaphragm and through his nimble fingers, an brave act of witnessing like none other to be found in modern or contemporary art. Many artists believe themselves political, often in virtue of their fetish of symbols and hyperbolic accompanying texts. Gittoes shows how hard real political intensity is to achieve in visual art. It demands acute nerve endings, but also tremendous formal invention. And it demands that one step out of the encomium of the art world to know/work in the fray of things. Were Gittoes to subdue his work’s hallucinogenic compression, its wild panoply of motifs, its near chaos hanging on the edge of brilliant visual order, its sense of the grotesque, his political vision would collapse into brand and boredom. Politics comes through aesthetic invention, not through mere declaration (as in “my canvas is political because I say so or because of my identity as an X”). It is only because Gittoes is visually on the edge that his work can speak politically. And only because he can travel deep into his unconscious, accessing cauldrons of anxiety, terror and dreamlike clarity which pour into the work. And so we return to the fever dreams of the Kennedy Suite, and Gittoes’ talent at giving visual shape to formless dread at the confluences of chaos and violence.
Today Gittoes’ fever dreaming reveals COVID to be what Freud called the “royal road” into another global pandemic, one of the spirit where not only humanitarianism, but the very sustainability of human life is under threat.
 All quotes from Gittoes come from private correspondence.
Into the Hidden Dangerous World with George Gittoes - Interview with Rachel Lai at Jejune Magazine (12 August 2021)
You definitely don’t want to miss out on George Gittoes! No one is more daring and adventurous than him. The Australian native is not only an artist and photographer, he’s also a filmmaker. Gittoes has spent over 25 years witnessing life-changing moments in some of the most notorious places in the world. Despite the uncountable encountered dangers, he continues to strap on filming equipment and goes into battlefields to fight for justice and equality. The talented director and his lovely wife, Hellen Rose, have brought positive social change and shun light on the local community through a non-profit they founded, The Yellow House. Come with Jejune to understand more about his experience in the hidden dangerous world and the impact his artwork has brought to the world with our exclusive interview below.
You are an artist, photographer, and filmmaker that focus on social, political, and humanitarian concern at the effects of war and injustice. What sparked your interest in pursuing this direction?
I was born in 1949 and grew up in a very poor area of Sydney, called Rockdale. It was like the Ellis Island of Australia, absorbing refugees from many countries suffering from the destruction of World War Two. There was only one English Speaking family in our street, so, I developed a love of the many diverse cultures of my neighbors. I heard their stories of why they had fled to the sanctuary of Australia to start a new life. This was before Television, so I began doing puppet shows in our backyard on Saturdays while I was still in Primary School. I donated the money to the Red Cross and soon their representatives came to visit me and tell me how my contribution was helping others all around the world. It inspired me to know art could make such a difference to others. When I was 18, I travelled to the US and lived in New York where I met the African American Artist Joseph Delaney. Joe showed me how art could be a witness to positive social change. After working with Joe, I could never consider doing abstract or decorative art. Back in Australia I created the Yellow House collective with a group of other young artists including the amazing poster artist, Martin Sharp. When the Yellow House finished, I felt disillusioned by the fashionable art scene with its excesses and self-indulgence. I wrote to Mother Theresa of Calcutta, suggesting, I should go back to University and study Medicine or some other profession that could help people more than through art. Mother Theresa wrote back telling me “to use the gifts God has given me and that if I use them for others I would have happy life.” I am not a Catholic, but I have followed that advice and am a happy and fulfilled 72-year-old, as a result.
For the past four decades, you have traveled to and worked in many regions of conflict from Somalia to Cambodia to Rwanda and most recently, the Middle East (Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan). What has been your most memorable memory?
My happiest memories are those of the Yellow House I created with my wife Hellen Rose in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, because we were able prove that art can be more successful in bringing positive social change than the trillions of dollars and weapons expended by the military. My worst experience was the Kibeho Massacre in 1995 in Rwanda. Where the Tutsi Lead Rwandan Army, slaughtered thousands of innocent refugees who were taking refuge in a Church and school complex. My painting ‘The Preacher’ was conceived there when I had heard beautiful singing amidst the smoke and chaos. A preacher was reading from the New Testament to his flock. He brought them dignity, his words transporting them away from the panic and fear. I helped some children escape to a safe hiding place and when I returned, he and his congregation were all dead, but I will never forget his courage.
Back when you first started this creative endeavor, you visited these places through the Australian Military however you are no longer traveling with them. Has it been hard to accessing these places by yourself?
When I began traveling with Australian Peacekeepers, I had already made films in war zones like Nicaragua and the Philippines. I never had official status with the Military. I was surprised to gain unrestricted access in places like Somalia, Western Sahara and Rwanda was impossible at that time. In the same period, I covered conflicts in Cambodia Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet and South Africa independently of any connection to any military. I was never an Official War Artist. I am still amazed that I gained the access that I did, including life threatening Kibeho massacre in Rwanda, without any agreement or military status. The 90’s era of Peacekeeping was very inspiring with great triumphs of the human spirit, like that of Nelson Mandela and the ANC in South Africa, the end of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields in Cambodia, end to the civil war in Bosnia and an end to the Troubles of Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland. Plus, the Oslo Accord offered the hope of a negotiated agreement between Israel and Palestine. I experienced all this progress, which ended with the Twin Towers. 9 11 brought an end to my hopes for less violent world. Like Michael Moore, (I contributed the Iraq footage for ‘Fahrenheit 9 11’), I am very suspicious about those behind the planning and financing of the airliner hijackings. We can be certain there was no Iraqi involvement by Saddam Hussain and the Taliban were innocent of playing any part, yet George Bush took the world back into the present era of non- stop war. Al Qaeda were a small Saudi Funded Terrorist group that could have been surgically taken out. Bush, certainly, did not invade Afghanistan to liberate the women. No one suggested an invasion or embargo of Saudi Arabia with its fanatical Wahabi version of Sharia Law. My film Soundtrack to War, shot in Iraq in 2003-4 (screened on VH1) began the journey that I am still following. Artists who strive to find to alternatives to war are needed more than ever in this era where there is no vision of where we are going or who is leading us there.
Constantly being in a life-threatening position in some of the most notorious conflicts, have you experienced any serious danger? If so, can you describe the experience?
I try not to suffer too much from fear. I would rather be with the people whose lives are at risk than worrying about them from a safe distance. I am, presently, preparing, with my wife Hellen, to return to Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US and other Foreign Military.
With nothing but pessimistic reporting about a pending civil war and the return of the Taliban, it seems crazy, to all our friends, that we are going when everyone else is leaving. Our plan, when there, is to decorate the Yellow House Circus Tent, which we normally take out into villages for children to experience music and performance, who may never have experienced either before. Artists and crafts people, particularly women and girls, will come from all over the city to sew beads and mirrors and embroider onto fabric which will then be attached to both the inside and outside canvas. We want to make it into the most beautiful and magical thing that has ever existed. Once finished, we will pitch it in the central park of Jalalabad, as a place of sanctuary where all sides can meet and seek peaceful solutions. We have done similar things in the past, like when we made a banner declaring Jalalabad ‘Love City’ and took it through the streets on the back of a rickshaw to Hellen singing ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ in Pashto language. We filmed this and it can be seen in our documentary ‘Love City Jalalabad’.
You released “White Light” in 2019 which is a documentary that highlights the devastating effects of gun violence on the lives of everyone in South Chicago, from residents to police officers. Can you tell us more about your thoughts on the significance of this documentary? How did you decide on your approach to this documentary?
When I was in Iraq in 2003-04 making Soundtrack to War I met a squad of soldier rappers at Uday’s Palace, which they had captured. Uday was Saddam’s ‘bad boy’ gangster son, so the scene was like a Snoop Dog Video clip with these guys sitting around a luxurious pool in ornate gold chairs. Coming in from a street battle with the armed looters, they decided to let off steam in what they call the ‘bullring’- Freestyle rap battles. One of the best rappers, Elliot Lovett was from Miami, Brown Sub and the other, Yonas Hagos was from Southside Chicago. When I suggested that I try to get them safer missions to protect their amazing musical gifts, they both said, “It is much more dangerous where we come from in the US.” I found this to be an unbelievable statement – that they felt more at risk of being killed in their own neighborhood than the military war in Iraq. I followed Elliot back to Miami and made ‘Rampage’ and while making the film his brother Marcus was killed, tragically, proving the point. When statistics came out that more civilians were dying from gun violence, in one year in Southside Chicago, than soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that locals in Englewood renamed it ‘Chiraq’, I realized I needed to make ‘White Light’. But before heading to Chicago I went back to Miami where Denzell, Elliot’s remaining brother had been shot. When I got there Denzell told me how he had been shot through the chest with an AK47 bullet from a professional, drug related, hit team. When the paramedics arrived, Denzell was clinically dead. Fortunately, they were able to revive him. While he was out of this world, he saw a “White Light” and could hear Marcus calling him from “the other side”. He wrote a song called ‘White Light’ while clinically dead and was able to remember it while being rushed to hospital in the ambulance. That is where the title of our film comes from WHITE LIGHT. That became my starting point for the film. Arriving in Southside Chicago I sought out people who had been shot and survived near death.
The most charismatic was Solja and his tight group of ‘brothers’ who I formed an instant and deep liking for. Solja is paralysed from the waist down, in a wheelchair, from multiple gunshot wounds. I knew I had a film when he told me their group had “a guardian angel, protecting them – the beautiful Model Kaylyn.” Kaylyn was shot and killed in a ‘drive by’ when she had come to tell Solja and his friends how she had just gained a big modelling contract, after winning the Mario Make Me a Model contest.
Picasso always said, “I do not seek, I find”. That is my approach with documentaries – I gain access and the trust of the people in the zone where I want to work and then they begin to tell their stories. The final product is a collaboration, and everyone involved gets a sense of ownership and pride about their contribution to the finished production.
It was mentioned that South Chicago has some of the worse gun violence statistics compared to any active war zone of the last two decades. Can you expand more on this?
We learned that in the process of filming White Light, you gained the trust of gang members. How has that experience been? Are you still in contact with them?
The main characters in the film are all Black Stones from May Block. They call one another brothers and hate the term gang and would get very annoyed if I referred to them as “gang members”. They compare the ‘G’ word ‘gang’ or ‘gangbangers’ to the ‘N’ word as they see it as a way of stereotyping everyone in their community, degrading and demonizing them into something less than human.
We are a team of my wife, Hellen Rose and Waqar Alam from Pakistan. Waqar and I use two small 4K cameras and hand hold, so we are very low key. We rented two apartments on the most notorious corner for gun deaths in Southside. I would go down to the corner, each morning with my hot cup of tea, sit on a log and people would wonder over to chat with this strange, long haired, 70-year-old white guy that had become a fixture. In the year it took to make the film we did not see another white person except white cops. I told the locals, that as well as the paintings, which they could see me doing, I was making a film and welcomed their advice on people to meet. Solja was on the top of their list to interview. When Waqar and I entered Solja’s apartment he was surrounded with his group of close brothers. The tension in the first minute was electric. I was the first white person who had ever walked through the door, and they assumed we had concealed guns. But within 15 minutes we had their total trust and began rolling our cameras. I have learnt from the many war zones I have worked in that if people grow up from childhood in an atmosphere of threatened violence, they learn to ‘read’ people in seconds because they know their lives could be at risk. This survival skill allows them to switch from defensive mode to trusting mode in seconds.
We have become close family with all the characters in the film and had planned to bring them to Australia for the Theatrical Launch in Cinemas, but Covid came and prevented this. They joke, half seriously, about us needing to kidnap them and bring them all to live in Australia where there are no guns and little crime. White Light went to ABC television and was enormously successful in Australia, we are, now hoping to do a live music, club show for the Sydney Arts Festival, in January 2022 featuring the rappers from Southside. In the meantime, we plan to return and shoot a new end for White Light which bring the stories into the present post Trump Period. We will offer this version for US distribution. Three of the principles Smiley the narrator, Solja and Headshot have been seriously shot, but survived and two who were only briefly in the film have been killed. In the last few months, the level of gun violence and deaths in Southside had doubled. The updated film will ask why things are not getting any better and work to help those seeking solutions.
Jejune really likes the song “City Off the Chain”. Was the song sang by the gang members? Can you share with us what this song is about and what does it signify?
I will pass this question to my partner Hellen Rose who collaborated with the Southside musicians to make the music for White Light.
Hellen Rose: Yes the song ‘City off the Chain’ was written and performed by the May Block group featured in the film.
The music was written by LBX who sings the main hook, while I sing female hook. Then Smiley, L’il Mac and Fessa improvised the rap lyrics right off the ‘top of the dome’ as they say, in Fessa’s humble Studio. These wraps generated a powerful ‘straight from the heart and soul energy’ that really comes across in the video clip. It was the middle of Summer, and you can see the sweat and heat and feel the direct pain of these wrappers who literally struggle to survive on the streets of South Side every day. The words “My city is off the chain, My city is not the same (as yours) and LBX points to the Chicago sign), somebody come and help us” This was written in 2018 before the world finally reached some kind of tipping point that acknowledged the police murder of George Floyd – when we were filming in 2018 we could hardly believe the reality that was unfolding for us, that people were being shot down stone cold dead on the street by the police in broad daylight in front of kids, grandmas, people just trying to get to school at the bus stop. The horror of this is what these kids live with every day. The feeling that there is a type of total lawlessness “off the chain”– this song is a plea for help. Smiley’s words “ Vandyke shot Laquan 16 times in under 14seconds, his mind was made he didn’t ask no questions.” So many names and references to the police murders of mainly black men have been ignored previously. We made the choice in White Light to ‘show the footage of police killing citizens, including in the first opening minutes of the film and that led to many rejections of the film especially by American festivals (as if the footage wasn’t real or believed- that shocked me) – until the world wide explosion regarding the slaughter of George Floyd. Somehow that one death in so many, somehow, was ‘seen and believed’. The community really were just so happy we were there with them witnessing this totally horrific dismissal of respect for life of the community by the police and the ‘white community’ living in luxury just blocks way. L’il Mac’s rap is talking to ‘teen killers’ who are caught in a cycle of depredation where education and recreation are underfunded however guns and drugs are everywhere and are all the, mainly teen boys, have to make them feel like a ‘man’ or have some kind of prestige or power. “They’re killing little boys ‘n shit” L’il Mac raps in disbelief himself, rapping that these kids are “shooting before they’ve even got a name” “Lil bro didn’t think he was gonna get hit, he was playing with toys n’ shit.” Fessa covers the fear and poverty cycle, the ‘low self esteem battle’ “stuck in a poor pit, I need help, swimming like I’m Michael Phelps…’ The poetry of the streets is real.
You are in the process of filming a new documentary named “Withdrawn” which will witness the effects of the outbreak of Civil War between Government Forces and the Taliban after the withdrawal of foreign troops. What was the inspiration behind producing this film?
I have grown to love the people of Afghanistan over a period of 25 years, first going there while the Taliban were in power in the 90’s to assist with the projects to clear Russian Landmines and help the victims. After 9 11 it was to assist Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) and the friendships made over these years lead to establishing the Yellow House in Jalalabad with my wife Hellen Rose. There were no art or film schools or places for artists, musicians and filmmakers to gather and collaborate in Jalalabad. I was making Pashto Language films at a time when the Pakistani Taliban were bombing video stores and killing filmmakers, when a group of Afghan actors came to invite me to help start an arts collective in Jalalabad. I rented a building which became the Yellow House, and it is still flourishing. With the withdrawal of US Forces, we have been seeing the news every day of a growing civil war and we are filled with concern for all our friends there. Hellen and I know we have to be back there to show our support and bring hope that not everyone in the world is deserting Afghanistan.
The new documentary will be a multiple-character-based film and of course, you’ll be interviewing a lot of people. How do you choose the people you interview?
All of my films are portraits of a community rather than a single protagonist, so, the challenge is to get to know and love a wide range of characters and follow them all through their own dramatic arcs. In this I have a similar approach to a drama director in that I try to make each person shine. I feel I have succeeded when people come up to me and ask “How is Steel? How is Shazia? How is Demo? How is Solja?” They have grown to engage with the characters enough to care about what has happened to them. I do not know how many people have asked if they can buy Brave Lion, the disabled father in Snow Monkey, a wheelchair. The characters usually find me, like with the Ice-cream boys in Snow Monkey.
At the Yellow House, we had the problem of how to distribute the drama films we were making to women. Women, in Jalalabad, were not allowed to visit video stores and their husbands would only rent macho action movies. We were making films like ‘Talk Show’ and ‘A Tailors Story’ which featured positive women’s stories. Every time our film crew was out, on the street shooting a scene for one of the dramas we would be interrupted by the sound of loud tunes from the pushcarts of boys selling ice cream. To our actors and crew this was a nuisance until we realised this was the perfect way to sell our DVDs. When mothers come to the back fence of their homes to buy ice cream for their kids, they could be offered movies, as well. These enterprising young ice cream sellers eventually told me there were no movies for kids and they wanted to make one about their lives. Documenting them making their first movie, titled ‘Snow Monkey’, became the basis for our documentary ‘Snow Monkey’. One of the boys, Zabi, is now a man and has become the leading frontline news cameraman in the region. He will help shoot ‘Withdrawn’ as well as being a character in the film. The bad boys of Snow Monkey were real life child gangsters, lead by Steel and his Brother Bulldog. Bulldog is now in the army and Steel runs am ID printing business outside the bank where he used to rob the customers. Their stories will be even richer in ‘Withdrawn’ because we will be able to show them when they were younger and now as they face the crisis of civil war where Bulldog will be asked to fight the Taliban and, once again, Zabi will be following them with his camera.
“Withdrawn” focuses on answering the question: “Will the Taliban turn back the clock for women when the foreign troops withdraw?” from the view of the people from Jalalabad. What is your personal thought? Do you think they will? If so, what do you think needs to be done to improve the situation?
Our experience of the Afghan Taliban is not the way the world media is portraying them. My view of the Taliban has changed since making ‘Miscreants of Taliwood’ in the Tribal Belt of Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban were so angry with the film they sent a death threat to me via the Australian Embassy and text messages offering to “remove my face from by body.” One time during filming they arrived and put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, but the gun mischarged. Fortunately, they read that as Allah not wanting me dead and did not pull the trigger a second time. In Afghanistan it is a different story, the leader of the Taliban in Jalalabad, Mulana Haqqani (not the terrorist Haqqani of Waziristan) investigated our Yellow House and decided it was “Good for the people of Afghanistan” and offered umbrella protection. We became friends and his older children attended both Hellen’s women’s workshops and my art classes. Sadly, Haqqani was killed by an ISIS suicide bomb. One of his sons has become an officer in the Afghan Army. It will be interesting to see what he will do if asked to fight the Taliban, including friends of his father. As soon as we return, we will meet with Haqqani’s children and organize to see his successor. We hope of gaining a letter of safe passage from a senior figure we can show to Taliban soldiers on the street, if they try to oppose our filming or other work. My plan is to enter into a dialogue with their leadership and become an advocate for women’s rights and the arts. I am optimistic about these meetings, and we will have cameras recording throughout.
How do you hope people interpret Withdrawn?
I am hoping Withdrawn will encourage people not to give up on Afghanistan. We all have to try to prevent Afghanistan from falling into a humanitarian disaster. with thousands of refugees fleeing, like what we are seeing with Libya, Lebanon, Mali, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar and Yemen. Most of all we want to show how art and communication is a preferred option to bring positive social change and a better alternative to military intervention.
What has been or do you foresee will be the most challenging about filming this documentary? Will the production set place in a lot of dangerous sites?
It is my job to protect everyone involved in our film and art projects. My primary responsibility is to keep everyone as safe as possible while out in the community with our cameras and art projects. The security challenge takes more of my time than any of the art or filming. When I witnessed and documented the Kibeho massacre in Rwanda in 1995
I never put my professional objectives with my cameras ahead of saving lives. I was told by the killers that if I “Even thought of taking a photograph” I would be killed. I managed to take over 1,000 photos and these were used as evidence against the murderers but I, also, managed to collect a lot of babies whose mothers had been killed and get them onto trucks to safety. I work alone in dangerous situations or with my long time assistant Waqar. Waqar was born in a conflict zone and is, therefore, as experienced as I am at staying alive. It would be irresponsible for me to take anyone into harm’s way who had not had a lifetime of experience at the frontline of conflict.
When will “Withdrawn” be aired for people to watch it?
As yet we do not have any details about release dates. On our way to Afghanistan, we will stop off in LA to have meetings to discuss a distribution plan with our US partners.
You have been in Afghanistan for over 25 years now. What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Afghanistan’s culture and community?
The dominant culture in Afghanistan is Pashtun. Issues, like the over protection of women and lack of women’s rights go back to tribal traditions that predate Islam and the Taliban. The History of Roman, followed by European colonial conquest should be kept in mind. The Spanish Catholics invaded Mexico for Aztec gold and justified their greed with the pretense of bringing Salvation through Christ. Aztecs with their own ancient Mayan religion were often asked to choose death or conversion to Christianity. Terrible massacres and destruction were justified in the name of Jesus. Our Western Culture has developed Social Justice and Equality rights very quickly over the last 150 years in an ongoing evolution. It is, however, arrogant try to force the rapid adoption of these humanist values on other, very different cultures at the point of a gun. The West is impatient to make Afghans adopt radical changes and that are considered, best for them. Our experience is that if a gun is put to the head of an Afghan father and he is told he must send his daughters to school, his pride will have him take up his own gun and shoot back but if his wife watches one of our movies about the advantages of the education of girls and shows it to her husband, in the security of their home, it is most likely the father will support his wife and daughters and allow school enrollment. Successful social change in Afghanistan is being rapidly advanced through communication arts, like film and by social media, while it is pushed backward by military actions.
On a lighter note, Jejune admired that you founded a non-profit organization called “The Yellow House Jalalabad”, which we love to know more about and support. Can you tell us more about this non-profit organization’s work and mission?
We are a team of just three, Hellen, Waqar and me. We need more people to help.
While we know the establishment of a not for profit is essential so people can get a tax benefit, we have not had the time to set one up. Perhaps you know someone who understands the laws on this and can assist. All our projects are funded by the sale of my paintings. Most of the collectors believe passionately in what we are achieving and know their purchases enable us to continue.
How can we raise awareness for organizations such as these and their causes, and if our readers want to get involved and show their support, what can they do? Are there any resources you could share?
There are multiple ways of supporting The Yellow House Jalalabad, we are currently setting up a Foundation however the best way is through the purchase of artwork which in the main funder of the Yellow House. Donations are always welcome. The simplest way to help is to ‘follow’ nd ‘like’ our Yellow House Jalalabad social handles and that way you can connect directly with some of the stars of the Yellow House Jalalabad!
What has been the most eye-opening thing you have learned throughout the years of traveling to these battle- and killing-fields of the most infamous places?
Sadly, I have witnessed more death and suffering through senseless wars than I can bare to remember. Wherever I have been, the people experiencing conflict have been extremely kind to me, and each other, leading me to believe that when things are at their worst people are at their best. It is always power hungry, merciless leaders who are the problem. These monsters seem to know how to take control and hang onto it. The bottom line for humanity is we need to elevate true empaths like Greta Thunberg to leadership and find a way to close out the psychopaths and sociopaths that are presently ruling more countries than ever before in history.
How have you been staying positive during the lockdown?
The lockdown has given me the luxury to work in the studio on my painting for longest time I can remember. Since I have been unable to travel, I have tried to create works which visualize what I think everyone is feeling in time of great insecurity. The works deal with the general loss of faith in leadership, the huge disparity between the superrich and the rest of us and impending planet wide, environmental disaster. Collectively the works are a warning sign to humanity. Hopefully they can work like a road sign telling us to slow down.
When the Olympics opened to empty stadiums in Tokyo, due to Covid Lockdown, it was announced that Brisbane in Australia would host the 2032 Olympics. I could not help wondering why people in Brisbane were celebrating with such enthusiasm. Eleven years from now the chances for the kind of open and free Olympics the world has enjoyed in the past seem, very remote.
What is your motto in life?
My motto is ‘Beauty in the face of everything’. I like the line in Voltaire’s Candid “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”. Regardless of all I have witnessed I remain an optimist. Just to get up each day and pick up a brush, a musical instrument or a camera requires tremendous optimism. Artists are fortunate to be like alchemists turning lead to gold. When we feel really sad or angry, we can begin to draw, write or compose and convert our negative emotion to the ecstatic high that comes from expressing something new.
Link for the original article
To stay tuned and connect with George Gittoes, please follow him via the below platforms:
White Light – https://www.whitelight.film/
Yellow House Jalalabad
Instagram – gittoes_studios
On Being There exhibition interview 2021
Congratulations on an extraordinary exhibition. Can you offer a bit of backstory to it: when and how did the initial idea form, how did it take shape, and what was the process of selecting the works?
ON BEING THERE was curated and selected by Dr Rod Pattenden who wanted to show how the work I do ‘on the ground’ in places like Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Southside Chicago is about acting with real people to help bring positive change through art. As a result, paintings and drawings which had been created in these places were combined with films and photo documentation. On Being There is about creating in the face of the destruction of war and social injustice. It spans a lifetime of inclusive art practice, from the original Yellow House in Kings Cross 1970 to the Jalalabad and Englewood Yellow Houses of now.
How does this iteration of On Being There respond to the specific space and venue of Casula Powerhouse? How is it distinct from the exhibitions in Wollongong and Newcastle?
An important phase of my life was spent in Newcastle and Wollongong BHP creating the Heavy Industry series. My studio was a long-wheel-base Toyota truck which I would lean large canvases on to paint or walk out from, onto the floor of the blast furnaces and coke ovens to draw the workers, using with charcoal on paper. ‘Heavy Industry’ works from the Gallery collections were included. With Casula it is my portrait of Julian Assange along with the notebooks and sketches I made in the Ecuador Embassy. They take you inside that confined space while wrestling with how to paint Julian as a captive. I am, also, conducting workshops with local school students to make sculptures from waste materials, as a way of encouraging recycling non-degradables through art. It is wonderful interacting with young people from many of the wart-torn countries I have created in and who have fled to Australia, taking up residence in Western Sydney, to escape the violence.
One of your most recent trips was to Chicago, perhaps distinct to other journeys with it being in a ‘rich’ or ‘developed’ country. How did being there bring any new insights or dimensions to your anti-war philosophy, and your art?
While Chicago is a beautiful rich city there is terrible inequality due to racial segregation . We established our Yellow House , creative centre in Southside, where there was a level of poverty and death through gun violence worse than most war zones I have experienced. Southside Chicago has been renamed Chiraq because there were more gun deaths each year than American Forces killed in Iraq. Our film White Light addresses the inequality and trauma of American Racism and Police killings in support of BLACK LIVES MATTER, The film is available on ABC IVIEW and is screening in the exhibition. We will return to Chicago in July to make a follow up film titled ‘No Bad Guys’ to show how things have deteriorated with three of the main characters being shot and surviving while two have been shot and killed.
Our work there is in support of bringing an end to gun violence and is no different to anything we have done in designated war zones like Afghanistan.
In what ways does On Being There offer a sense of hope for the future, as we negotiate a global pandemic and the post-Trump years?
I am an optimist and my lifetime of work has proven over and again the reason for hope. I have witnessed Mandela overcome the Apartheid of South Africa, the end of the Killing Fields of Cambodia, peace come to Northern Ireland, Bosnia, East Timor and Bougainville as well as the dethroning of Trump. Our efforts in Afghanistan have brought direct positive change, which is ongoing. This is especially true for the girls and women who have attended my wife, Hellen Rose’s media workshops. To get up every day and keep doing the work Hellen and I do, requires incredible hope and optimism. My paintings are not like Matisse, to be enjoyed like a comfortable armchair, they are about caring for others and being inspired to change the world for the better.
Forgive the basic/general question, but can you describe how art can respond to war, violence and conflict in ways that journalistic reportage and documentary cannot?
Many of my best friends are journalists who take the same risks in war zones as I do but all agree that my approach is very different to theirs. I believe that to create in the face of the destruction of war is the most important thing I can contribute. The need to communicate the enormity of these experiences requires the use every medium available, from traditional painting and drawing to film and 360 Virtual Reality. When people see me creating while destruction is going on all around them it gives them hope. I believe that if artists and communicators were sent to war zones to teach and develop creative skills, rather than soldiers the world would be a safer and more peaceful place. The military goes into these places to train young people how to use guns and kill. We show them how to use cameras, tell stories express their inner feelings through music, dance and poetry. The treasures that are wasted on war could create jobs and security rather than homelessness, refugees and chaos.
One of the newer works in the show is Security: can you give an overview of what that painting is responding to, and its inspiration?
‘Security’ is about how much of our personal freedom and privacy has been lost in order to be protected from terrorism. In Afghanistan we see a drone fly over, laden with bombs and missiles, every 15 minutes and they all return empty of their deadly load. ‘Security’ asks the question of “how long before this technology is used against us.”. Security warns of a future where protestors are confronted not by riot police with clubs, tear gas and shields but drones, operated by people a long way from the actual scene taking place. I fear a time when we are being controlled by leaders who use drones and surveillance equipment to destroy any sense of personal freedom.
The catalogue mentions graphic novels as being an influence on recent work. What do you take from that medium, and are you influenced by any other elements of contemporary visual culture, such as the online world?
I do not spend nearly as much time looking at graphic novels as I do with the art of the past from Peter Bruegel to Goya but I have been writing and illustrating an epic graphic novel , titled NIGHT VISION. I have published some of it online and dream that some day I will see it on the big screen with the kind of special digital technology used to make the graphic Marvel and DC comic world come alive. Since my earliest experimental films I have experimented with cutting edge film and video technology as well as holography. Last night I watched new Kong and Godzilla blockbuster movie, not for the shallow script but the beauty of the digital effects. It amazes me how it is now possible to imagine something as unreal as a Gorilla the size of city buildings and bring it onto the screen in flawless detail and as engaging as a living actor , then let it inhabit fantasy landscapes that are as believable as what I can see out the window. As someone who loves to draw I can pick up a book from the Modernist era , on an artist like Picasso and be inspired by the brilliance of the drawing but there is less and less graphic work of quality to be found in contemporary gallery art. The illustrations of Frank Miller for his Sin City graphic novels are a good example. Miller’s work is not regarded as ‘high art’ like Picasso but astonishes me over and again with innovations that push forward the possibilities of the medium.
What chief emotion or message do you hope viewers take away from this show?
I want people to take this show as a model for how art can bring positive social change. When I was young, I wrote to Mother Theresa of Calcutta for advice. After doing the Yellow House at Kings Cross I felt disillusioned about creating art that was consumed as it it was no more than amusement. I asked if I should retrain as a doctor or engineer . Mother Therese wrote back , saying “ Use the creative talents God has given you and if you use them to help others you will be a happy and fulfilled old man.” I am now 72 and am very pleased with the way I have spent my life – so , “thank you Mother Theresa !”
In the study resource video you mention how the biggest fight is now to preserve the planet. Can you summarise how this particular battle is a theme of On Being There?
If the Trillions of Dollars spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had been spent on education and creating meaningful work these countries would not still be torn apart and there would be peace. When the resources that could be used to save the planet are spent on war nothing is achieved to protect Earth.
My ‘war on war’ is , also a struggle to save the environment. But, I am , also creating paintings that are warning signs , like THE FATES . in support of Greta Thunberg’s vision. recycle waste materials , like compressed and moulded packing foam , to create beautiful sculptures, is a step in the right direction. Throughout the Covid period I have been developing a simple visual language to red light the need for urgent action on the environment.
The phrase ‘make art love not war’ has been at the heart of your work, but some might say that saying been commercialised a bit, appearing on t-shirts, bags, as a slogan etc. Is that fair, and in what ways does it still have meaning?
The saying ‘Make Love and Not War’ was very useful in ending the war in Vietnam. I was proud to belong to that protest movement and am proud of the success of contemporary slogans like ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ in helping to bring positive change. As an artist I will always advocate creating over destroying – it is like an epic battle between the forces of light/life and the forces of death/darkness. I know what side I want to be on.
Finally, what does the future hold? On Being There presents you as an artist devoted to embedding yourself in incendiary areas across the world. Pandemic-permitting, will that continue?
When I was young and full of ideals I wondered if I would be able to sustain this vision into my old age. I am pleased not to have betrayed my younger self. Our Yellow House continues in Afghanistan and Hellen and I will be returning to it in a couple of months, this July, and then back to Chicago for the documentary sequel to ‘White Light’ . In this later phase of my life I am planning to return to all the war zones where I have worked over the last 50 years and keep the flame of my passion burning. I am lucky to have a my wife , Hellen Rose at my side running the same risks and with the same commitment to use art in the place of war.
George Gittoes in an Era of Post-Heroic, Hyper-Real Warfare by Darren Jorgensen (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 20, no. 1)
The drawings, paintings and films of George Gittoes have been interpreted as humanistic works of art, as they emphasise the fate of those caught up in wars around the world.1 Philosopher Daniel Herwitz compares Gittoes to artists from India and South Africa to align him with a global campaign for human rights and humanitarian interventionism.2 Media theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff has criticised the way Gittoes paints suffering in poorer parts of the world, while activists have applauded this same feature of his work, awarding him the Sydney Peace Prize in 2015 alongside Naomi Klein and Nelson Mandela.3 The prize came after Gittoes’ turn to documentary filmmaking in the 21st century, and his films have them- selves been awarded for their humanitarianism.4 These documentaries work to capture the complexity of life in low-intensity war zones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the inner cities of the United States.5 An examination of key drawings and paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, however, troubles this humanistic interpretation of Gittoes’ films. In their representation of machinic soldiers and mutilated victims, Gittoes’ drawings, paintings and graphic works from conflicts in Australia, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Rwanda suggest that war is as much a post- humanist experience as one demanding a humanistic response. The concepts of post-heroic and hyper-real war help to sketch out the ways in which Gittoes’ works respond to the strange and disconcerting experience of contemporary conflict. This is not to say that Gittoes does not document suffering, but that his work is also engaged with the alienating experience of wars that are increasingly con- ducted with advanced visual technologies and over long, drawn-out periods of time.
In 1995, two texts were published that attempted to capture something of this new era of warfare. In the journal Foreign Affairs, Edward N. Luttwak named a ‘post-heroic war’ that had come about because of the reluctance of advanced Western militaries to inflict casualties on either the enemy or their own troops.6 The term quickly became a catch-all to describe the shift away from the total wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the low-intensity conflicts of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. War is no longer used to resolve political problems but, rather, tends to defer them, with state and non-state actors remain- ing locked in ongoing conflicts.7 The second 1995 text is the English translation of Jean Baudrillard’s series of essays on the Gulf War, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.8 Baudrillard proposed that the war’s mediation through technology made it more virtual or ‘hyper-real’ than actual in the experience of its combatants.9 While Luttwak’s concept of post-heroic war was taken up by theorists of strategy, Baudrillard’s impact was upon readers and critics of French post-structuralism. Baudrillard’s texts on the Gulf War were among several works of French critical theory that critiqued the way war had become detached from the policies of nation-states, becoming instead a kind of ‘war machine’ that functioned independently of political thinking.10 Instead of being driven by state politics, war was now a theatre featuring new technologies of vision. In this, Baudrillard was preceded by his fellow French scholar Paul Virilio, who argued that war had brought about a new type of cinematic reality, immersing the population in a technological extravaganza.11 Luttwak’s post-heroic war and Baudrillard’s hyper-real war are less concerned with human rights and suffering than they are with the trans- formed conditions of war as it has shifted away from high-intensity conflicts and into a strange condition of deferred and occasional violence. In Gittoes’ art, how- ever, these two dimensions of war do not contradict each other, as the experience of war is both to suffer and to experience the unreality of new technologies.
The first war zone within which Gittoes made work was Nicaragua during the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas, who fought over the fate of the Nicaraguan Revolution during the 1980s. Bullets of the Poets (1986) is a documentary that focuses on Sandinista women who are both soldiers and poets. In inter- views, the revolutionaries speak about their role in the conflict as well as about their poetry, while men stand silently beside them. A man, however, proves the focus of Gittoes’ most important painting of this time, The Captured Gun (1986) (fig. 1). He is a Sandinista fighter and smiles behind an assault rifle that he carries over his shoulder. A text is handwritten to accompany his portrait:
There was an old hunchback in the fighting patrol and unlike the others with their AK47 Chinese made guns—he had a new M16 American assault rifle. His village had been attacked by Contra with American allies. He was out gathering wood. After they killed the whole village they cut the bodies up—mixing up the parts so relatives would find it hard to piece together their loved ones for burial. To join the Sandinistas he needed his own gun. He tracked the killers to a night camp. Quietly he murdered them all as they slept using a knife and his axe. He took the gun from the corpse of an American special forces officer. He is proud of his captured gun. Oct. 1986.12
The story is symptomatic of Gittoes’ interest in people who have been changed by war. It is also exemplary of the way in which people’s lives become caught up in low-intensity wars and the way scenes of everyday life are punctuated by Baudrillard’s hyper-real, an experience of extreme violence.13 Charles Krauthammer described such juxtapositions in Baghdad during the American invasion in 2003, seeing ‘plumes of smoke from precision strikes on Saddam’s instruments of power while the city lights remained on and cars casually traversed the streets’.14
Figure 1. George Gittoes, The Captured Gun, 1986, charcoal and chalk on paper, 189 98.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist. (Images yet to be posted)
The Captured Gun is important within Gittoes’ oeuvre for another reason. It is one of the first works in which he adopted a signature, expressionistic style with which to capture the brutal and grotesque subjects that he encountered in war zones.15 The style has made his work unusual in an era dominated by video and installation art, and in which painting has a tendency to be ironic. This has made it hard to appreciate the conceptual underpinnings of his oeuvre. The disjuncture is best represented by Australian art historian Bernard Smith who, while grasping the breadth of Gittoes’ work, cast him as an artist out of time. Smith wrote him into a book about the history of modernism, arguing that Gittoes carried on the legacy of the New Objectivity movement that followed the First World War in Germany. In the process, however, Smith made Gittoes almost the only contemporary artist in his book.16 Gittoes does not help his own case here, often citing artists from the inter-war period as his influences.17 The sense that Gittoes is an artist out of time rather than within it was established as far back as his work with the Yellow House artist co-operative in Sydney in 1970 and 1971. This work marks the beginnings of his collaborative and community-based art practice, if not the beginnings of this type of art in Australia. The Yellow House has, however, been historicised as a part of Australia’s counter-culture rather than its art history, while the Inhibodress gallery, which also began in 1970, is now celebrated as the first artist-run initiative in Australia. Co-founder of Inhibodress Mike Parr recalls that ‘The Yellow House didn’t seem relevant at all!’18
Later, Gittoes’ style of drawing and painting would also be interpreted as out of time. Artlink editor Eve Sullivan is symptomatic here, writing that Gittoes ‘was never my favourite painter’, while art critic John McDonald described him as a ‘dedicated aesthete’, his work ‘aesthetically doomed to be displeasing’.19 The aesthetic is of course an outdated mode for interpreting contemporary art, one that galleries like Inhibodress are remembered for having rendered obsolete with their radical conceptual and performative practices. To rewrite Gittoes’ history, and with it the history of Australian art, is first to historicise the Yellow House not in terms of its bohemianism but as a pioneering artist-run initiative. If Inhibodress can be read as a foundational moment for contemporary art in Australia, so too can the Yellow House with its ‘transcategorical’ mix of events, murals, performances, and puppets. It can be read as Peter Osborne reads Robert Smithson’s early 1970s works, as on the one hand a ‘deliberate, staged crossing of categories (its transcategorical character), and, on the other, its final staging of determinate break- downs or meltdowns of categorization in various different ways …’.20 The Yellow House marked the beginning of Gittoes’ subsequent practice in painting, puppetry, drawing, filmmaking, and graphic work. It also saw the beginning of Gittoes’ interest in working closely with communities, anticipating his adoption of techniques of participatory documentary and social practice in war zones.
The Captured Gun illustrates the way that Gittoes has carried this kind of engagement with him into war zones, drawing on the lives of his subjects for his material. His work in Rwanda illustrates this too. Here Gittoes was deployed with Australian troops on a peacekeeping mission, and witnessed thousands of people being killed over three days during the 1995 Kibeho massacre. Gittoes took photo- graphs of what was taking place and went on to make drawings, graphic works, and paintings subsequent to the event. While the most famous work from this period is The Preacher (1995), the most horrific is a series of portraits of a dying woman called Immaculee. Eyewitness 3 (2013) (fig. 2) is part of this series and places a drawing of her alongside handwritten text. The drawing foregrounds a machete wound on Immaculee’s face, evidence of inhuman brutality, which sits centrally in the composition, reminding the viewer of her imminent death. Above and behind the bright red wound, her eyes gaze into those of the viewer. The work is something of a synthesis of the two kinds of war portraiture identified by Joanna Bourke. The first is an attempt to capture the uncanny gaze of the shell- shocked. The second is medical illustration that details the wounds of its subjects.21
Figure 2. George Gittoes, Eyewitness 3, 2013, ink on paper with printed photograph, 68.5 56 cm. Courtesy of the artist. (Images yet to be posted)
The dangers of pictures of the injured, Susan Sontag argues, are that they arrive out of context, the particularity of their suffering is lost, and they come to stand for all suffering.22 The criticism that Mirzoeff makes of Gittoes’ painting The Preacher, his best-known and prize-winning work from Rwanda.23 Mirzoeff argues that in portraying a priest holding a Bible in the killing fields of Rwanda, Gittoes transcodes the complexity and difficulty of the massacre into religious iconography:
It shows an African man from the waist up, holding a bible, with his arms extended and raised. His gesture is somewhere between surrender and supplication. The original photograph was tight in on its subject and with a shallow depth of field but the painting elides even this detail into an agonized mass of expressionist colour. Without a caption, the picture would be unintelligible.24
Mirzoeff goes on to write more favourably of minimalist installations by Alfredo Jaar to memorialise the Rwandan massacres, preferring this contemporary genre over Gittoes’ choice of expressionist painting. He also discounts the story accompanying The Preacher, in so doing missing the significance of texts to the conceptualising of Gittoes’ work. As curator Rod Pattenden points out, this is the crucial point of continuity between Gittoes’ drawings, paintings, and films, as in the latter he turns from writing stories to performing them on camera as part of his style of documentary.25 Rather than placing his subjects at a distance, or generalising them, these stories serve to preserve their personal ordeals within the particular circumstances of war.
Gittoes attempts to lend some context to the last moments of Immaculee’s life by writing on Eyewitness 3, ‘For about 30 Minutes we worked together with her struggling to remain conscious while I drew. Observing her so closely I could sense her soul moving out of her then returning’. Elsewhere on the page Gittoes writes, ‘There is not enough time. It is hard to know what is most important to do—take photographs, try to save lives, ease the pain of the wounded or stay with the role of the artist and make drawings’. Here Gittoes emphasises the relationship between the victim and himself, placing her into the story of a personal encounter. The text shifts Immaculee from victimhood to being a subject in relation with the artist. The use of the word ‘we’ is audacious here, as it suggests that there is something shared between Gittoes and Immaculee at this moment. It also has the effect of lending Immaculee more presence in the work, as it brings this moment of encounter back into the memory of the world. This in particular gives this work its power, and yet this power contains an uncomfortable sense that this is an unequal relationship, as Gittoes steps over a boundary between the living and dying. The much-worked context of this photograph lends itself to remembering Kibeho not through history but through reflexive ethnography, in an intimacy that illuminates its victims as more than statistics from a distant war. Herwitz reads this personal element of Gittoes’ work, and more particularly his portrait of Immaculee, as humanistic, as part of a campaign to alleviate suffering in the world.26 This reading, however, minimises the way in which this and other Gittoes works illuminate the particular modes of suffering produced by contemporary conflict. Luttwak points to the refugee camp as itself a part of the problem in Rwanda.27 By establishing such camps, the United Nations offers an illusion of safety, when civilians would often be better off simply fleeing. The con- sequences in Rwanda were horrific. Gittoes remembers that, ‘They especially took old women up and executed them 15 metres or so from the Australians’.28
The conflict aversion that took place in Rwanda typifies post-heroic policies of war fostered during the Cold War, when the stakes of battle were potentially a global, nuclear catastrophe.29 Post-heroic war marked a phase change from the Second World War, during which civilians were regarded as fair game by military strategists. Victory was to be achieved at any cost to combatants, non-combatants, and property. The inter-war period in Europe witnessed the most drastic of this kind of thinking. War strategists were inspired by the First World War’s mechan- isation of the battlefield and the gruesome experience of gas, shelling, and trenches. They also saw the way in which air power could be used to intimidate civilian populations. The British imagined the demoralising effect of aerial bomb- ing on Afghanistan, and turned to their colony in Iraq to experiment with its effects upon recalcitrant rulers and their populations.30 This logic of total war deliberately included non-combatants in its strategic thinking, and developed with particular reference to the populations outside of Europe and North America. It was thought that fanaticism and paganism put people beyond the moral codes of Christian civilisation, leaving violence as the only means to demonstrate superior- ity.31 Today it appears that while the forms of war have changed, its geographies have not, as drones conduct strikes on targets in Africa and the Middle East while their pilots sit safely in Florida and Nevada.
While his work from Rwanda illustrates the horrific consequences for victims of policies of post-heroic war, Gittoes’ time in Somalia in 1993 illustrates what is at stake for peacekeeping soldiers. Here he was deployed with Australians equipped with night vision goggles, which Gittoes drew in grotesque exaggeration, the soldiers’ heads veering out of perspective (fig 3). When one soldier saw Gittoes’ drawings of cyborg-style troops wearing the goggles, he said it was ‘what it feels to be out there—the night vision makes us into alien monsters’. The soldiers saw themselves as ‘Terminators for real’, their reality being tested every night through the goggles.32 While the soldiers were patrolling, children would pretend to shoot at them with toy guns. Through night vision goggles, the soldiers could not always tell if the guns were real, their experience in Somalia defined not by combat but by doubt and fear. Here the doctrine of post-heroic war is at work as soldiers assiduously avoid unnecessary casualties. The situation is also hyper- real as there is an ‘undecidability created by the unleashing of the two opposed principles’ of intensity and deferral.33 As concepts, the hyper-real and post-heroic have in common an attempt to describe this shift in which nation-states minimise conflict as much as possible by putting technology at work to distance combatants from combat. Victory is measured by this distance, by the safety with which war is conducted, but the experience of this distance on the ground is to accentuate the unreality of a conflict that is both mediated and deferred.
Figure 3. George Gittoes, Night Vision, 1993, oil on canvas, 101 86 cm. Courtesy of the artist. (Images yet to be posted)
In the 21st century, Gittoes has increasingly relied on participatory documentary to capture this sense of unreality, this juxtaposition of extreme violence with everyday life. Here he is no longer at a distance from his subjects, as he is in his 1980s films, but engages with them on camera. His presence becomes the means to narrate the heightened, unreal sensibility of different war zones. This is especially at work in The Miscreants of Taliwood (2009), which opens with a scene in which the artist is grappling with a group of gun-wielding men who are burning a pile of DVDs. This sets the pace for an action-packed documentary about the making of Pashtun action films in Pakistan. DVD stores that stock these movies are being targeted by the Taliban, who replace bombed and burnt-out stores with shops selling a violent, horrific genre of Taliban propaganda videos. The war here is one of images, and Gittoes sets out a choice between entertainment films and horrific Taliban footage of young men and children preparing to blow themselves up, go into battle or, most disturbingly, behead suspected collaborators.
Miscreants’ frenetic editing gives it a sense of unreality that is not unlike the Pashtun melodramas themselves, shifting between action scenes that are both real and unreal. The lives of performers and performance blur most dramatically when Miscreants star Javed Musazi is playing a pilgrim to a Sufi shrine and is mistaken for a Sufi saint, finding himself surrounded by actual devotees. The vertigo of Miscreants, in which scenes of filmmaking are juxtaposed with the film’s own making, in which actors become embroiled in real-life dramas and the real-life drama is the making of the film, necessitates that Gittoes step forward to narrate what is going on.
In two films he made over the border in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Love City Jalalabad (2013) and Snow Monkey (2015), Gittoes documents some of the work of a second Yellow House that facilitates the work of local artists. A sanctuary from
the arch-conservatism of the region, the Yellow House is a space where Jalalabad women and men can talk freely, dance, and sing. Here too, local Pashtun films are being made and edited, and projects planned and executed. In Love City Jalalabad one project involves taking the Tent City Circus to a village in the hills to the south of Jalalabad. Here beside a house destroyed by a US drone, children see a film for the first time in their lives, as well as a monkey and performances by Yellow House actors. In Snow Monkey, the central narrative is the recruitment of boys from different communities of Jalalabad to act in an action film. The boys include gangsters, ice-cream sellers and ‘ghostbusters’, who earn a living warding off evil spirits with lanterns of smoke. Gittoes’ role in these films is as a facilitator, in Love City between a village and his circus troupe, and in Snow Monkey between competing gangs of boys. The war here is not only in the skies above—American drones and helicopters fly from a nearby American base above and through scenes in these Jalalabad films—but takes place between groups of Afghans living on
Gittoes’ place as narrator and actor offers a way of conceptualising these films in terms of the relationships he has with those he is making his films about. Again, there is an inequality at work here, as he is able to return to live in Australia while his collaborators cannot. This came to the fore most dramatically during the filming of one of the films he has made in America. Rampage (2006) documents gun violence in a poor, African American neighbourhood in Miami, Florida. Gittoes follows Iraq War veteran Elliot Lovett as he returns home, only to witness drive-by shootings taking place in a war between local gangs. Horrifically, during the making of the film, Elliot’s brother Marcus is shot dead. There is a sug- gestion here that the shooting was inspired by a jealous rival gang, who had seen Gittoes making the Lovetts into film stars. And it is here that the film shifts from being a documentary about this family and their neighbourhood to the relation- ship with Gittoes. To ensure their safety, Gittoes flies the surviving brothers to Australia, where they are able to relax in a city without guns and far from the rival gang.
Gittoes’ subsequent film made in the US, White Light (2019), is part of a wider campaign against gun violence in that country. It is the final film in Gittoes’ sextet of films about US wars and takes for its subject gang members who live in the neighbourhoods of Englewood, Chicago. At the time of writing, Gittoes has plans to screen White Light in churches and community centres in Chicago, with a view to persuading gang members to enact a moratorium on violence for at least a weekend.34 The project can be compared to the Tele-Vecindario project of 1993, which set up televisions along an impoverished Chicago street to screen films that had been made by local youth about gang and family life, gentrification and other local themes.35 This project developed into a block party featuring a video installa- tion, Rest in Peace (1993), which memorialised people who had died because of gang violence.36 The ambition of White Light is similarly to have two audiences, one being those who are from the communities in which the film is set and the other being people beyond these communities. Gittoes’ series of paintings of the people in White Light also functions in two ways. These works are first destined for the walls of art galleries, representing the broader Chicago project, while also having a life as images on the phones of their subjects (fig. 4). As Gittoes writes,
They just need to photograph them with their smart phones as I finish the works and they can take them with them everywhere and proudly show them to anyone they want to show … They do not have permanent addresses or own anything but the clothes on their backs and their phones. Having them in their phones is having them in the only domestic reality that is theirs.37
Such duality is the very contradiction animating collaborative and community practice, that wants on the one hand to intervene in local communities and on the other to attract an outside audience. The quality of such work is to bring these two audiences into contact with each other, to expose the ways in which people’s vulnerability to violence is framed differentially by geopolitics.38 This is certainly the case across Gittoes’ films, which are set in cities across the world while using Gittoes himself as a narrator for each of them.
It is by positioning Gittoes as a participatory documentary maker and as an artist with a social practice that it is possible to think about his work as a critical engagement with the current state of war. In his work, wars are dominated by visual technologies such as drones (Afghanistan) and night vision goggles (Somalia) while being hyper-real in their juxtaposition of everyday life and horrendous violence. Baudrillard’s argument that the Gulf War was hyper-real was critiqued for being symptomatic of a ‘French specialty’ in flashy theory that neglected reality.39 His account of hyper-real warfare was for his critics an anti-realist and unhinged strain of postmodern theory. Christopher Norris goes so far as to argue that his arguments were complicit with the terrors he was describing, that in simulating the radical effects of new types of warfare Baudrillard was complicit with them.40 More than two decades later, however, many of the points that Baudrillard made are an accepted part of strategic thinking, particularly in the post-heroic school.
Figure 4. George Gittoes, Words, 2018, oil-based spray paint on canvas, 152.5 122.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist. (Images yet to be posted)
These points include the deferral of battle and the technological distance between combatants in asymmetrical conflicts.
Soundtrack to War (2004) is the first of Gittoes’ participatory documentaries and asks American soldiers occupying Iraq after the 2003 invasion about the music they are listening to and making. The theme serves to heighten the sense of unreality of the war zone, as we see tank drivers and gunners plugging their hel- mets into sound systems as they roll across a country in collapse. Several soldiers compare the cinematic aspect of listening to a soundtrack with the reality of watching people die slowly after they are shot. Music becomes a metaphor for the confusion the American troops feel about being there, as after deposing Saddam
Figure 5. George Gittoes working on White Light, Chicago, 2018, photographer unknown. Courtesy of the artist. (Images yet to be posted)
Hussein’s regime, they are confronted with improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. Conducting searches, manning checkpoints and managing crowds, they have to adapt to roles as police and occupiers in a low-intensity conflict for which they have not been trained.41 In Soundtrack, soldiers continue to perform in a choir on a rooftop even as a bomb detonates below, sending smoke and the wail of sirens through the air. As they wait for the next bomb, the soldiers become wit- nesses to the war as much as combatants in it. They are part of a conflict experienced largely behind fortifications in Baghdad, fortifications designed to protect them rather than to pursue victory. This is the scenario of post-heroic war, as behind protective wire the soldiers listen to music, perform in rap battles, and look forward to going home.
In White Light, the Chicago gangsters tell Gittoes that the members of the other gangs are just like themselves, not bad people but stuck in a bad situation (fig. 5). Such is Baudrillard’s insight into the American attitude toward their first Gulf War: ‘This is the rule of the American way of life: nothing personal! And they make war in the same manner: pragmatically and not symbolically’.42 The gangsters in White Light share an ambivalence about their fate with the soldiers Gittoes interviews in Soundtrack to War, expressing a sense that they are caught in circumstances that are beyond their control. This and other Gittoes films offer a hyper-real picture of low-intensity war zones, in which everyone is vulnerable to explosions of violence. Towards the end of Snow Monkey, children film the after- math of a bombing. They have arrived there before ambulances and the police. Bodies and pieces of bodies lie everywhere. When I first watched the film, it seemed unreal, as if Gittoes had mocked it up for the film, while the presence of the children made the whole situation more intense, more unbelievable, and cruel. These children were using cameras borrowed from the Yellow House Jalalabad at the time, and appear to be the first to document the 2015 Jalalabad bank bombing that killed 33 people. This is a scene from a post-heroic war, a long, drawn-out conflict littered with fear and casualties. The continuity of Gittoes’ work lies in this sense of a never-ending war zone, both in time and space, as people around the world live with occasional and extreme violence.
Documenting Gittoes’ embedded, interpersonal experience of warfare, these films supplement the emphasis upon visual technologies and casualty avoidance in theories of contemporary war. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq and the inner cities of the United States, Gittoes follows the everyday lives of those caught up in conflict. These are lives exposed to the heightened, hyper-real mediation of contemporary warfare; its combatants listen to music while firing upon the enemy, and its children film an atrocity with handheld cameras. The prevalence of visual technologies in low-intensity war zones creates an ambivalence that is not only at work on the screens of those who are distant from the war zone, but is also present among those experiencing it. As the 21st century progresses, militaries are becoming more dependent on drones and surveillance in an era of insurgency. Gittoes’ cinema offers a nuanced picture of the way in which people within war zones are not only victims but are also witnesses to their own circumstances. His earlier drawings and paintings anticipate this combination of high technology and deferred violence, beginning to document the shared sensibility of contemporary warfare in ongoing, low-intensity conflicts that are continuing around the world.
Darren Jorgensen http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4313-2110 Notes
1. Since the 1980s, Gittoes has made work in Aboriginal Australia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bougainville, Cambodia, China, Congo, East Timor, Iraq, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Southern Lebanon, Tibet, the US, the Western Sahara and Yemen.
2. Daniel Herwitz, Aesthetics, Arts, and Politics in a Global World (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 161–76.
3. Nicholas Mirzoeff, ‘Invisible Again: Rwanda and Representation after Genocide’, African Arts 38, no. 3 (Autumn 2005): 89.
4. Gittoes’ films have received the Bassel Shehade Award for Social Justice in both 2013 and 2019.
5. On low-intensity war, see Roger Carey, ‘Low- Intensity Warfare and Limited War’, in International Security in the Modern World, ed. Roger Carey and Trevor C. Salmon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), 133–51.
6. Edward N. Luttwak, ‘Toward Post-Heroic Warfare’, Foreign Affairs 74, no. 5 (May–June 1995): 109–22. See also Edward N. Luttwak, ‘A Post- Heroic Military Policy’, Foreign Affairs 75, no. 4 (July–August 1996): 33–44; Avi Kober, ‘From Heroic to Post-Heroic Warfare: Israel’s Way of War in Asymmetrical Conflicts’, Armed Forces & Society 41, no. 1 (2015): 99; and, more generally, Sibylle Scheipers, ed., Heroism and the Changing Character of War: Towards Post-Heroic Warfare? (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
7. Edward N. Luttwak, ‘Give War a Chance’, Foreign Affairs 78, no. 4 (July–August 1999): 36–44.
8. Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).
9. Ibid., 27.
10. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987): 351–423.
11. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989). See also Paul Virilio, ‘Ground Zero’, trans. Chris Turner, in The Paul Virilio Reader, ed. Steve Redhead (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 249.
12. George Gittoes, Blood Mystic (Sydney: Macmillan, 2016), 207.
13. Baudrillard, 27.
14. Quoted in Avi Kober, ‘Does the Iraq War Reflect a Phase Change in Warfare?’, Defense & Security Analysis 21, no. 2 (2005): 127.
15. George Gittoes interviewed in War Paint: The World According to George Gittoes, dir. Rebecca Baille, ABC TV, 21 April 2019.
16. Bernard Smith, Modernism’s History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1998), 144–46. On the relationship of Gittoes to the inter-war artist Max Beckmann, see Mayen Beckmann, ‘This Is Why You Were Born: Gittoes and Drawing’, in George Gittoes: I Witness, ed. Rod Pattenden (Sydney: Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, 2014), 33–37.
17. Gittoes frequently quotes Picasso. example, Gittoes, Blood Mystic, 311.
18. Mike Parr and Sue Cramer, ‘Interview with Mike Parr’, Inhibodress: 1970–1972 (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1989), 66.
19. Eve Sullivan, editorial, Artlink 36, no. 1 (March 2016): 7; John McDonald, ‘George Gittoes’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 2014, available at https:// www.johnmcdonald.net.au/2014/george-gittoes/; John McDonald interviewed in War Paint.
20.Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso, 2013), 108.
21. Joanna Bourke, Introduction, War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflict (London: Reaktion Books, 2017), 21–22.
22. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 112–13.
23. The Preacher (1995) was awarded the 1995 Blake Prize for Religious Art in Australia.
24. Mirzoeff, 89.
25. Rod Pattenden, ‘George Gittoes: I Witness’, in George Gittoes: I Witness, ed. Rod Pattenden (Sydney: Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, 2014), 17.
26. Herwitz, 161–76.
27. Luttwak, ‘Give War a Chance’, 36–44.
28. George Gittoes quoted in Kevin O’Halloran, Pure Massacre: Aussie Soldiers Reflect on the Rwandan Genocide (Sydney: Big Sky Publishing, 2010), 87.
29. Luttwak, ‘Toward Post-Heroic Warfare’, 109–22.
30. Paul K. Saint-Amour, ‘On the Partiality of Total War’, Critical Inquiry 40, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 420–49.
31. Joanna Bourke, Wounding the World: How Military Violence and War-Play Invade Our Lives (London: Virago, 2014): 111–14.
32. George Gittoes, personal communication, 6 February 2016.
33. Baudrillard, 50.
34. George Gittoes, interview with Phillip Adams, Late Night Live, ABC Radio National, 27 May 2019.
35. Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 117–18.
36. Kester, 118.
37. George Gittoes, personal communication, 11 June 2019.
38. See Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010), 3.
39. Sontag, 109.
40. Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992), 85.
41. Bourke, Wounding the World, 103–04.
42. Baudrillard, 39.
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 20, no. 1
DARREN JORGENSEN Interview | George Gittoes: Artist, Peacemaker (2018)
In the early 1970s in Sydney, George Gittoes and Martin Sharp ran The Yellow House, combining visual arts with film and theatre to introduce a new kind of art to Australia. Today, after thirty years of making art in war zones around the world, Gittoes lives with performance artist Hellen Rose at a second Yellow House he has established in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Underneath the ominous sound of US drones and helicopters, and on the frontier of an ongoing war between the US and the Taliban, he runs a creative hub for actors and filmmakers. He also runs a circus, touring the provinces of Afghanistan with a monkey on his shoulder, and entertaining children who have never seen film or performance before. While he draws and paints, Gittoes is also making films: Snow Monkey (2015), Love City, Jalalabad (2013) and The Miscreants of Taliwood (2009). These follow his earlier filmmaking ventures in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Rose works with film too, running filmmaking workshops for women. To secure local support to carry on his work there, Gittoes has been in negotiation with the Afghani Taliban, and suspects he is being watched by Islamic State (I.S.). A portrait painting that Gittoes is exhibiting in Perth, Moulana Gul Badshah (2009), represents how amidst the violence of the region, The Yellow House stands for peace. The mullah had been planning to kidnap Gittoes and Rose before they invited him to the Yellow House to persuade him that they were doing good things in Jalalabad. The following interview with Gittoes was conducted in Perth, where he is exhibiting alongside other artists in ‘9/11’, a show curated by Chelsea Hopper about 9/11 and its aftermath at MOANA Project Space. He is also the subject of a retrospective that is currently touring Australia, called ‘I Witness’. In 2015 he was the first artist to receive the Sydney Peace Prize.
What do The Yellow House in Sydney and the Yellow House in Afghanistan have in common?
What I’ve learned is, through films in Nicaragua and Rwanda, where the photos were intense, I mean I was there when the heads were coming off, I always had the hope that this would mean that things would get better. Thinking about it, what helps me not getting post-traumatic stress is helping people. So I’ve come to conclusion that the work that I do, like the films I’ve just made, can inspire young artists, but I need to do work on the ground and see physical change in these war zones. So I see the Yellow House in Afghanistan as my most important work. The paintings and films are trivial compared to the actual place itself. I don’t understand Beuys much but his idea of social sculpture does appeal to me, because the same inspirations that I have are like this.
The Yellow House is an optimistic work, but many of your films and drawings are very dark in their subject.
There are a thousand people doing decorative art so I make no apologies about doing dark art. If everyone was doing dark art then I would probably be doing Matisse. I just bought a house after many years, and people have for years been saying, “I couldn’t live with your art, couldn’t buy one,” and I agree with them. There’s no way I am going to hang my own work on my walls!
When did the drawings start? Where does the Gittoes style come from?
The darkness was always there. The Hotel Kennedy suite was at the Yellow House, and people said these etchings were evil because they were retrograde. They looked back to Albert Tucker, and it gave them the creeps! And even at my new house, some surfies looked over the fence at my new house and thought we were Satanists! I was honest with them and now they ignore me. But the art has that effect on people. My way of drawing belongs to a long dark tradition. The first artist I could relate to was Audrey Beardsley. The drawings with a foetus having cunnilingus with a woman, there are some very dark ones in there. In Australia when I was young there was no graphic work.
How did you know Bernard Smith?
Bernard brought out Clement Greenberg, and I had just discovered Mondrian and Malevich and Eve Klein, you know the image of someone jumping out the window. He was struggling to find someone that would fit Greenberg’s taste, so Bernard took him to see my studio. Greenberg said you’ve got to come to New York! So I took a job with the Cahill Freeway. I arrived in New York with ten dollars, and one of my biggest experiences was going around to a Salvation Army place and there were all these failed minimalist paintings with cooking grease on them! I also went looking for a job and all these corporate offices had minimal paintings in them.
So you were doing abstract art at this time?
I was doing some interesting things. I painted a garden blue, yellow and white and took a photo of it. At this stage Greenberg liked Gottleib and it looked a bit like my work. It was just a phase I was going through.
Figure 2: George Gittoes, Page of Visual Diary, 13 January 2010. (image yet to be added)
What gives your drawings such impact? I find them very strong.
There’s a thing with drawing. One of my friends is Mayan Beckmann, Max Beckmann’s granddaughter. When she sees a drawing she knows why it’s good. There’s only one in a hundred that’s good. We went to a show of Ludwig Meidner and we both zeroed in on a picture of someone throwing a punch, where the artist made the fist get smaller. It’s like it’s going to hurt. Mayan and I knew that for someone to do a drawing as good as that the artist needs to be in a heightened state. I don’t know what’s happened to art but there was a time that people appreciated good drawing. Lots of art today is tracing. It looks like a copy of a photograph.
Could the Yellow House be established elsewhere? You have spoken before about setting one up in Syria and Mali.
Yes. Just watching the way people react to it. Young people are sick of being ineffective and they can see we are being super-effective. It’s terribly important to keep it going and its activities are increasing exponentially. You know it costs a million dollars for every Australian solider we have per year in Afghanistan. I run the Yellow House on about a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year.
How has the Yellow House changed Jalalabad?
Enormously. The Yellow House has gone way beyond my expectations and Jalalabad has progressed. When we first went to Jalalabad they were bombing video stores. Now you can buy them from ice cream boys.
In Love City Jalalabad you show, with some warning, the kind of films that Taliban have been supporting, brutal execution videos, and these are very different films to those that you are making and distributing.
Love City is like an okay film. More importantly, now all the billboards have something on them. You have a picture of twelve-year-old girl saying ‘you don’t have to get married, don’t have to obey your parents’. The huge coup for us was that music was considered evil, and we did a music video and put it on in the main street of Jalalabad. The first electronic billboard was only being used to introduce mosque time and we negotiated to rent it, and the Taliban went down and were spitting in our faces. I waited until they’d vented, and said this is about your kids, this is about the future of Afghanistan, about kids going to school and this kind of thing. The singer is Afghan, they all know who he is. They thought about it and said yes. Now we have movies showing all night long in between mosque ads. That’s my greatest work of art so far. Better than having work in a gallery.
What drives you to do this kind of work?
When I make art, I also want people to know the story. When I painted the preacher in Rwanda [The Preacher, (1995)], I wanted people to know how brave the preacher was in reading the Bible, and giving dignity before he died. I want people to know this was about a man I greatly admired. When I came back to Australia I did not want him to be forgotten.
When I was young I used to read books about Goya and Van Gogh, but I don’t read any art books any more. I recently read the biography on Elon Musk and that was most inspiring. Elon Musk is like Van Gogh, he’s like a saint, and if you look at his career he didn’t care about money. He’s always been teetering on the edge. He’s got solar power stations across America, he’s got a Tesla car and announced power packs and so on. To me he’s an inspired artist, a more inspired artist than anyone in the world today.
The other night I was on a panel with Louis Psihoyos who did The Cove (2009) and he’s just done Racing Extinction (2014). I’ve always wanted to meet him because as a filmmaker activist he’s light years ahead of me. The dolphin cull has gone down to a quarter of what it was because of him and he’s recently projected close-to-extinction animals on the Empire State Building. He wouldn’t know that it’s like Christo wrapping Little Bay, but it is. In his most recent movie, there’s a bird in this movie, it’s making this beautiful song but it’s the last bird of its species so it will never find a mate. It breaks your heart to realise that once it dies there will nothing to add that beautiful song to the world again. Also The Act of Killing (2012), by Joshua Oppenheimer, is a masterpiece, an absolute masterpiece. He’d seen Miscreants of Taliwood (2012) and thought he wanted to do something similar. He went to my producers in Norway and made a better film than I’d ever made. Now I’ve tried to make a film better than his, with Snow Monkey. I guess it’s a bit like Picasso and Braque keying off each other. So I’m still painting and drawing, but it’s these films that are inspiring me.
My collaborators are Piraya in Norway who’ve invested in Snow Monkey. They’re the most exciting documentary makers in the world. The only curator in the world who really gets my work is the boss of Piraya, Torstein Grude, and he’s got every real documentary maker on his books. He’s got Josh, also Andrei Nekrasov who did Russian Lessons (2010). He’s got Nishtha Jain who did Gulabi Gang (2012) and Petr Lom who did the film about the Jasmine Revolution [Back to the Square (2012)]. These are my contemporaries. When I go to Norway I am surrounded by these people. We get together and as a group we feel like we are changing the world.
Have these documentaries come about because the technology for making film has gotten more affordable and easier to access?
Not at all! Are you nuts! That idea is twenty years old. Now it costs me almost a million dollars to make a film. It has become less accessible because people are frightened of it. People like SBS and the ABC have these quality standards where you’ve got to have a feature film sound mix, a feature film grade. All this stuff costs a fortune. There’s no cameras now that are cheap any more. There was a short period where people could go out to make TV movies, but that’s over.
Was that when you made Soundtrack to War?
That was made with semi-professional high end, but it was made for only $20,000, without any money because you could do that then. I had a budget for Snow Monkey for $200,000 from Screen Australia but I knew it would take half a million, which it has, so I had to raise the rest. Then SBS will pay me $5000 for it. So not only will SBS make it hard to buy, as you’ve got to spend a fortune to make it to get it past their standards, but now they’ve dropped their price to screen films.
But the best art in the world today is being done by, and here I’m not talking about decorative art but my kind of art, being done by Joel [Oppenheimer] and Louis [Psihoyos]. When I was young I would have done anything to meet say Wilhelm de Kooning, but these days I was just thrilled to meet Louis. To me Raising Extinction is great art. There’s only a handful of people that can change the world. What Elon Musk has done is incredible. In Australia there’s one dealership where you can buy those cars, but you can’t charge them anywhere.
To think of Musk as an artist, we would have to change our definition of an artist. Rasheed Araeen the founder of Third Text wrote to me once and asked what I thought about flooding the Australian desert, creating an inland sea. He seemed to think that art was no longer to be found in galleries.
The Israeli’s are doing that kind of thing. With the money spent on defence, you could do anything. You could probably do it with the money they spent on those new frigates. What I’m working towards is cutting down on fear, so my other favourite person in the world is Julian Assange. He’s a genius, the greatest Australian artist we’ve ever produced. He’s the Ned Kelly of today. My feeling is that I should try to save the Barrier Reef, but it’s not my area, and I’m better off doing what I do, which is working in war zones, talking to the Taliban, being surrounded by people I’m supposed to be scared of. It’s almost as revolutionary as electric cars. It gets around the fear factor that the bad guys are using to take away our freedoms. The biggest fear I’ve got, and what I’m seeing in Afghanistan, is the increase in robotics. Every 15 minutes I have an unmanned Predator flying over the Yellow House, and the trucks in Jalalabad are being turned into robots, and all the smartest engineers I know are working to create military robots.
Figure 4 Gittoes diary entry (image yet to be added)
When I was in Zuccotti Park there were normal people who pay their taxes for cops and the military protesting the banks. Eventually the New York police came in and brutally destroyed this protest and I got the feeling that the brokers were looking down out of the windows and thinking, how long are the cops going to keep doing this for us? The cops are not well paid, they are like the people in the park. So what they’re working on is robots, and they’re well on their way. Every military pilot is saying their days are numbered, that all the next generation of planes will be pilotless. So now they’ve got this robot horse because they’re saying it’s too hard to take the wounded out of the field and so on. I know engineers who are making terminators. If you combine this knowledge about everyone with robots you might see that if someone has organised a protest against a coal mine suddenly two robots will turn up at the door.
In the past they had to get a warrant to open someone’s mail. I’ve seen this well on the way in Afghanistan. Moulana Haqqani [the Taliban leader in Jalalabad] changes his SIM card every few days and has about four phones. When he visits The Yellow House we turn off all the electronic devices. I don’t have a smart phone, and in Afghanistan I basically don’t carry a phone any more. I don’t use Twitter or Facebook. I’m very careful with my emails because you know it’s life and death. I can orchestrate a meeting between the leader of the Taliban with the leader of women’s rights in Afghanistan, because neither could be seen doing this in their own offices, but they can both happen to come to the Yellow House at the same time. I’ve done this. But if bad people knew about that we could receive a misfired Hellfire missile. If in next 2 months the Yellow House is blown up, and the story they put out is that this is a mistake, it was an electronic miscommunication, and the bomb was meant to go somewhere else, and what a shame George was there, you’ll know that’s what’s happened.
Figure 5 Gittoes at Zuccotti Park
If anything happens to me it will be the Taliban from Pakistan inspired by the I.S. or the I.S. in conjunction with the CIA. I’ve had a lot of death threats. They are hand delivered to Islamabad and more recently to the Australian Embassy in Kabul and I just have to ignore them. The local Taliban however love me. They don’t do suicide bombs or terrorism. I have to talk to them about changing their name, because they’re not the same as the Pakistani Taliban. They should be called the Afghan Freedom Fighters or something like that.
This year’s Venice Biennale was about war and conflict, but your work was nowhere to be seen. Should George Gittoes represent Venice at the next Biennale?
I can’t even get hung in the Archibald. I put a portrait of Julian Assange in there and couldn’t get hung, not even in the Salon de Refuses. I think Australians would have liked to have seen that.
Love amidst Hate. Article by Darren Jorgensen University of Western Australia
In the 1955 film Night of the Hunter, preacher Harry Powell’s fingers are tattooed with LOVE on the right hand, and HATE on the left. Crossing his fingers together, he wrestles them into a battle between the two, finally showing the victory of LOVE over HATE. At first, it appears that the Lovers series by George Gittoes struggles against his oeuvre of war drawings, films and paintings. Through the Lovers series, however, it is possible to see that love was his subject all along, that love always co-existed with hate in his works. It lies even within the paintings and photographs from the Rwanda genocide of 1994. These are pictures of Australian soldiers carrying children in their arms, and his most famous painting, The Preacher (1995), memorialising a man attempting to comfort those around him before they are all killed. The subject here is the capacity of human beings to be more than themselves, to confront unimaginable situations and assume mythic qualities. The drama of love and hate is one that brings these qualities into being, and one that Gittoes documents over and over again, in war zones in Africa, Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the Lovers paintings, the timelessness of the struggle of human beings with themselves is told in the archaic stories that inspire them, the stories of the great lovers of history, including Circe, Dante, Orpheus and Cleopatra.
Here too is a stylistic shift, as Gittoes leaves the new objectivism that has dominated his paintings, and turns instead to a mystical sensibility that was first in evidence in his work at the Yellow House in Sydney in the early 1970s. Here Gittoes painted designs of Sufi and surrealist inspiration, and orchestrated a Puppet Theatre. His more recent work in Afghanistan, dating from the U.S. occupation, reconnected him with this inspiration as he befriended a Sufi poet, and established the Yellow House Jalalabad as a refuge for artists. And in the Lovers paintings lies a renewed interest in the symbology of Islam, from the eight pointed star to vegetal ornament that relaxes the eye. Such mysticism can be seen retrospectively even in some of the artist’s most horrific paintings. In the background of The Preacher is an ecstatic, luminous array of paint reminiscent of Raphael’s Transfiguration (1520), in which Jesus rises into the clouds. The tension lies between the horrific situation the preacher is in, and in the symbolic power of his actions.
This is also a tension that lies within the Lovers series, this expression of poetry amidst all the evidence of human brutality. They were painted amidst gang violence in Chicago, where Gittoes is making a film about the warzone in the cities of the U.S. The paradox is best expressed by Gittoes himself. At the beginning of his return to mystical painting, Gittoes writes that,
I believe humanity could be the death virus placed in the universe to make it finite but it could also be the point of the whole thing – to be able to articulate what it is to be alive and better equipped than the whales and dolphins.
What is it to be able to give voice to life while also destroying it? Gittoes wrote this after a difficult time in Afghanistan, where he had been discussing violence with the child gangster Steel, head of the Razor Gang. Steel stars in the film Snow Monkey (2015), that tells the stories of children trying to get by in a war zone. His method is violent, as he threatens to cut the faces of other children for any money they may carry, as U.S. drones and helicopters buzz overhead. Incredibly, and as Snow Monkey progresses, we learn that Steel has a girlfriend, Shazia, and has promised to make her happy. So it is that love plays a role in the life of even the most frightening of characters.
It is as if, over and over again, in different countries and in different mediums, Gittoes is making the same work of art, one that traces an intensity of relation between love and conflict. Through war zones and over the decades, there lies a sense that even the most separate of lives are tied by a fate that is the fate of the species. So it is that Gittoes, who grew up in Sydney, finds common ground with the children of Jalalabad, and with gang members on the streets of Chicago. In each of the places he works, Gittoes sketches the complexity of lives amidst guns and cruelty. The Chicago gang that he is working with at the moment tell him that,
There are no bad guys . . . no good guys and bad guys. If you met the gang across the road who we are at war with you would find them as likeable as we are.
These men are immersed in a world of drugs and guns, but Gittoes films them talking about their connection with the dead, with the ‘white light’ that appears when someone dies. Even amidst the peak of U.S. gun violence, Gittoes finds something more at work. The mystical and poetic appears in the most unlikely of places, and in the hearts of those hardened by battle.
So it is that the Lovers series casts new light back upon the rest of this artist’s oeuvre, showing how amidst our fascination for conflict, love survives. This is not to say that Gittoes’s work is hopeful, or even humanistic. Gittoes is more ambitious than this. To make sense of the scale of his ambition, it is worth comparing him to another artist who documented the extremities of human circumstances. In his book about life in Auschwitz, If this is a man (Italian, 1947), Primo Levi argues that nobody who survived the death camp was innocent. Amidst the muselmann who were condemned to die of hard labour and starvation, Levi sold his skills as a chemist to the Nazis. Other prisoners became brutes, con-men and thieves. Survivors were those who impressed the Nazis, or betrayed their fellows. Despite this, Levi has been hailed as a hero, his books testifying to a universal humanism. This is true to the extent that great writers must always be empaths, carrying with them a privileged insight into themselves as others. Yet Levi, like Gittoes, also shows the way that human beings transform themselves, their potential to be anything, as inhuman as human.
The mythic and historic figures of the Lovers series are also caught in events of immeasurable proportions. Their passions are plagued by assassinations, jealousies and unrequited passions. Their dramas are tragic and ecstatic, born of unforseen circumstances and fateful decisions, cruelties perpetrated and endured. In the process of living in this world, the lovers become something more than human, allegorising fate. It may be that Gittoes was only able to make these works after meeting Helen Rose, who travelled to Afghanistan with him to work with the women in the Yellow House Jalalabad. As Picasso’s shifts in style and subject were inspired by his lovers, it may be that Rose brought him the confidence to express what has always been subtly present in his work, but rarely on the surface. And as with Picasso’s portraits of Francoise (and his other lovers), these pictures of passion push through their intimate subjects to grasp at the mystery by which passion takes hold of us.
The allegory that the Lovers series makes lies in what feminist Bracha Ettinger calls the ‘matrix’, the potential that lies within a human being to be anything, to realise any possibility. Ettinger’s Euridice (2001-ongoing) series of photocopied paintings blurs and distorts photographs of naked women and children in the moments before they were massacred by Nazis in the Ukraine. She evokes the impossible memory of a forgotten event, and names them after the great lover Euridice. As with Gittoes, she places love alongside the extremity of hate. So that in Gittoes’s Eurydice and Orpheus it is possible to see Orpheus’s betrayal, his gaze that in spite of himself looks back upon hell, and so condemns her to remain there forever. Love is never innocent, but tangled in a matrix that defies clear definitions of love and hate, good guys and bad guys. As Gittoes works with abstract design, patterns through which it is possible to glimpse the ecstatic, so Ettinger erases these photographic figures, photocopying them and painting them, in order that we might conceive of the inconceivable. The world picture that Gittoes builds, from one war zone to another, is one in which human beings carry out all kinds of actions, from horrific to humanistic, destructive to ecstatic. The war he describes is one that transcends war zones, and lives inside the characters he films and paints.
Each of Gittoes’s lovers call to mind the miracle by which love survives amidst the chaos. While the most enduring image we have of John Lennon and Yoko Ono are of them lying in bed to protest the Vietnam War, their relationship was full of drama, as they were blamed for breaking up The Beatles, and as Lennon left Oko to live like a drunken teenager for more than a year. Then, in 1980, Lennon was assassinated, as if to live out a Greek myth for our own times. At stake in their story is the story of the world, because they committed their art to changing it. There have only been a handful of artists who ever thought that what they did could transform the planet. Gittoes counts among a handful of world artists, that include Picasso, who protested Spanish fascism and joined the communist party, and Lennon and Ono, whose work inspired a peace movement. Through art it is possible, then, to realise the possibilities of love. And in Helen (Portrait of Hellen), we are reminded of the way that the love of intimates can be an allegory for events on a global scale. Here Helen and Hellen appear as a painting in gold, and survive wars that but for love they would not have chosen to be a part of.
University of Western Australia
 See for example George Gittoes, Painting, 1969-70, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, 2009/68/1-15.
 Gittoes, private communication, 14 March, 2017.
 Gittoes, private communication, 6 July 2018.
 See most recently, Philippe Sands, “Primo Levi’s If This is a Man at 70,” The Guardian, 22 April, 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/22/primo-levi-auschwitz-if-this-is-a-man-memoir-70-years>
 See Griselda Pollock, “Thinking the Feminine: Aesthetic Practice as Introduction to Bracha Ettinger and the Concepts of Matrix and Metramorphosis,” Theory, Culture and Society 21.1 (2004): 5-65.
THE COST – JEANNE AND MODI ArtZine
When I entered Kogarah High School in 1962, I was 12 years old but had already decided I wanted to be an artist. I wandered down the ‘Hall of Fame’ to see only cricketers, footballers, swimmers and tennis players but no artists or writers. I thought High School was going to be a lonely drudge.
But there was one saving grace. My art teacher, Mrs Howarth was a bohemian , smelt like incense, and had just returned from Europe. On the first day she offered to sell us post cards of strange new modern art, we had never seen before. I saw the glowing orange nudes of Modigliani and offered to buy all of them.
Growing up in Australia in the 50s and then the early 60’s there were no books on modern art, nothing about it in the papers and if we got the chance to visit the Art Gallery of NSW there was no great art in their collection to see. They had refused John Peter Russell’s offer of his collection of Vincent Van Gogh.
We had heard of Vincent because there was the movie ‘Lust for Life’ with Kirk Douglas .But Vincent was seen as too modern and crazy for Australian taste. William Dobell was the closest model we had of a rebellious artist.
The post cards sold me on Modigliani and he came to symbolise everything I ever wanted to be and how I wanted to live. I failed every subject in 1st year at Kogarah , except art ,and I came first in Art. First Prize winners could choose a book and I chose Modigliani with text by Alfred Werner. My favourite painting was his last – his full body portrait of his pregnant wife Jeanne Hebuterne.
When witnessing the worst war can do to people , like when drawing a grandmother and her skeletal granddaughters in famine stricken Somalia or a dying teenage girl with her machete chopped face in Rwanda, I remember how much I owe to Modi with his focus on human expression and posture. Modigliani only ever painted one landscape in his whole life. His interest was people and what it is to be human. I go along with that !
When I was 18 I got a job as a chainman on the construction of the Cahill Expressway ,to earn the money to fly to the US . Catching a greyhound bus from LA to NYC and arriving with just 10 dollars and the address of the Salvation Army, Bowery.
I turned 19 in December of that year. I had no one to celibrate with, so decided my best birthday present would be a visit to the Museum of Modern Art . I went straight to Picasso’s Demoiselles De Avignon, walked over to the kneeling figure and planted a kiss. The gallery guards were a bit shocked but I explained that we had nothing like this in Australia and it was my birthday. Then I found Starry Night !
I got a job at IBM and was in their lift where am eccentric looking, aging lady got in who reminded me of Soutine’s most extraordinary portrait lady in red with a huge black hat. Soutine was Modigliani’s best friend. I plucked up the nerve to ask if I could do her portrait. I did not know I was talking to a Austrian Baroness , Marie Von Lebzelten. The Baroness laughte dat my audacity saying “I have been painted by all the greats, Picasso, Derain, Van Dongen… “ and gave me the brush off.
But when I shared the lift ,on another day, I persisted and she agreed. (The story of doing the portrait is in my book Blood Mystic.)
Marie was the patron of the great African American Artist Joe Delaney. Joe felt suspicious about me moving in on his territory with the Baroness and went into protective mode. I suggested I visit his studio and do his portrait as well. This was extreme presumption on my part . When I arrived at Joe’s 6th Ave loft it was snowing outside and freezing inside but Joe was shirtless and proudly displayed wounds, from WW2, on his chest. He put on an LP of Martin Luther King’s great ‘I have a dream’ speech, and suggested I get started while he listened. King had only recently been assassinated in Memphis and Joe was an activist and visual chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement. Before I turned my canvas around to show Joe, I brushed in ‘I have a dream’, in oil paint. Joe seemed to like it enough to warm to me, a bit, and suggested I meet him in Washington Square park on the weekend, and bring my charcoal and drawing pad.
When he I arrived at the park , which has since become one of my favourite places in the world , Joe had two signs up . One sign advertising $5 portraits and one advertising $25 . The $5 one was for me and I quickly realised that when ordinary punters sit for a paid portrait they expect a good likeness. There is no quicker way to learn to draw people’s faces and find the essence of their character.
On another day Joe told me to come to an important gathering at Harlem Temple and to bring my sketch book. It turned out to be a Black Panther rally and Joe was the MC. I was the only white person in the crowd and tried to make myself inconspicuous but at the end of proceedings Joe announced that there was “an Australian visitor in their midst and he was an artist and had come to draw their babies”. I suddenly found myself with a line of mothers with Rubenesque black babies to draw while two tall, armed Panthers stood behind me, minutely examining every line for signs of racist interpretation. It would be wonderful to find some of those drawings and put them beside all the children and babies I have drawn in Somalia, South Africa , Mozambique, Congo, Rwanda and Southside Chicago.
Modigliani boasted that he never spent more than 15 minutes on a portrait drawing and often did them in 30 seconds. When the sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz commissioned Modigliani ,10 franks, to paint a double portrait of him and his wife, he was startled when Modi finished it in a single sitting, over one afternoon. Embarrassed, Jacques asked him to go away and do more work, which Modi did ,but warned that this would probably mean he would over-work and ruin it.
While in I was in America in 1969 I read an article which has remained the parable that has helped me to accept the financial problems that the life of an artist guarantees. The journalist had gone to interview a rich collector who was sitting in front of a Modigliani portrait of the pregnant Jeanne Herbutane. He took out his writing pad and asked his first question “It must be wonderful to own a painting as great as that Modigliani”.
The tycoon stood up angry and walking out of the interview yelling “I would give everything I own to have painted it.” Everything he owned ! The poorest of all the artists of bohemian Paris , Modigliani, suddenly became richer than the richest of men .
I have forgotten the name of the rich guy. A friend has suggested it was probably Albert Barnes , the man who made a fortune selling a treatment for gonorrhoea . Barnes was ridiculed ,in the day , as being crazy for collecting “long nose women with their swan necks”. His collection is now housed in a Philadelphia Museum and is literally, worth billions.
With my life slowed by the Corona Virus I found the time to treat myself something the Tycoon collector, couldn’t do. I decided to copy the head from the Modigliani painting of his pregnant wife. In this, Jeanne’s nose is the longest of all the Modi noses and the neck the most beautifully curved and her eyes have no pupils or iris’s, they are pale blue like the sky above the sea on an autumn day. If Modi had lived another weak he would have painted more like this – getting closer and closer to representing his sitter’s soul.
In those last days Modi and Jeanne could not afford heating for the studio and Modi was coughing TB blood and only able to eat oily sardines from a can. Their young daughter was crying a lot and the cupboards were bare.
When Modi died Jeanne’s brother had to force her to leave his body where it lay and to return to their parental home. Jeanne’s mother had no sympathy for her grieving daughter , hating Modigliani for being a Jew and the bohemian artist “who had lead her daughter astray”.
Jeanne was sent to a bedroom at the top floor of their apartment building. Her brother was worried and stayed with her but fell asleep. Jean threw herself out the window.
The brother did not want his mother upset by the sight of her smashed daughter with the dead baby inside her, on the street. He got a wheelbarrow and put her frail body into it and wheeled her back to Modi’s studio. As he arrived art dealers were rushing out the door. They had looted everything and stolen all of Modi’s works, including this last portrait of Jeanne. Jeanne and Modi’s surviving daughter does not own a single work by her father. Within six months of Modigliani’s death his works were selling for over a million Dollars.
This is the cost of being an Artist but the richest man said he would “give all he had”.
Jeanne was a wonderful artist in her own right. I can recommend the book written by their surviving daughter , although it is , understandably, bitter.
Article by Gavin Fry Rwanda, Directorate of Publishing, Department of Defence, Canberra, 1996
The Kibeho Massacre
For many months the Rwandan Government and the Rwandan Patriotic Army had been frustrated at the stalled process of refugee and IDP repatriation. Operation Retour, so successful in its early stages, had ground to a halt. With the ‘easy’ camps already dispersed the ‘hard camps’, of which Kibeho was the largest and most difficult example, sheltered huge populations determined not to go back to their home communes. Fear of reprisal and being implicated in the genocide was the main anchor which kept the camps full. The UN and the NGOs had struggled to make the camps safe for the Internally Displaced Persons, although those efforts were seen by the Rwandan Government as making the camps too comfortable. With a fair element of truth, the camps were accused of being shelters for the forces of the former Rwandan Government and as bases from which raids were being mounted against the RPA, especially in the area around Butare.
Kibeho held some 120,000 IDPs at its peak. With regular food, good water, medical attention and UN protection Kibeho showed worrying signs of becoming a permanent and destabilising feature on the Rwandan landscape. While in November 1994 a combined UN and RPA cordon and search had gone some way to relieving Rwandan anxiety about the military threat from Kibeho, the view from Kigali was that the camp would have to close sooner rather than later.
Ominously, the first moves toward the closing of the camps began on 7 April, the beginning of the national week of mourning marking the first anniversary of the Rwandan genocide of April 1994. Carefully orchestrated anti-UN demonstrations and inflammatory rhetoric aimed at the camps set the scene for increased security tensions. A number of smaller camps were closed and in the early morning of 18 April the RPA surrounded Kibeho with two battalions. In a state of relative calm a cordon and search was carried out and the people were herded together to conduct interrogations before sending those cleared of genocidal involvement back to their own communes.
The RPA employed the expedient measure of firing shots in the air to move the IDPs along. In order to prevent the IDPs returning, many of the huts were burnt by the advancing RPA. As ‘C’ Company of the Zambian Battalion formed the main UN presence in the camp many of the IDPs attempted to get into the Zambian lines for protection. A number of children were crushed to death in the rush as fear began to take over what had been to that point a relatively orderly process.
The following day, 19 April, the UN sought to calm the situation while the RPA insisted all IDPs would have to go, on the pretext that otherwise the Government would be seen to be holding them in a prison camp. In military terms the situation was judged to be unstable but calm. Australian officers monitoring the situation saw real danger if the IDPs continued to resist the RPA, thereby bringing about a serious conflict of interest between the RPA and UNAMIR II. A 32 strong team was prepared at AUSMED HQ under Major Steven McCrohan ready to go into Kibeho. The Australians established a five person Casualty Collection Post in an empty domestic building and began treating injured and sick IDPs as they were moved out of the camp. Those IDPs cleared by the RPA were taken away in UNAMIR II trucks, to the hopeful safety of their own communes. At this stage all was proceeding relatively peacefully, although the slow rate of screening the IDPs before departure meant that sanitary conditions for the huge crowd rapidly deteriorated.
On 20 April an Australian Infantry Platoon under LT Steve Tilbrook was brought in to protect the Australian medical team in the camp. The situation became increasingly tense as the RPA attempted to move the frightened crowd, savagely beating anyone who resisted. At checkpoints on the exit road the RPA was searching IDPs for evidence of identity and complicity in previous atrocities against the Tutsi under Hutu rule. Within the camp the IDPs were desperately discarding their ID cards and any other items which, rightly or wrongly, might link them to the events of a year before. All the while the physical conditions in the camp were becoming ever more unbearable. Lack of sanitation, food and water should have forced the IDPs out, but their fear of RPA violence and the vicious tactics of the machete wielding hardliners amongst them rooted them to that terrible place.
By the middle of the day the more desperate among the IDPs began stoning the RPA, bringing the fearful retribution of rifle and machine gun fire into the pressed mass of humanity. The UNAMIR II Force Commander General Tousignant visited the camp to personally plead with the IDPs to leave, but they steadfastly held their positions, huddled against the razor wire perimeter of the ZAMBATT compound. All through the day individual executions and killings took place, usually against those who managed to break through the cordon in a desperate bid to escape. The UN and NGO observers could only watch and record the events as men, women and children were cut down in front of their eyes. But the violence and viciousness witnessed up till then was but a prelude to the events of 22 April.
Those who had stayed in the camp overnight reported constant gunfire and explosions, with the screams of machete victims adding further terrors to the fearful darkness and the massed IDPs awaited the dawn. Heavy rain made matters worse, adding further misery to the dispirited crowd. In the first light the RPA could be seen carrying away the bodies of their victims, presumably to lessen any body count which might take place in the daylight hours. The IDPs were in a miserable state, many bearing bullet wounds or ‘crowd related injuries’, the terrible broken limbs and crushed bodies resulting from the random movement of the terrified IDPs. ZAMBATT and AUSMED began to bring in the injured and the Australian medics under Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans began to treat the victims.
Hygiene and sanitation conditions were appalling, with the now weak and starving people forced to huddle in their own blood and excrement. On one side the UN and NGOs were pleading with the crowd to move back for its own safety and survival, on the other the RPA, fearful of a crowd breakout, steadfastly refusing to enlarge the cordon or to let food and water in. The medical teams treated those they could, but the RPA was restricting treatment to just five minutes per person before the patients were moved on.
During the morning of the 22nd the crowd, many now five days without food, was becoming restive again. Sporadic firing began, with the ZAMBATT compound the target but the source unknown. At noon an approaching tropical storm caused the crowd to flee for shelter, a movement interpreted by the RPA as a breakout attempt. They opened fire into the terrified crowd, shooting indiscriminately for nearly an hour. In the panic IDP hardliners began to lash out with their fearsome machetes, causing horrific injuries to all who crossed their path.
Despite the carnage the RPA denied access to UNAMIR II personnel and medical supplies and the Australian and Zambian security troops could only stand by and watch. To have opened fire on the RPA, a reaction forbidden by their mandate, would have meant certain death to every UN and NGO person in the camp. Their restraint under the most terrible provocation was an astounding tribute to their discipline and training. Many witnesses tell of the RPA deliberately attempting to goad the UN into breaking ranks by coldly executing old people and women under the noses of the watching troops. But the Australians held firm and did what they could to relieve the suffering of the victims, shouldering their weapons to carry in the desperately wounded and dying. As they stretchered the victims back up the hill to the compound for treatment the RPA, fired up by their officers, were sweeping down the valley, picking off fleeing individuals as though for sport.
As the terrible day drew to a close 5000 IDPs forced themselves against the RPA cordon. It appears that the movement was started by machete attacks and sniper fire from Interahamwe and Former Rwandan Government Forces [FRGF] hardliners behind the crowd. The RPA responded with a fusillade of automatic weapons fire, rocket propelled grenades and even mortars to force the crowd back. The hardliners used the subsequent chaos as cover while they retreated to the Medecin Sans Frontieres compound from where they continued firing on the RPA.
Whenever the UN troops attempted to persuade the IDPs to leave the danger of the area they would be held back by threats and warnings from among their own people. The hardliners cynically used their own women and children as human shields to carry on their battle with the RPA, seeing the seething mass of humanity as their best protection against exposure and identification. Nightfall saw no end to the killing, but the Australians again had to leave the area as they were under strict orders not to work there at night for their own protection.
When the AUSMED team returned on 23 April with a second Casualty Clearing Post and were eventually allowed into the camp the first task was to count the dead. Despite the fact that the RPA had conducted a massive cleanup operation overnight and they restricted access to many areas suspected of hiding bodies, the task was daunting. The Medical Company Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 2 Rod Scott, and Corporal Paul Jordan, each leading half an infantry section, counted 2,900 bodies between them. With a further 1000 counted by the Zambians a certain toll numbered 4,050 dead and 650 wounded. While these figures were later hotly disputed by the RPA, the methods used by the Australians were the most objective and accurate employed by any of the observers and back up the visual evidence provided by the photographic documentation.
The killing and sheer horror of the situation was the worst confronted by Australian service personnel since the darkest days of the Second World War. The count could have been higher, had the RPA been allowed to carry out their intention to use anti-tank weapons to demolish the MSF building, believed by them to be sheltering 1700 hardliners. The timely arrival of the international media and the intervention of high ranking UN officers prevented what could have been the final act of barbarism in a week of bloody chaos.
By the end of the day calm was restored and the task of cleaning up and processing the remaining IDPs could proceed. Recriminations and accusations flew around and for a few days Rwanda again dominated the world’s headlines. On 27 April Rwanda’s President His Excellency Pasteur Bizimungo visited Kibeho and inspected graves and other evidence of the killings. At the end of his visit he announced his government’s support for an International Commission of Inquiry, which reported on 18 May 1995.
Rwanda, Directorate of Publishing, Department of Defence, Canberra, 1996
SPECTRUM - IN THE GHETTO
SPECTRUM – IN THE GHETTO
My journey to Englewood in Southside Chicago began in Baghdad in 2003, when I was filming a scene for my documentary, Soundtrack to War, beside the palace pool of Uday Hussain, Saddam’s Gangster son. I had come to record the poorest, mainly black, soldier, sons of America, who found themselves billeted in the kind of luxury they had only ever seen in MTV music videos. A patrol had returned, totally wired with adrenaline, after surviving a fire fight with the remnants of the Republican Guard. They invited me to film a rap freestyling battle in what they called the “bull ring”, saying they “needed to vent”. The two victors were Elliot Lovett, from Miami and Ethiopian born, Yonas Hagos, from Chicago. I had been awed as Elliot sculpted images with words like Picasso turning a bicycle seat and handlebars into a bull’s head and Yonas ‘spat’ the ultimate gangster rap, aggrandising himself as “a biological weapon and the meanest mother f’r alive”. I felt protective of the genius of these urban poets and suggested I talk to their officers to see if they could be withdrawn from dangerous contact missions. Elliot laughed, saying “ George , I joined the army because Baghdad is much safer than Brown Sub, Miami , where I come from.” Yonas sniggered and said “But Southside Chicago is a real war zone. It makes Miami look like a playschool for little kids.” I followed Elliot back to Miami and made a documentary with his family, called ‘Rampage.’ Elliot invited me there to help make his younger brother, Lil Mark, into a rap star but I ended up attending Mark’s funeral after he was shot , execution style, in rival gang payback.
Yonas never gave up with his requests for me to come to Chicago – promising to be my guide and bodyguard.
But it was not until 2018, when I heard that Englewood, in Southside Chicago, had been renamed Chi-Raq. I was shocked when Yonas sent me statistics showing there were more gun deaths, in this one Chicago neighbourhood about the size of Wollongong or Bendigo, than American soldiers killed in Iraq. Yonas challenged me : “George you have a duty to come and show the world what is happening to black people in a real war zone, in America!”
My company, Gittoes Films, is a team of three, Waqar Alam and myself do the day to day camera work and my wife Hellen Rose, focuses on the music. Waqar, is from the Tribal Belt of Pakistan and if you watch ‘Miscreants of Taliwood’, ‘Love City Jalalabad’ and ‘Snow Monkey’ you will witness the high-risk moments we have shared. There is no one else I can trust with my life like I trust Waqar. We can read each other’s minds, so well, it is like having two pairs of eyes.
Yonas returned to Chicago from Iraq, seriously wounded but this did not stop him re-inventing himself from an Ethiopian Refugee who had escaped to Chicago to a multimillionaire American businessman. The American dream come true. He sent a limo to collect Waqar and I from the airport then paid to put us in a 4 star hotel. The next day Yonas proudly showed us his magnificent home, in an upmarket white district, his exotic cars and gun collection. While Yonas was ecstatic to see us, it was clear his wife was not happy with the idea of him “risking it all back in the hood”. Privately, she told me: “It has been too hard for us to work our way out of the gutter to lose it all, now”. As I played with his two young children, I realized she was right, it would be wrong to take Yonas back.
Waqar and I pinpointed what was the worst corner (East 67th St and Rhode) in Southside, with the highest number of murders and gang shoot outs. We rented a car and went to the nearest Starbucks, to check out house rentals, using the local newspaper.
After inspecting some unsuitable places, I noticed a tall elegantly dressed, young man packing boxes into a new car. He looked charismatic and athletic, like a young Mohammad Ali, so I thought,“This is someone who would know if it is crazy for us to try to rent in this neighbourhood”. As he turned round I recognised him. It was Darius Marcus Ford, an arts student who had attended photography workshops I had given at Syracuse University. Marcus beamed to see me and told me that two ground floor apartments, next to the block, where we stood, had become vacant. He took his mobile phone out and called the landlord. Within 24 hours Waqar and I were moving in. My friend Martin Sharp once said, “God speaks to us through synchronicity”. Such an amazing coincidence made me think ‘This is meant to be, the angels are guiding us, and it will all work out.’ Marcus and I teamed up to turn the basement into a studio and the multi panel paintings we created there, ‘Renaissance Park’ and ‘Kill Kulture Amerika’ have been acquired by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, and slated to go on show, post virus lockdown, when the Museum reopens.
After being kept awake most of the first night, by constant police and ambulance sirens, I took a hot cup of tea down to the corner, and sat on a log. I soon had curious locals sitting with me. I was a total oddity, the first white man they had seen in the neighbourhood that wasn’t a cop. The gang that usually sold drugs from the corner were all in jail and I had suddenly filled the void. I told these new friends about my film plans and asked, “Do you know someone who has been shot and nearly died from the wounds.” I had decided the best way into a film about gun deaths was to talk to those who had been shot and died and returned. Back in Miami, Elliot’s, second brother, Denzell, had been shot and while medics worked to resuscitate, him he composed a rap song about seeing a white Light. That gave me the idea to call our film ‘White Light.’ My new neighbours recommended someone they called “the prince of the streets,” Solja, who had lost a leg and been semi paralysed by a hail bullets, while visiting the local store. Solja is the leader of the younger members, of the legendary gang, the Black Stones.
When Waqar and I walked into Solja’s apartment he looked up to us from his wheelchair, puzzled to see a long haired, old, white man and a young Pakistani who, he assumed, would be ‘packing guns’. His followers reacted like cats putting their fur up and hissing through their teeth, as their hands reached for their actual guns. Since then those young men Lil Dave, Lil Mac, Lolo, Head Shot, Boozie and Solja have grown so close to me they treat me like their pop or adopted father.
People ask me “How did you get their trust ?” and expect me to say it took a long time but the reality is, it was less than 3 minutes and within 15 minutes we were filming interviews that were so frank I began to worry they were seriously incriminating themselves.
If you grow up black in the segregated ghettos of America or are born into a war zone, like Afghanistan, you have to learn how to read someone in seconds, misjudging can cost you your life. Taking time to trust or not trust someone, is a luxury. If an active war is raging, the assessment has to be lightning fast.
I asked, “Who are these enemies who shot Solja and many of your friends” and got the answer “If you met them before you met us you would like them as much as you like us. There are no good guys or bad guys. It is just that if they do things to us, we have to retaliate, and no one can see a way out of this cycle of violence.”
I lived and worked in South Africa before the end of Apartheid and the segregation was never as extreme in Soweto or Alexandra Township as it is in Southside Chicago. What makes this American version of Apartheid work is the fear caused by the guns and killings. The red line that separates is no longer created by the racist manipulation of real estate as it was in the days of Dr Martin Luther King but the red, crime-scene, tape, rolled out by cops, around countless killings. We witnessed this, firsthand, when, after one night of hearing shooting, we woke up to three separate crime scene areas taped off around our apartments. No one knows if it is a conspiracy to keep blacks killing one another but it feels like one. Illegal guns are in oversupply and the cops do not investigate black on black murders. They arrest and intimidate for basic lifestyle offences but do not go after killers. It is not hard to meet community hit men who have taken twelve to sixteen lives and are still walking around. If they have done time it is for selling pot or traffic offences. No one talks to the cops, ‘snitches’ are despised. The one informant I met, was promised total secrecy by the police, but it was only days before the news leaked out. That person, now, lives in perpetual fear, knowing someone will come for him, some day.
There is a group of parents who have lost their children to gun violence who regularly protest because official statistics show only one in ten murders on the Southside, are solved. The Angel, of our film, is Kaylyn Pryor, who was famous for winning the Mario Make Me a Model Competition. The day Kaylyn was shot she was celebrating signing a contract with a big modelling agency, her ticket out. Even though Kaylyn was ‘high profile’ there has been no success in finding her killers, in the three years since her death.
While Waqar and I were out filming on the streets my wife, Hellen Rose, was working with local musicians to create the White Light soundtrack and music album. Hellen was expecting a lively music scene from this home of Chess Records but was shocked to find live music is another homicide, mummified in crime scene tape and departed.
Hellen: “ Southside Chicago is the birthplace of some of the greatest Jazz and Blues ever exported to the world from the US. Mahalia Jackson, Cab Calloway, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Williy Dickson who wrote ‘Little Red Rooster’. It’s legendary Chess Records was where the Rolling Stones went to meet Muddy Waters in 1964, the area was a mecca for music lovers but it’s like a ghost town now. Without the guns it could be the equivalent of Beal St New Orleans or Soho London with tourists and bars jumping with music. After a long search I found Soundmine, the last Jazz recording Studio in the area and had the honour of being the first white women to record there in decades. I will be going back to do a solo album with musicians I thought I could only ever dream about”.
Our apartments became a safe place for young rappers to come and write, collaborate and record. Hellen joined in singing hooks and back-up vocals for their urban poetry. We had spare rooms where they could sleep when it was too dangerous out on the street, and always some nourishing meals when they came in hungry.
“Chicago Drill Hip Hop was invented right in Englewood by young rappers like Chief Keef and Li’l Dave and Li’l Mac are straight out of the same block, Mayblock. Some of the best times of my life was taking them to a local studio and singing the hooks that we had invented at our Chicago Yellow House. On the last night of recording the White Light Soundtrack, George and Waqar had to go back to the production suite so it was just me and the toughest gang inside of Chicago, and once we had recorded City off the Chain we all broke out into a celebratory dance of joy, Smiley, Headshot, Li’l Dave, Li’l Mac. I remember thinking to myself afterwards I was dancing with joy along with a bunch of beautiful young talented people, just like my students back in Aus, it reaffirmed my belief that everyone in this world is an asset if only everyone treated each other as such ”
While they did music with Hellen I painted their portraits. Once finished they would photograph them onto their mobile phones and post on Facebook . My portraits became the ultimate ‘must have’ bling and I found myself having to do them for everyone.
My favourite movie is ‘The Blues Brothers’ set in Chicago. As a tribute, I wore a black fedora hat and total black attire, everywhere. One morning, this attire nearly got me killed by cops in our own apartment. Most of the apartments are rigged, by the gangs that have occupied them, to stall a police break in. Ours, like all others, had iron bars that could be dropped into heavy brackets fixed on either side of the doorframes. I never bothered with this, so when a squad of cops were trying to break down our neighbour’s door and couldn’t, they took their frustration out on ours. I was dressed ready to head out, as they burst in pointing guns at my face and heart. They had been startled to see a white man, with black mobster hat and cloths, and assumed something sinister; like I had been sent by the mob to retrieve stolen drugs or do a hit. Fortunately, a woman sergeant arrived in time to yell at them to, “de-escalate !!!! ”. I got so used to these break-in’s that one night I heard cop noise and thought it was from upstairs, so I went back to sleep. Next thing Waqar was banging on my door, yelling, “George are you OK? The police just came out your door.” The cops were outside surrounding our car. I challenged them and one casually yelled back, “Hey, we liked the art that you had on your floor.” That was nice to hear, but the fact was I had not had any art on my floor for a week or more. They could have planted drugs or a gun, and I would be writing this from a jailhouse.
The most important thing, if you are contemplating making a film like White Light, is to have a cool car. Ours was metallic orange with a hotted-up engine, a sunroof and, most important of all, a great booming sound system. The first thing anyone said, when we pulled up, was, ‘Like your car!’. The film’s teenage rapper, Lil Mac did not have a licence but I let him drive, and if you think the most hair raising ride at a fun park is scary, take a ride around the hood with Lil Mac at the wheel. We taped one of our cameras to the dashboard and that is how we captured some of best freestyles and most revealing conversations.
Our fire coloured car features in the police bust you see in our documentary, ‘White Light’. Solja had been under house arrest for months, with an ankle bracelet restricting him to his apartment. On the day we took him to Court he was given a few extra hours of freedom of movement. We drove him over to May Block to ‘chill’ with his friends. Fixed cameras are everywhere monitoring this notorious haunt of the Black Stones. The gang calls it ‘the trenches’. A police drone picked up the activity and soon we were surrounded by cop cars. It did not help that there had been three murders in the vicinity that morning. Mac had been to buy dope and was rolling joints for everyone inside our car. As the cops exited their vehicles Waqar and I were filming the action from the curb and kept recording. Our guys were brutally cuffed and pushed up against our car while the cops searched every crevice. When more detectives arrived one turned on me saying “Have you been filming illegal activity ….. smoking marijuana?” and I could see he was itching to find a reason to cuff and charge me.
We were told we needed a permit and forced to switch our cameras off. Solja smiled across to me, letting me know he was secretly filming with his mobile phone camera.
It is all these cameras that makes the cops think twice about toning down their aggression. Before cameras in phones police killings, like that of George Floyd’s being choked, were occurring every day and police were getting away with 100% of them. As the cops drove off Solja wheeled over to me and said: “That cop whispered in my ear – you know I could have planted a gun on you.” Solja shook his head at a world in which he was supposed to feel grateful for not being ‘set up’ and said “The police say we are a gang but they are the worst gang”.
I told everyone, involved in our film, this was their chance to have a voice and let the world hear their story the way they wanted it told. When aggrieved people are not being listened to, they take their anger to the streets. I was in the US in 1968, the year Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, and it feels the same, now. The choking of George Floyd was the tipping-point, but the protests will not end until there is real change.
The Southside community found it mind blowing when I told them ‘White Light’ is about to be screened nationally by the ABC in Australia. As soon as travel restrictions ease, we are bringing the core group to visit us at Werri Beach on the South Coast of NSW. Hellen and I look forward to seeing them relaxed and not turning their heads from side to side for fear of being shot .
Essay by Gavin Fry on George Gittoes, Sydney, 1998
Realism of Peace
The next step in Gittoes’ career built on two powerful planks of his art. The international social concerns revealed in Nicaragua and the Philippines and the human and artistic concerns of Heavy Industry came together with a series of works that have sustained Gittoes to the present day. He had always been repulsed by war and conflict yet inspired by the resilience of the human spirit in all its trials. The Gulf War of 1991 triggered in him a strong sense of outrage and he produced a suite of etchings and a major painting, Baghdad Starry Night, inspired by the conflict. Since his time in the United States, Gittoes had followed with interest Australia’s increasing role in international peacekeeping and saw in that involvement possibilities to develop ideas which had been brought into focus by the television coverage of the Gulf War. He felt the need to go behind the manipulated images, to witness the crises first-hand. But access to the events and movements that were shaping the world required support quite different from that available from arts funding sources such as the Australia Council. My intellect and imagination is caught up by the forces shaping contemporary history. I believe it is an empty field for the artist to enter to be an independent witness — to challenge the image making of the mass media.
The answer initially came by way of a tradition which had sustained more than sixty Australian artists over the past seventy-five years: the role of the Official War Artist. In the two world wars and in the Korean and Vietnam wars, artists had documented the work of Australian forces in every part of the world. From Sir Arthur Streeton and George Lambert to Donald Friend and Nora Heysen, artists of every age, style and outlook had accompanied servicemen and women to the front line, out to sea and in the air, creating the huge and 3 fascinating body of work that forms the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Australia’s commitment to Somalia in 1993 provided the trigger for a new course of action. Gittoes approached the Memorial and, while not then in a position to undertake a commission, the art staff assisted by organising a high-level meeting of interested parties, which included the Army’s Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General John Grey. Gittoes made a presentation to the group which resulted in an agreement whereby the Army would facilitate his travel to Somalia and the Memorial would purchase a selection of his works for its collection on his return. The official military support enabled Gittoes to travel to Somalia with the protection, infrastructure and access afforded by attachment to the Australian United Nations contingent. It was an undertaking not without some misgivings in officialdom, for Gittoes was a civilian in the care of the Army, not a commissioned officer subject to normal discipline and direction. Official war artists in wars past had been free to move where they chose, but were invariably kept away from the real heat of battle when their safety was in question. Gittoes was travelling more with the status of a correspondent than a traditional war artist, a role which demanded a greater freedom than the modern Army was used to giving. The Army declined to enter a formal con-tract with the artist, but agreed to provide internal travel, food and a fare to Somalia in exchange for a selection of drawings to be made on his return. This arrangement suited Gittoes because its ‘arm’s length’ nature ensured he would not be considered a public relations artist working under the direction and control of the Army in Somalia or back in Australia.
Realism of Peace became the title for an extraordinary passage of work which eventually took Gittoes to Cambodia, Somalia, Southern Lebanon, Israel, the Sinai, the Western Sahara, Mozambique and Rwanda with the Army and on to South Africa, Bosnia and Northern Ireland on his own account. The paintings, drawings and photographs that have been created over the past five years mark the high point of a thirty-year career. Confronted by danger, deprivation, tension and pathos, Gittoes responded with powerful paintings and drawings of great humanity and understanding.
The nature of the conflicts he was confronting was inherently civil, with one group in the population pitted against another. The Australians of the United Nations forces were often bystanders doing what they could to calm the situation without being able to intervene between the combatants, their role one of peacekeeper rather than peacemaker. The enemy was, as often as not, the neighbour from the next block, the businessman from another village or the farmer over the side fence. The people were enmeshed in the war and it was through their personal struggles that Gittoes expressed the conflict. In setting out on his first assignment, he had the confidence that comes from already having worked in tough situations. He also carried with him a line of artistic inspiration stretching back to his formative days at the Grosz-inspired Art Students League and, beyond that, to such important influences as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Francisco Goya.
His first destination was Somalia, the desperate and drought-racked nation at the horn of Africa. Years of civil war, foreign intervention and famine, both natural and man-made, had left the country in a desperate situation. When the United Nations called for countries to support a United States-led coalition to protect the distribution of food aid, it was not surprising that Australia should volunteer troops. Since the late nineteenth century, when Australian colonial troops served in the Sudan in support of British rule, Africa had been seen as within Australia’s sphere of interest, if not always of influence. Australians served in South Africa against the Boers at the turn of the century, in East Africa and Egypt in the First World War and right across North Africa in the Second World War.
In keeping with Australian defence policy which projects an Indian Ocean involvement, the Somalia contribution was the largest overseas commitment since Vietnam. This time, the cause was popular at home. Australians were distressed by television images of dying children in Somalia and the apparent inability of aid organisations to get food aid through to them. An Australian general election planned for early 1993 made the seventeen-week commitment ‘electorally attractive’, providing a high profile for the cause and, as it eventuated, for Gittoes’ contribution. He arrived in Somalia in March, six weeks after the 900 troops of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. Gittoes found an environment made for drama and highly expressive visual interpretation.
Millions of starving Somalis were being terrorised by local warlords who, in the total absence of formal government, were battling for supremacy. Bandit gangs in their ‘Mad Max’ Technicals (battered but heavily armed open trucks), drugged Somali soldiers and nervous young Australians were a powerful counterpoint to the skeletal children and stoic adults caught in a desert hell. For the young Diggers it was a new and daunting experience. After dark, the towns were given over to the bandits; with little electric power available, the Diggers conducted patrols in the eerie artificial world of night vision glasses. It was clear from our earlier briefing that trouble is to be expected tonight. The magic word CONTACT keeps being repeated by the Diggers. They see themselves as a virgin group until they have a contact. Most of their friends in other Delta patrols have had contacts and this is beginning to weigh on their minds. They feel a pressure to see how they will perform in action. This is the ultimate peer pressure. Every man keeps looking at the gate which keeps them from the night outside and also from their destiny.
He documented their stories on film, paper and in the written word. To be able to capture the full meaning of a subject, he began to add written notes to the side of his drawings. At first intending these to be cut off during the mounting process, they became an integral part of the image which supported the story. The viewer can read directly about the circumstances, location and meaning of the images. Often, this is extremely important to what at first glance might seem a relatively innocuous subject. In the striking ‘still life’, Peace Conference, a pile of homemade knives lies in a jumbled heap. These, we learn, were the weapons of the delegates from the Somali Democratic Movement, handed over before an important meeting of the Addis Ababa Peace Conference. Like Wild West gunfighters checking their guns at the saloon door, the fighters had deposited their symbols of authority and power, the weapons ingeniously wrought from the wreckage of Russian fighter planes. The symbolism of the powerful pencil sketch is clarified and ‘witnessed’ in the artist’s testimony.
Gittoes found Somalia a revelation, a place where his art could bring a message of hope, where the human spirit, while bowed and desperately tested, nonetheless overcame the worst trials imaginable. As a father, he found the plight of the young extremely moving and many of his works depict the struggle to survive which was the daily lot of thousands of young children.
On a lesser scale, but of great political importance, was Australia’s United Nations commitment to Cambodia. The then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans had achieved international acclaim for his mediating role in the tiny, war-torn land and had agreed to supply Army communications support for Cambodia’s first democratic elections, scheduled for 23 May 1993. Significantly, an Australian, Lieutenant General John Sanderson, was appointed to overall command of the United. Nations force sent in to support and monitor the election. Gittoes had hoped to have his brief extended to cover the election and sought further support from the Army to cover the Australian involvement. The Army, preoccupied with mounting the new contingent, was still reviewing the commitment to Somalia and he was not able to gain the necessary approvals in time. Rather than miss what he saw as a unique opportunity, he chose to pay his own way with the aim of meeting up with the Australians on the ground in Cambodia.
Gittoes arrived in Cambodia just before polling got under way. He found that the plight of the ordinary Cambodians in their struggle to survive became the main interest of his work. He set up a studio in a Khmer Rouge-controlled area near the famous temples of Angkor Wat, the dominating architectural symbol of the long-lost Khmer nation. Powerful images such as The Blind Guitarist, the deformed beggar girl Lot and the mine victim in The Legless Bike were a further refinement of the resurgent social realism which had been building during his ‘Heavy Industry’ work of the late 1980s. The boy guardian of the killing fields memorial became the subject of two of Gittoes’ most successful paintings of the period: Death and the Boy and a larger reworked version which became the setting for the Portrait of General Sanderson.
Gittoes returned to Australia and began working his drawings and photographs into a powerful series of paintings. While the Cambodia trip had been difficult to get going, he found a new interest in his work within the Army. General Grey appreciated the political recognition Gittoes brought to the Army and became an influential supporter — which ensured that Gittoes was able to cover the other Australian contingents working overseas. The five-week tour was to include the fifty-strong group working with MINURSO (the United Nations Monitoring Force) in the Western Sahara, a demining team in Mozambique and Truce Observers on the troubled Israeli-Lebanon border. The Army was fortunate to have an artist who also accepted his role as reporter. Gittoes could be creative and powerfully expressive while also possessing a keen eye for a telling image and the characteristic action. His boldness and physical capacity were valuable assets on a tour which had few comforts. It was not an undertaking for the faint-hearted — a challenge of the type Gittoes relished. For one with more than a passing interest in philosophy, religion, history and literature, the hard grind of a desert road had an equal but very different appeal. The testing of the mind had to be matched by a testing of the body, a link back to his youthful days on the Rugby field and the search for the perfect wave.
The Western Sahara was a little-known Australian commitment to a largely forgotten war. The desert Shawari people had been resisting absorption by Morocco for more than twenty years. The Polisario guerillas had been fighting their long war in some of the world’s harshest country, but Gittoes quickly warmed to these simple, hospitable people who wanted nothing more than to be able to live unmolested on their own lands. In their struggle against huge odds, there was much in common between the Shawari cause and that of the Nicaraguan women he had filmed a decade before. Two particularly striking images resulted from this 1994 trip — the innocent pleasure of the little girl in The Great Coat and the new-found bonds of understanding in The Henna Tattoo.
From the Western Sahara, Gittoes tracked back to the Middle East where the United Nations was involved in the important (although usually undramatic) task of reporting border violations in the long and painful journey towards peace for Israel and the Palestinians. Gittoes arrived just as the slowly building peace was shattered by the Hebron Massacre, in which sixty-two worshippers at a local mosque were reportedly killed by an American-born Israeli settler. He met many of the victims of the massacre and could see with his own eyes the discrepancies between the type of injuries inflicted on the people and the ‘lone gunman’ theory being put out by Israeli news services. Not for the first time, he appreciated the necessity to form judgments on the reality of his own experience rather than the sanitised reporting of the mass media. And, as so often happened on his travels, it was the plight of the children that became the focus of his attention. “There were two boys with sling shots — one is retarded. I have decided to draw the youngest. 117 distract him for long enough there is a chance I will save him from an Israeli bullet. Sling shots like these are seen as weapons and boys are shot daily for using them”.
With his own young family safely at home in Bundeena, Gittoes was often moved to record the lives of the children he met ‘on the road’. In his diaries and notes, he pondered the accidents of fate which gave some peace and plenty and others lives of pain and deprivation. He drew a moving study of a small girl treasuring a pencil from his own drawing kit and a sheaf of old computer paper given to her by an Australian soldier. I had the compulsion to pick Mahina up and give her sanctuary and a real home with my kids in Australia. It was hard to leave with only the drawing. The growing intensity of Gittoes’ overseas travels was made possible in part by Gabrielle Dalton’s capacity and preparedness to provide a steady anchor for his life back in Bundeena. Over the years, the role of studio curator has become a demanding but satisfying task which now occupies much of her time.
An important complement to Gittoes’ work on United Nations peacekeeping was a self-funded trip to South Africa in 1994 to document the elections which brought majority rule and the presidency of Nelson Mandela. Rather than working in the main cities, he chose to view the election from the poor black townships, such as Alexander, Kat Lahoon and the troubled region of Empengeni in Natal. His work and obvious empathy with the black South Africans led him across the path of the white extremists and he was lucky to survive a vicious attack by supporters of the supremacist AWB (Afrikaanse Weerstandse Beweging — the Afrikaaner Resistance Movement) at a rally at Kruger’s Farm House in Rustenburg. Two of Gittoes’ most powerful images from South Africa represent two extremes of the political and racial divide: Burning Fire and Children depicts a radical black township band, while White Earth is a chilling image of a young neo-Nazi supporter, the painting named for AWB leader Terre Blanche, who lurks menacingly behind his young protege. Under apartheid, Burning Fire was extremely limited as to where they could perform their freedom songs, as many of the musicians are in refugee camps — forced from their homes by the fighting … We swerved off the sealed road onto a dirt track through thick scrub. This was way beyond the fringe of the townships — between trees we got glimpses of small shanty houses. We pulled up in front of one of these fibro shacks. Painted on the wall which faced us, in bold red and yellow print was the line BURNING FIRE AND CHILDREN I immediately thought this referred to necklacing and the violent deaths of so many of the children of Natal. I was wrong — it refers to the musician Petros Bhozas Mithenbu who has adopted the stage name of BURNING FIRE. The AND CHILDREN refers to his own children who play as part of his band. With the coming of majority rule, Gittoes was delighted to be able to provide him with the image as the cover for Burning Fire and Children’s first CD.
As soon as possible after his return from each overseas trip, Gittoes mounted exhibitions of his work, eager to display the images while the stories were still current. He worked with curator Nick Vickers to create three powerful shows at Sydney’s Arthaus. In the Legless Bike, Freedom Dance and Eye Witness exhibitions he was able to show the full range of work he had created without the necessity to tread carefully around official sensibilities.
For a more formal statement of his work, the Australian Army was persuaded by Gittoes to sponsor an exhibition to travel to all Australian states and territories. Titled The Realism of Peace, the exhibition was sent on an extensive itinerary, enabling it to be seen in all capital cities and many regional areas. The thirteen-gallery tour was managed by the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery, an institution which had already shown its appreciation of Gittoes’ work with a one-man show in 1987. Like Heavy Industry before it, Realism of Peace was art that was accessible and challenging to a wide range of Australians. The realism and directness of the paintings left none in any doubt of their message and they did much to inform Australians of the good their people were doing in many parts of the world. The Army had invested heavily in the project and exhibition curator Deborah Hart was able to produce a substantial catalogue to document the exhibition.
After two years of intense activity, frenetic travel and extremely hard work, Realism ofPeace had still not reached finality. While the United Nations mission to Somalia wound down in acrimony and political stalemate, 1600 kilometres to the south the small central African nation of Rwanda was sliding into civil war. A festering stand-off over twenty years had seen the powerful minority Tutsi in a state of constant tension — and occasional war — with the mainly rural Hutu majority. Despite United Nations intervention, the country collapsed and the world was again shocked by television pictures of an African human catastrophe. This time, it was not images of starving children, for Rwanda was one of the most productive countries of the region, but frightened refugees desperate to escape a genocidal rampage by the Hutu government, bent on their own final solution to the Tutsi problem’.
The United Nations, after considerable procrastination and delay during which hundreds of thousands of civilians died, put together a revitalised Assistance Mission to help with the refugee crisis in Rwanda and over the border in Zaire. Australia undertook to provide a medical team of 300 personnel to support the 7000-strong international force, UNAMIR II. Unlike the Somalia force, which had consisted in the main of infantry troops, this was to be a totally self-contained operation capable of providing high levels of medical care for twelve months in a country in which much of the urban infrastructure had been destroyed. Gittoes was eager to join the force to continue his association with the peacekeepers, but those responsible for mounting the force knew that Rwanda was fraught with danger and the avoidance of casualties was a political imperative. With Realism of Peace just about to start its tour, Gittoes was once more on a plane to Africa. AUSMED, the Australian Medical Support Force, had already been in place for six months and he arrived as the second contingent was being phased in. On the surface, life was getting back to some sort of normality as the new Tutsi-led government extended its power across the land.
The Rwandan government was eager to close down the massive camps in which hundreds of thousands of displaced people were sheltering under the care of the United Nations and a number of non-government humanitarian organisations. While there was a semblance of order imposed by the United Nations forces, the first anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was approaching. Gittoes arrived just as the Rwandan government’s camp clearance ultimatum expired. In a heavy-handed operation the Rwandan Patriotic Army began the forced closure of the giant Kibeho Camp, home to more than 100,000 frightened Hutu and, the government believed, a hard-core element of the former Rwandan Government Forces. In their attempt to control the exodus, the RPA brought about an appalling human tragedy. The massed Rwandans, trapped in the open for four days without food, water or toilets, were caught between the opposing forces. Mass panic ensued and thousands were gunned down by the RPA or hacked to death with machetes by those who sought shelter in the chaos. A small Australian medical team, in the camp to support a company of Zambian peacekeepers, did what they could to save the injured; an Australian Rifle section protected them as they worked.
George Gittoes landed by helicopter two days before the massacre and was able to document the tragedy in graphic detail. With his motordrive 35 mm cameras, he captured hundreds of images which have become the main evidence of the tragedy. He pictured in great detail the work of his fellow Australians, the struggle of the Zambians, the terrified displaced Rwandans and the ruthless efficiency of the RPA killing machine. His work was rushed to Australian national television and became a cover feature for The Bulletin. When the scale of the tragedy became known, there had been rumblings at home that the United Nations did little to stop the killings. Gittoes’ images proved to the world that the tiny United Nations force had been placed in an impossible position, forbidden from confronting the RPA, even as they were deliberately being goaded by both sides who saw political points in any loss of control by the United Nations. The photographs were a precious document, evidence in graphic detail of what happened in that tragic week. Copies were retained by the Army and also passed on to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs which used them as part of Australia’s campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
On his return to Australia after three weeks in Rwanda, Gittoes began turning his images into a powerful series of paintings. Now obsessed by the drama he had witnessed, he documented in painful and often gruesome detail the suffering of the people, again with a focus on the children caught in the fighting. Stunned faces bearing horrific wounds stare out from the thick impasto. Huge figures, twice life size, writhe in the mud, blood and excrement in which they died. They are not pretty works, but they are as direct and confronting as anything painted in this country. People may wonder why an Australian artist would want to be a wit-ness to such horrors as I saw in Rwanda. But Australia is a complacent society — a little too isolated and comfortable; I see it as my role as a contemporary artist to challenge that complacency, and if raising questions, baring tragedy and passion makes the art audience a little uncomfortable, so be it.
Adding to that discomfort were the photographs which proved that these paintings were not the imaginings of a distressed mind, they were clear and accurate depictions of the depths to which human beings could fall in fear, rage and hatred. When the paintings and photographs were displayed together, the effect could be daunting. The Rwandan paintings also saw a loosening of Gittoes’ painting technique. The sheer scale and vigour of the works meant that he increasingly abandoned the brush for the application of his paint, instead working directly with his hands. I grew up in my mother’s studio — she was a ceramic sculptor and she worked with her hands, working with clay. Also, when she put on the glaze she would create effects [with her hands], blending the colours together. I find that if I use my hands I have five brushes — I can use the backs of my nails or hit with the palm of my hand like a broad brush — to use a paintbrush is actually much more restrictive than using my hands.
When creating the very large paintings which form the bulk of his output in recent years, Gittoes first draws the image on the canvas with a brush and pigmented damar varnish. The main areas of colour are then blocked in with his hand or a broad brush. Details are worked in with the fingertips or, more rarely, a small brush. The heavy paint stands thick on the canvas, gouged out like clay. His use of his hands is not just a fashionable gimmick, it is a way of becoming closer to the painting and the subject. His own vigour and emotions, which run the gamut from frustration, rage and anger to compassion and hope, are transferred undi-luted to the canvas.
The Rwandan chapter of Realism of Peace was harsh and confronting, and the works received considerable acclaim — although their brutal honesty made many of them almost unsaleable to all but public galleries and a few understanding collectors. The Preacher was awarded the 1995 Blake Prize, Gittoes’ second win in the important prize for religious art. It took more than two years for the Rwanda story to be resolved, but Gittoes’ connection with international tension remained. Rwanda also marked an end to Gittoes’ direct association with the Australian Army which, after the costs and pressures created by the major deployments to Rwanda and Somalia, had been pulled back by the Australian government from further major United Nations commitments. Gittoes was now able to choose his subjects anywhere in the world and, in the troubled post—cold war era, there were many places worthy of close examination. The attention created by Realism of Peace brought forward a new group of private sponsors who have been able to assist the artist to work with a new-found freedom and enthusiasm.
Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Beyond
The next chapter came in 1996 when Gittoes travelled to Bosnia shortly after the United States-led NATO force took control of the peacemaking effort from the failed United Nations operation. His aim was to interact with and draw the victims and participants while the effects of four years of intense siege, displacement and bombardment were still etched in their faces and memories. My experience was of refugees making their first tentative attempts to return home and of civilian populations beginning to realise it was safe to walk outside without the strong possibility of being shot or bombed. Things were still very tense. My bus from Zagreb was one of the first into Sarajevo in four years and the convoy of returning refugees which I joined in Grozda, was the first back into that devastated city. Gittoes was keen to meet with the local artists who were still working despite the hardships of their shattered city. He was particularly taken with the work of Sarajevo painter Nusred Pasic whose small Dada constructions were powerful metaphors for the harsh reality of life in the besieged city. Pasic’s work carried resonances of Gittoes’ own ideas back in the Yellow House days and linked to the highly expressive work which he produced from the Bosnian experience.
In Bosnia, he found a different situation to that which he had seen on any previous mission. Africa, Cambodia and the Middle East had been exotic locations, far from his normal experience. Bosnia was European, steeped in the same traditions, landscapes and architecture from which his own culture had come. There was a familiarity in the lives and aspirations of the people which he recognised as his own. By masquerading as a refugee, I was able to travel by bus to such devastated areas as Grozda, Mostar and Bihar. In the process, I developed close contact with many of the worst victims of the war, especially the children in the orphanages to which I was taken. But in the shattered psyches of the people there was a human tragedy he could record through his art. The people he met had already sustained themselves through four long years of siege. Again, it was in children, women and, oddly perhaps, the scruffy dogs of Sarajevo that he found many of his most telling images. Little boys playing with wooden guns in imitation of the madness of the war, shattered children who lived like rats in the ruins of the city and grieving women by the graveside became subjects for powerful and moving paintings.
Again, they are far from comfortable, not the stuff of Australian domestic peace and interior decoration. But they will find their place, especially in Europe. Gittoes’ expressionism echoes a strong European sensibility and he has felt a particular kinship with German artists such as Bernhard Heisig, Jorg Immendorf and Anselm Kiefer, while his technique and figure work have been influenced by such diverse artists as Frank Auerbach. Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Gittoes’ success in Germany acknowledges his place as the inheritor of the tradition of the New Objectivity, that powerful marriage between expressionism and an art of direct social commentary exemplified in Grosz, Dix and the early Max Beckmann. For more than a decade, his themes have been international and, even when he is depicting Australian subjects in Heavy Industry, there is little in the way of local colour. His decaying iron furnaces and dark coal mines could just as easily be on the Ruhr, in Poland or Pennsylvania as in Newcastle, Whyalla or Port Kembla.
In 1997 Gittoes mounted one of his most important exhibitions to date in Kassel, Germany, during `documenta X’, and he is finding interest in his work in many quarters. After my trip to Bosnia in April 1996, I travelled to Berlin where I met Mayen Beckmann, grand-daughter of the great German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann. She told me that she considered my work to be Expressionist, rather than post-Expressionist. She defines Expressionism as ’emotionally charged work, based on real experiences, from the personal perceptions of artists caught up in historic events. On the other hand, Mayen sees post-Expressionism as work which is ‘based on the private emotional experiences of the studio-based artist. The paintings created for the 1997 exhibition at the Innenseite Projektgruppe Stoffwechsel in Kassel take Realism of Peace to its ultimate conclusion, to a level where the cruelty, injustice and tragedy cannot be denied or ignored. Ten giant paintings, each 3 x 1.5 metres, rework the most powerful of the Rwanda subjects into huge and terrifying images. Totally without compromise, they make explicit much that had been hinted at in earlier paintings. For a number of publications and showings of the Rwanda works a degree of self-censorship and editing has been necessary. Many of the photographs in his collection were just too harsh and confronting for a general audience — even perhaps for the artist who has taken nearly two years to fully confront their brutality. Images of a woman with her breasts, nose and upper mouth hacked away, a defecating man carrying the head of his decapitated daughter, the frightened, lacerated face of a young girl have become towering indictments of the inhumanity of mankind. Every step I took during the massacre burnt into my memory images of humanity gone homicidally insane. I saw suffering and cruelty previously unimaginable. Displayed in their own gallery among the detritus of the camps — the filthy rags and broken plastic containers — the paintings leave the viewer emotionally wrung out and reflecting deeply on the ways in which the world’s troubles might be resolved. The clear-eyed social realism of Heavy Industry has given way to a violent, gut-wrenching expressionism which demands attention. By his art, Gittoes ensures we do not ignore the brutality of life that shadows our comfortable and often complacent lives.
Always reluctant to let an opportunity for further work go begging, Gittoes used the trip to Kassel as a way of working in Northern Ireland at a critical time in its recent history. He was able to fly from Germany in time to witness the most dramatic of the Protestant marches which preceded the IRA ceasefire in the wake of the election of the Blair government in London. He had anticipated the troubles of the July marches and was on the Garvaghy Road when a combined British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary operation forced an Orange Parade through a Roman Catholic area, crushing the resistance of the local residents. Again his excellent contacts and background preparation allowed Gittoes to meet with influential IRA members and to witness the actions ‘from the inside’. To retain a balance, he also met with representatives of the Orange Order, including a number of the Loyalist paramilitaries, the hardest of the hard men of Northern Ireland. Again, it was in the children and the faces of individuals that Gittoes has been able to document and express the human face of civil strife and conflict. And, beyond Northern Ireland, more subjects call out for attention, including the painful progress towards reconciliation between black and white Australians through such themes as the Wik judgment and native tide. All will come together in an important artistic and expressive statement marking the state of humanity at the end of the century.
George Gittoes has carved a remarkable career in Australian art. His work is highly individual, often taking diversions down new paths and away from the mainstream. His swings from powerful realism to vigorous expressionism have produced an art which is often uneasy and has at times restricted his appeal in the domestic market. In character, style and temperament, he is close to the great Australian painter Albert Tucker. Both share an intensity and seriousness which never denies the dark side of humanity. They share a common talent and love of drawing, able to work in realism or expressionism. Both have successfully used photography as a data-gathering source and a way of tying their images to reality. There are striking comparisons between such works as Tucker’s portraits of Martin Smith and The Sadist and Gittoes’ confronting portraits of the victims and perpetrators of the Kibeho massacre. Not surprisingly, both share an admiration for the great German expressionist Max Beckmann. Fittingly, Gittoes is represented in Europe by Mayen Beckmann’s Galerie Pels-Leusden in Berlin. His success in Europe coincided with significant recognition at home. Formal public acknowledgment has come with his being made a Member of the Order of Australia in the 1997 Australia Day Honours list. This has recognised his contribution both to Australian art and to international relations.
In a career which has spanned every artform from grand performance to the technical hologram, Gittoes has returned to the rectangular painted canvas as the most effective medium of communication, while still leaving himself open to installation and other contemporary forms. In a period when no particular form holds dominance and media experimentation is the rule, he has reasserted the value of traditional materials and realism to create an art which is politically relevant and charged with meaning. My art reflects the mass human struggles and the state of individuals at the end of this millennium — it is in these seemingly unresolvable states of political imbalance that I isolate the individual experience. It is where the disempowered face destruction and death, where the individual human spirit is pushed to its essence.
George Gittoes, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998