For more on this exhibition, see George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?
For more on this exhibition, see George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?
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).
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:
‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTML| EPUB | PDF)
From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
The article can be accessed here.
The story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one, so much so that its very mention tends to celebrate a comfortable kind of religion as listeners reassure themselves of their place in the story. We should be reminded that in its original context it was a story that was utterly shocking to its first hearers. It dramatically crossed boundaries that were simply inconceivable for those listening. If this parable had been taken seriously, it would have upended cultural and religious conventions that had been carefully policed and reinforced. It is a story that has drawn many artists to re-invigorate in fresh ways both its attraction and its threat. For artist and priest Bob Booth it is a story worth the effort of exploring its potential to upset allegiances and to re-examine values and ethical actions in the contemporary world we inhabit.
Booth takes us into the drama of the story by placing the viewer just above the action, taking in the injured figure, helper and the passers-by. The composition allows our eye to sweep around the scene taking in both human actors and the compressed space of the landscape. Our eye comes to rest, after making this aerial survey, firstly on the hand of the fallen man and then to the hand of the ‘Samaritan’ with a finger decidedly pointing in our direction. We are drawn in, complicit, involved viewers, who are close enough to lend a hand and yet remaining fixed outside the picture plane. It is both a simple and yet complex composition that has been carefully crafted to include us in its sweep. The brush strokes and coloration serve to heighten its dramatic focus and its sensual textured surface emphasises a tender and compassionate moment. This painterly seduction only heightens the tension the viewer feels about a decision on whether to get involved.
The fallen man is somewhat reminiscent of a Christ figure, partly naked with a white cloth over his legs. What is utterly unfamiliar is the facial features of the helper and the skull cap that marks him out as a follower of Islam. Muslim men will often wear the white Taqiyah (Arabic for skull cap) as a sign of respect. This is worn especially during the five periods of prayers required each day. Bob Booth comments: ‘Had the parable of the Good Samaritan been presented in Australia today, I think that there would have been every chance that a Muslim would have taken the title role. I sometimes wonder how we manage to read this parable in church without causing a riot!’ The shock of this painting is appropriate to its original intentions to cross over the sharp divide of social enmity found between Jews and Samaritans. While they shared common ancient traditions, they were passionately divergent about the physical location of the most holy place to worship. Such enmity is echoed in contemporary ways as we have witnessed the terrible acts of violence in New Zealand and then in Sri Lanka during the first half of this year.
Underlying the disturbing shock of this story of hospitality and compassion is the boundary-breaking words and actions of Jesus in upsetting the religious conventions of his day. In the material actions of touching the untouchables, speaking to women in public, challenging religious leaders, breaking the Sabbath, feasting rather than fasting, Jesus enacts a more passionate and generous vision of who God might be. Bob Booth takes this as evidence that Jesus had his eye not on the rules and regulations of religious formalism but on something completely in opposition to such strictures. ‘It seems to me that Jesus was intoxicated with an audacious thought of goodness and beauty, a joy that was set before him for which he would endure anything’. This familiar story is therefore not so much about kindness or the virtues of middle-class niceness, but rather a way of seeing other human beings as being made in the image of God. It is in the encounter with strangers, or even perhaps with enemies, that we find our heart expanded and we see the possibilities of God’s grace at work in the world.
Reposted from ArtWay.
This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigation into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Māori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms, it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.
Christianity has expanded over recent centuries into a world religion, bringing with it European visual forms. At times these have been part of the conquering ideology as European colonial expansion has repressed the cultures of indigenous peoples seeing them as backward, pagan, or even demonic. As a result, objects were destroyed or burnt, cultural practices repressed or forbidden, and mythic narratives banned. In its place peoples were Christianised, therefore ‘civilised’, and presented in newly-minted European clothes and behaviours. Now, in this current post-colonial period, there has been a recognition of the violence done to people through denying them their own culture. In New Zealand since the 1980s, there has been a revival of traditional indigenous forms. New Zealand now seeks to be a bi-cultural nation, using forms from both traditions to mark out its national life. This hybrid Jesus, therefore, speaks to this new period of cultural re-formation offering new possibilities in deepening spirituality that arises from within this complex and newly emerging situation.
The ‘Manu-Kahu’ in Maori culture refers to the harrier hawk, a bird associated with being a spiritual connection to the divine. It also refers to the cultural practice of making kites, which was not only a common recreational practice but also a religious one as massive large-scale kites were produced for significant ritual occasions. These could carry the weight of a human person and were flown with up to a kilometre of rope to therefore command vast terrains in their ritual role. These kites ‘evoked the supernatural powers indicative of the Māori life force and associations with animals, birds, and the dream of flight. Used as communication devices to their gods, Māori kites became a link with the great natural powers which ruled their life’ (John Tarlton, ‘Ancient Maori Kites’, Art New Zealand, December, 1976). For the artist, this provides an appropriate link to the cultural place of the Christ figure who holds the land with benevolence and grace. It is also a visual statement of confidence in Christian spirituality as a relevant force in contemporary society, particularly during this period of post-colonial reformation.
Brett a’Court has created something new. It is a surprising innovation and unsettles traditional iconographical conventions. It disturbs expectations and could therefore be considered a threat to correct theological form. It also dislodges the colonial mentality that considers the European way of seeing things to be the correct and authoritative one. It is also something curious and worthy of consideration – a Christ figure in flight, who brings together belief and the physical environment in which people live. This is a thoroughly-contextual Christ for New Zealand, the land where birds have become the dominant species. This is a Christ at home in this particular cultural landscape. This is not an introduced species carrying an exotic spirituality. This is Christ at home in the physical landscape of the Pacific. A’Court shows his respect for the great innovative New Zealand painter Colin McCahon by using the device of speech bubbles echoing biblical quotes, which were part of McCahon’s innovative and hybrid response to colonialism. For viewers further afield, this work serves to expand our sense of encounter with a God at home in the world, an incarnation that honours the material world we inhabit, a Christ both particular and universal, both newly strange and safely familiar.
Reposted from ArtWay.
You are invited to join us on Tuesday August 6th @ Whitley College to share with Anne Mallaby and Libby Byrne in a material conversation about the way art prompts us to make sense of the nature of things we encounter in the creative process.
The exhibition features selected works from my inquiry into nature of transcendence and joy in ordinary time. Funded by a Field Development grant from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, this work identified how the experience of drawing in-church each week through ordinary time extended my capacity to see the effects of God’s action in the world, just as the work of art itself was to drawing-in (the) church, transforming our collective capacity to see.
The process revealed the participatory nature of the creative process, engaging people who saw and heard me working in conversation that focussed our attention on one another and on the possibility of something that was still becoming. The conversation will continue to unfold on Tuesday August 6th as together explore some of the ways in which the discipline of regularly seeing and making art can prompt us to engage the stories of our lives with the work of meaning-making and the art of well-being.
Here, Idris Murphy introduces us to his upcoming exhibition of paintings – a luminous mystical response to the stark presence of the desert landscape, a meditation that invites theological and philosophical responses to the mystery we feel in a sense of place.
A new and dynamic online resource – The Visual Commentary on Scripture – has recently been launched by a team centred at King’s College London that is providing resources for those interested in the visual interpretation of the Bible, including general readers, scholars, preachers, and study groups. The project draws on diverse scholars in art and religion from around the world and will eventually build a library of up to 1500 commentaries that give a visual insight into the Biblical tradition. Each entry is curated like a small exhibition, and provides three key images that offer visual insight into a given passage. A longer overview is then provided where we both read and see the various insights into the process of understanding the meanings contained in a passage.
The project team is led by theologian Professor Ben Quash of King’s College who here offers a helpful introduction to the value of the project:
This unique project demonstrates the value of the visual arts in expanding our means of understanding, and our response to texts and their interpretation. There are currently over 80 completed commentaries now available on the website.
Professor Ben Quash explains that the project offers three main purposes:
First, it seeks to instruct those with little knowledge of the Bible about its contents. We hope this will be part of the strategic ‘impact’ of this project.
Second, it uses the warrant of the incarnation to affirm that physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight.
Third, the VCS aims to refresh viewers and engage their affective responses as well as their intellectual ones, affirming that images are made ‘to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal’.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture is an exciting development. It is a richly-engaging resource that has been made easily accessible. It will be a valuable resource to students of the Bible, and those who teach and reflect on its ongoing relevance and authority. Bringing the world of the visual arts into this process of interpretation heightens an awareness of the lived experience of the biblical world as well as our own contemporary context. It allows for a renewed valuing of the visual arts as a means of accessing the world of the biblical tradition in conversation with the current horizon of our lives.
I had seen an exhibition of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon in which he featured the Franciscan Stations of the Cross. I knew nothing of that tradition, and one Easter, as an Easter discipline for myself, I decided to ‘pray’ the Stations of the Cross by painting my own series. It dawned on me, slowly, that this exercise was an existential prayer. How do we live when we know that we are mortal? How do we live when we know that we are finite? How do we live when we experience suffering?
That led us in 2007, at St Ives Uniting Church in suburban Sydney, to try something new. We invited 15 leading artists to participate in an exhibition. Each would be allocated a different station, randomly, and would have 9 months to work on a response. I wrote a ‘pastorally informed’ commentary on each of the traditional Franciscan stations (14 plus ‘resurrection’), and that commentary became the brief for the artist. I tell artist’s that I am not looking for illustration of the story; more, I am looking for their engagement with the questions the station raises for them.
We have been doing it ever since. After I retired, we decided to do it at Northmead, where the church works with the Creative and Performing Arts High School, and we have shown the work at ACU Strathfield and at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra.
When I approach artists, I ask them not because they are religious or not religious, Christian or not Christian; I ask them because they are good artists who have the capacity to address significant existential questions through their art.
Each year when I receive the works for the exhibition, I am excited by the artist’s integrity, and their capacity to give us works that reflect the deep questions of being. My background is as a pastoral theologian, and I see lived experience as primary text for theological reflection.
Each year we have large numbers of people walk through the exhibition as part of their Easter discipline, or ‘just out of interest’. Always, people are deeply moved; it is not unusual to see people with tears running down their faces, or, to hear them say, ‘I can identify with that’.
Last year, a teacher at a local Catholic Primary School taught a special unit to her grade 5–6 class on religious art through the first semester. She had one of the artists address her class at school, and brought 47 kids who pressed their noses against the art works, and who listened and looked with engaged interest. They went back to school and made their own ‘religious’ art works, and later had a wonderful exhibition of them. This year, that teacher will bring the staff of the school for a staff meeting at the exhibition and they have asked for a talking tour of the work.
We now have a number of events associated with the exhibition: the formal opening, a wine and cheese night, a jazz night, a Good Friday service, a grief workshop, a number of guided tours, the moderator of the UCA will offer a retreat for ministers and key leaders, and, most especially, an Eremos led a quiet half day. Our hope is to build the idea of groups of people making an Easter pilgrimage in which they might walk the way of the cross where there is a contemporary reading of Jesus walk.
You can access the catalogue here. The catalogue includes the commentary or brief given to the artists, images of all the art works, and some comment on the process of making the works by the artists.
Artist: Harrie Fasher
Artist’s comment: I have a spiritual connection to the earth, and find great solace walking and drawing in the landscape. The work I presented for the 11th station, Christ being nailed to the cross, is a steel study of a dead lamb, an Indian offering washed up from the ocean, and a study of feet nailed to the wall. The lamb, soft yet lifeless, represents purity and the earth. I built it in steel, a hard cold material that has been imbued with the properties of life lost. The offering was collected in India for its shape and texture, it holds memory of colour, ritual, and life. And the drawing is a literal representation of the station, feet nailed, produced by the meditative action of looking. Together the three works contemplate what such a sacrifice symbolises in our contemporary society.
Artist: Blak Douglas
Artist’s comment: So really my knee-jerk response from the outset was to paint a large cross in a landscape filled with Grass Trees (‘Black boys’) yet the cross has been hit by three large spears. Perhaps accompanying words are to the following effect. This piece personifies my lifelong frustration of being wrongfully encouraged to embrace the religion of colonialism and white suppression. From being ‘christened’ Adam Douglas Hill and registered ‘Church of England’, yet being only three generations removed from my tribal Dhungatti peoples. Having to participate in scripture on Tuesday mornings in Primary School or face the cane. Witnessing successive patriarchal governments be sworn in on King George’s bible, feigning honesty, and professing to uphold sound governance on a stolen land. This image – ‘Three strikes & you’re out’ – is metaphoric of how I’d like to see the illegal dominant faith upon this continent fall.
Artist: Jo Braithwaite
Artist’s comment: In this image, I battled to create an image that I hoped would reflect optimism through solidarity.
With thanks to Rod Pattenden for his recent article, Seeing over the fence.
I return this week to the images I have begun exploring how remain regular attenders in public worship experience and exercise power in the congregation. This second image is an exploration of what it looks like to really experience the trauma of truth revealed.
This second image of power and control revealed a provocative and powerful expression of wounding that also offers the hope of possibility. The strength and depth of the colour and light in the painting dwell beneath the surface. The warm glow of strong yellow light is visible as it is breaking through the darkness leaving open wounds in the surface. Light seems to be pouring through the surface and reflecting toward the viewer from beneath the surface of the painting. The central focus of this work is obvious, and it is hard to look away but equally hard to stay with what may be an eruption, an injury or the trauma of birth. There is however a soft veil that seems to shroud this image offering some form of grace or protection from the trauma of truth.
The following vignette from a minister in a suburban Anglican parish illustrates the possibility that there are those in the church who will be offended by the need to be regulated and leave the congregation in anger.
I had spoken with this woman about the need for us to do things differently from now on and she saw the regulations as an infringement on human rights. I agreed that may be so but assured her that his is how we will do things from now on. She said that she would not be willing to change and threatened to leave the church…and that is what happened. She left in anger and we have not heard from her since.
In this exchange, it seems that the minister is earnest in her desire to ensure that her church complies with the regulations and keeps children safe. She is surprised to hear that one of the members of the ministry team sees the regulations as an infringement on human rights but she is willing to agree that this may be so, noting that we will do this anyway.
This is a moment in a pastoral relationship when some deeper truth about each of their experiences might have been revealed. There was the possibility that this conversation could have been a moment when what was said about the impact of the changes was heard “… with the intimacy of care and of understanding at the same Time” (David Whyte). Unfortunately, the trauma of this truth was not seen or heard or held with care and understanding and so the relationship has been damaged. Conversations such as this are taking place in many congregations where a painful and open wound has been revealed. Having heard and seen this truth our congregational life will never be the same; but is it possible that this challenge to the status quo could be the catalyst for new growth? When confronted with the trauma of truth it can be tempting to react quickly with an attempt to fix the problem that is before us but Rowan Williams warns us not to miss the larger questions that lead us to deeper understanding:
We’re encouraged to assume that the solving of the problem immediately in front of us is what matters, and we lose track of the larger questions about the meaning of our social institutions, the purpose of our social institutions in the long term, and equally impatient of understanding exactly how we got here. (Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 56)
The wound of wonder
Mary-Jane Rubenstein, in Strange Wonder, declares that wonder is a wound in the experience of the everyday. The findings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse have created a wound in the experience of everyday life in the church and it is possible that this wound is an opportunity for wonder and new life in the church. The trauma of truth that has been told and heard has interrupted the ordinary experience of congregational life in a way that demands our attention. The way in which we attend to this wound will either promote healing and growth or compound the damage.
Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue considers the possibility that the wound may be the source a new voice requiring expression:
A wound awakens and focuses the reserve of the immune system. The overriding desire of the body is to seal the opening, to heal and restore its inner darkness. Yet the wound takes time to heal. While the wound is open new light flows into the helpless dark and the inner night of the body weeps through the wound. In the rupture and the pain it causes, a wound breaks the silence; it cries out…It is no wonder then that the wound as a sore point of vulnerability cries out for some new form in which to express itself. (Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, 190)
John O’Donohue claims that it is the work of the artist to stay with the wounds that interrupt our everyday experience, returning time and again to the threshold of disturbance in the hope of excavating something new. It is possible that in considering how to address the trauma of the truth that has been issued from the sore point of vulnerability in the life of the church, art and artists may be able capable of returning time and again to the threshold of disturbance, hear the cry and in doing so, discover something new that speaks to the larger question of how we find ourselves in this place. The challenge for the church is now to welcome what is discovered when we are called to these places and spend time with the emergent images as they seek to birth of something new.