George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?

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George Gittoes, Soljah, Love and Pain,  2019. Stencils, oil on canvas. 152.5 x 122.5cm. Artist collection.

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.

 

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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.

Gittoes most recent collaboration has been with the Yellow House South Side Chicago, an experience that is presented in his latest documentary White Light released in 2019:

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.

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George Gittoes, The Scream. 152.5 x 121.9 cm.

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.

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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).

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

Holy, Honest Confluences and the value of multiplicity

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Rebekah Pryor. Sealess (video still) 2018. © the Artist. Image courtesy of the artist.

It’s amazing what can happen when we get together! Better still if, when we get together, we come right out to our own edges to meet each other. Of course, this requires courage, boldness, and respect: all traits that we should not take for granted but that we can, of course, cultivate and practise together.

In my own exploration of the question – how can we be autonomous (or self-determining) and belong together? – the phrase ‘holy, honest confluences’ helps. A phrase of theologian Catherine Keller, it reminds us that recognition of our own limits is critical to our best being in the world and our being together. The world itself might even depend on it. Such a future will require (at least) more complex practices of relation in which bodies are understood in their ‘holy, honest confluences with the self, the neighbor, the stranger, the other: with these beings who matter, in relation to whose infinite need and newness my finitude is called to its capacity’.[i]

Who better to reflect with on matters of matter than artists? The eighteen artists in the exhibition Holy, Honest Confluences, currently on show at ACU Melbourne Gallery, respond to this question of autonomy and belonging in various ways.

Some works contemplate embodied, relational, and spiritual experiences (and their related specificities) of autonomy and belonging. Other artworks constitute actual and ritual remembrances of life and death, of other beings with whom we are or have been in relation. Some artists materially and conceptually focus on relationships with and between non-human others. Other artists examine singular human bodies in their consideration of the self-determining subject. Some artworks speak directly to the systems, conventions, and histories that limit and oppress autonomy and belonging. Still others, in their own languages, return us to the creative possibilities of all material natures.

Importantly, from the beginning, there was no mandate for artists to respond to the curatorial callout in any particular way or in accordance with any particular religious tradition. Artists (professional and established or emerging) working in any mode or medium, from any background, cultural, social or political context, and out of any religious tradition or none, were invited to draw from their own creative practice and experiences of autonomy and belonging, to reflect on the key exhibition questions and themes. This seemed to me the only way, if I were to take Keller’s imperative of confluence seriously. (Besides, however, is art about spirituality, faith, and/or religion to imaginatively invigorate new cultural and social (let alone theological) possibilities if we consistently demand more of the same?)

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Holy, Honest Confluences Exhibition (installation view), ACU Melbourne Gallery, Fitzroy, 2019. Photo: Rebekah Pryor.

As I emphasise in the catalogue essay, the value of multiplicity in Holy, Honest Confluences cannot be overstated. The many (sometimes congruent, at other times contradictory) perspectives gathered together in this exhibition sustain the creative collaboration as a confluence rather than an exercise in unity. And this is precisely the point. At a time when complex legal, ethical, and social questions concerning communities (for example, religious communities and their relations to power and ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ more broadly, culturally, and linguistically diverse communities and their multiple histories, and ecological communities diminished by present and imminent climate change impacts) challenge and implicate us all, Holy, Honest Confluences returns us to our own bodies and relations in search for answers.

The artworks exhibited here lead us to alternate, multiple and sometimes-ambiguous visions of matter and corporeality by which ‘space and the bodies that constitute space might better be thought of as liquid’, as Whitney A. Bauman states: unfixed and flowing with or alongside (but never as or instead of) each other.[ii] This is a necessary turn if, following the lead of Keller and others, we seek to honestly and reflexively cultivate more ethical and sustainable futures for our selves, each other, and all matter.

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Holy, Honest Confluences is curated by Rebekah Pryor. The exhibition continues until 15 December at ACU Melbourne Gallery (26 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy). For more on the exhibition, including the full catalogue containing artist bios and statements, and essays by Rebekah Pryor and Mel Dixon, visit www.rebekahpryor.com/holyhonestconfluences.

Rebekah Pryor is a visual artist, curator, and academic living and working on Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri country. Her artistic and research practice is interdisciplinary and currently explores the spatial and iconic potential of the body via a range of media and disciplines, including philosophy of religion, feminist theory, feminist theology, and architecture. Rebekah was a finalist in the 65th Blake Prize in 2018 and currently works in research and teaching in the Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.

[i] Catherine Keller. ‘The Lost Fragrance: Protestantism and the Nature of What Matters’,  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 2 (1997), 368.

[ii] Whitney A. Bauman, ‘Queer Values for a Queer Climate: Developing a Versatile Planetary Ethic’, in Meaningful Flesh: Reflections on Religion and Nature for a Queer Planet, ed. Whitney A. Bauman (Earth, Milky Way: Punctum Books, 2018), 115.

Awakening the Spirit Art Exhibition

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All are warmly invited to join the Reconciliation Action Plan Committee at St Kilda Baptist Church to celebrate the annual Aboriginal art exhibition from Galiamble and Winja Ulupna.

The artists are currently participants at the local Aboriginal drug and alcohol recovery centres based in St Kilda – Galiamble and Winja Ulupna. This annual event offers the participants in these programs the opportunity to exhibit and sell their paintings. Artworks will be available for sale on the night at affordable prices (under $150) – cash sales only with all proceeds going to the artists. Sold paintings can be collected at the end of the night.

Your support is greatly appreciated.

Holy, Honest Confluences

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Inspired by ancient and continuing traditions of spiritual contemplation, and curated by artist and academic Dr Rebekah Pryorholy, honest confluences considers the complex personal and communal relationships between humans, and between humans and other living beings and things, in order to respond to the following key questions: 

  • What does it mean to be autonomous (that is, self-determining)? 

  • What does it mean to belong to a community (that is, a group of living beings that comprise, for example, a household, a family, a love relationship, an ecosystem, a neighbourhood, a religious community, a species, etc.)? What does this belonging look/feel like? And, what does it mean to not belong?

  • Is it even possible to be autonomous and belong? If so, what might this look/sound/feel like?

At a time when complex legal, ethical and social questions concerning communities (for example, religious communities and their relations to power and ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ more broadly, culturally and linguistically diverse communities and their multiple histories, and ecological communities challenged by present and imminent climate change impacts) challenge and implicate us all, holy, honest confluences returns us to our own bodies and relations in search for answers. 

More details here.

Artist callout: Holy, honest confluences

Dr Rebekah Pryor has issued a callout to ‘artists (professional and established or emerging) working in any mode or medium, from any background, cultural, social or political context, and out of any religious tradition or none’ to contribute to an exhibition exploring ‘complex personal and communal relationships between humans, and between humans and other living beings and things’. Details here.

 

Altar/d

During 2018, Adamstown Uniting Church played host to the Altar/d Art Installation series curated by Rod Pattenden, who is also the minister of the Church situated in Newcastle, NSW. The title of the series was a play on the words ‘altar’ and ‘alter’, and invited responses about change, transformation, and hope. Six artists were chosen to display work in the body of the church and to take on its architectural form while continuing the interests of their own practice. In this video, Rod Pattenden highlights the features of each artist’s work and the responses they found among the ‘congregation’ of viewers. The video was produced by John Cliff.