Artist George Gittoes has spent considerable time working as a filmmaker in poor urban communities in the USA. Over the last few days, he has been sharing with me by email and phone his responses to what is happening in the USA this week. He has sent me the text below where he distils his response in a painting he completed in 2019. – Rod Pattenden
I met Elliot Lovett in Baghdad in 2003. He had just come in from a combat mission and joined in the freestyle rap competition called the Bull Ring, beside the pool of what had been Uday Hussain’s Palace. Elliot’s rhyming verses began to sculpt images in my mind with the genius of a Picasso re-configuring form to match images evoked by the bombing of Guernica. Instantly, I felt protective of Elliot’s genius and said, ‘Let me talk to your officers and have you excused from frontline duties – your talent is too great to be risked’. Elliot laughed back, and said, ‘George, it is more dangerous in Brown-sub Miami where I come from. I joined the army because it is safer’.
I followed Elliot back to Miami to make my film Rampage, which would test this challenging statement. Sadly, Elliot’s even-more-talented-poet-brother Marcus was shot and killed while we were making the film. Elliot asked me to come back again in 2017 to be with his community while they campaigned to oppose Donald Trump’s election. Elliot said: ‘We need to make a video clip and call it ‘Ya all don’t hear me’. He wanted the rap musicians to wear white clown masks and perform in front of a huge street mural depicting Trump with his face painted like Batman’s Joker, taking a knife to the Statue of Liberty.
All the rappers crammed into a hotel room to watch the election results with Hellen Rose (my partner) and I. They could not believe that Trump had won and would be their new President. Elliot commented: ‘He will say anything because he is crowd-pleaser, like a clown’.
As well as poetry, Elliot sees bodybuilding as an art form and uses his amazing physique to make symbolic poses that are art. He explained that the following day he wanted to take one of the clown masks out onto the street and ‘show what it means to a black person hearing the slogan “Make America Great Again”‘.
His performance, which I drew and photographed, was like a scream and I did one painting called that – The Scream – but for Elliot the most powerful image he wanted to evoke was standing with empty hands outstretched and looking down at them through the white clown mask and saying ‘Great!’ Saying it Elliot’s way, the word took on the opposite meaning; like when you have had a bad day and both tyres of your car have been punctured on the side of a highway in heavy rain and you reach for your mobile phone to call for help and discover the battery is flat and you say, ‘Great!’
Elliot has the double disadvantage of being an artist and black. In our society artists are discriminated against for being different. Growing up as an artist in conformist Australia helps me to understand the suffering of African-Americans and Indigenous people. Our film White Light gives a voice to the people of segregated Southside Chicago – a community which, literally, has a church on every corner and every one of them is full on every Sunday. The uplifting voices of Gospel singers can be heard, evoking the suffering and prayers of a people who have been victimised since slave days. To see Trump holding up a Bible to these truly-spiritual people was the deepest of all insults, at this time of crying out for change ‘at last’.
In the first four minutes of White Light, the police are seen approaching Harith Augustus, a much-loved hairdresser and barber as he peacefully walks up to his shop. Within seconds they have shot him dead on the road. The police never gave an explanation and were never punished. If it was possible to fly to the US, Hellen and I would be on the next plane to be with our friends, out protesting for change and an end to such injustice.
(George Gittoes’ recent film White Light features this song ‘Off the Chain’. In many ways, it provides the soundtrack for understanding the current unrest in the USA.)