For the last two years I have been working on the exhibition ‘George Gittoes: On Being There’ which opens at the Newcastle Art Gallery on 8 February 2020. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work alongside a unique artist who is more at home in a war zone than the usual haunts of inner-city cafes favoured by creatives! This exhibition covers fifty years of Gittoes’ artistic production from the heady days of his involvement in the Yellow House artist community in Kings Cross, through his documentation of the working conditions of the steel mills of Newcastle, to his work in the field in war zones, the creation of another Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and his most recent sojourn in South Side Chicago, a place which has the worst statistics for gun violence in the USA. In each situation, Gittoes has sketched, painted, photographed, and, more recently, produced feature-length documentaries about what it is like to be there, in a way that draws in viewers to consider the ethical and moral dilemmas of what it means to be human in these difficult and limiting environments.
Rather than the usual structure of an artist survey, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to get under the skin of what motivates this artist. It seeks to address the questions about why he goes to such inhospitable places to make art and why he puts his life at risk. His answer is as simple as it is profound: ‘I feel privileged to have been able to spend much of my life creating beauty in the face of the destruction of war. I have been waging a personal war against war with art’. These works offer insights into the manner in which Gittoes works and how he sees, what catches his attention, and how this shapes his responses through his art-making. Against the backdrop of dangerous and emotionally charged contexts, Gittoes is drawn to empathise with the human person, as a site for bravery, resilience, hope, and despair, inviting our involvement as compassionate participators in a world that has moral and spiritual implications.
During 1969–1970, Gittoes was involved with the creation of the Yellow House artist community. Through his Puppet Theatre, Gittoes was able to play out the human dramas of heaven and hell, and life in between, using his skills in storytelling and the making of an extraordinary range of puppet creatures. His deeply imaginative work made a sharp response to the Vietnam War and contains some of the strongest responses to the war found in Australian art. Gittoes speculated at the time about how he could take the Yellow House experience, of incubating a creative artists community, to Vietnam, in the midst of this terrible war. In many ways, his life work has been to play out that possibility. Since 2011, Gittoes has worked regularly in the eastern part of Afghanistan, setting up the Yellow House Jalalabad. Here he linked with local filmmakers and actors renewing his earlier experiences of artistic collaboration. This process is documented in the award-winning film Love City, Jalalabad, which highlights the possibilities for hope in making art in such an unlikely context.
Through the Yellow House, Gittoes leaves aside the usual goals of western artists to highlight their own originality and prefers to embed himself in communities of creative people. Here, collaboration and the trust that is afforded to each person’s own gifts and creativity is highly valued. Gittoes’ work in Afghanistan has had a major impact on the film industry in that country incubating actors, directors, and technicians who are following through on their own projects in a country with a rich artistic heritage. Here we see culture as a form of renewal that provides stable images for a possible future. The results of this manner of working returns art-making to a community base that is concerned with the common good, the search for justice, and the creation of hope. It is a profoundly different model of valuing creativity that reaffirms the role of art to form the future as a social experience. One might say that the making of community might be the most profound art form practised by humans.
This film explores his encounters with the communities of Englewood in South Side Chicago, and uncovers the social impact of gun violence through the stories of both victims and perpetrators. It is a film filled with tragedy, pathos, and hope, developed while living and working together with the local residents. White Light is his most beautiful and evocative film, yet it is filled with the harsh social impact of gun violence. It is a moving and deeply empathetic narrative that uncovers the vitality of human beings looking for conditions that will allow them to reach their full potential. Gittoes focuses on the stories of young lives who through the means of their own creativity deeply yearn for a life that is better.
One of the paintings produced during this period is ‘The Scream’, which is his take on the anxieties of our current time. This work examples his capacity to provide a prophetic perspective on the history that is unfolding around us. The work was based on a street mural that depicts the yawning face of Donald Trump as it looms over the poverty and violence of the inner city. The scream is echoed as despair or protest by the lone African-American figure in a mask, which allows for the possibility that they see things differently, and look towards a different future. The prophetic imagination uncovers the structures that create injustice, it works to unsettle the status quo, and to question the myths we accept for what is considered normal. Prophecy works towards an alternative future based on justice where every creatures matters. This is deeply echoed in the Christian tradition and Gittoes takes us to the churches and activists who live this out on the streets of South Side Chicago. This frightening and disturbing image is linked to the emergence of hope in the darkest of situations.
The final work in the exhibition is a stunning 2.5-metre high ceramic form based on a traditional Afghani ewer. A collaboration with ceramicist Cameron Williams, Gittoes has decorated it with symbols from both Muslim and Christian traditions. Here both east and west come together in an act of potential hospitality. The work is entitled ‘To Cleanse the world of war’, it brings together into an imaginative conversation, cultures that are more often seen at enmity. The work evokes the ritual of welcome through the washing of hands and the serving of refreshments. it also offers a perspective that religion might contain resources for healing, understanding, and reconciliation. Religion is often considered in the popular imagination to be the problem, and yet religious faith from both Muslim and Christian traditions offer deep inspiration for mutual understanding and the solving of common problems that rob us of a peaceful future.
George Gittoes provides an extraordinary record of an artist willing to create in the face of chaos and potential destruction. While Gittoes might be a prophet, he is certainly a provocateur, alive to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of what it is to be human. Gittoes is also alive to the positive resources that religion and culture provide. This exhibition will give privileged access to his process through paintings, prints, visual diaries, field drawings, photography, and film. Through these works, we experience an amazing human journey that holds out the hopeful power of creativity in the face of prejudice and fear. This is a magnificent visual record of a creative imagination that provides a visual resource for the difficult times in which we live.
George Gittoes: On Being There is on exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery (8 February – 26 April 2020) and will travel later in the year to Casula Powerhouse Art Centre (opening 26 September) and Wollongong Art Gallery (opening 28 November).