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From Rwanda to Bosnia: Art on the frontlines of war

Dr George Gittoes is a leading Australian artist and filmmaker. He is most known for traveling to some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, to create opportunities for young artists in the region to fight against war and violence through art and education. A Sydney Peace Prize winner, Gittoes says his aim is to inspire proactive responses to violence through art, but it comes at a price. As he tells The Point Magazine, one of his most talented students was kidnapped by ISIS.

Tell me a little about your work.

I work across a wide range of media because no single medium, whether it be writing, painting, film or photography, is adequate to cover the impact of the front line war environment I mostly work in.  For example, during the Kibeho Massacre in Rwanda in 1995 thousands of people were slaughtered before my eyes with machete. Many of the victims believed that demons had taken control of the killers, so there was a feeling of supernatural and hyper real which could not be captured in by a camera - it was the feeling of the place. Only drawing and painting could go into this emotive region. When I sit down and draw someone who has been badly injured I am also, helping them with their wounds and giving them psychological comfort, so they tell me their stories. I try to write the stories as beautifully as possible because they expect me to become their advocate. Many of these stories and drawings were done with people in the last minutes of their lives.  The overall subject is so big, however, only film can get the exposure through television and theatres these stories warrant. I find myself stretching myself to the limit of my abilities to be a true witness to what I have seen and feel it is a huge responsibility to get the combined media out to the world and reach the largest audiences possible.

 What got you into art and film work?

I grew up in Rockdale and the there was only one other third generation Anglo Australian family in our street. Most of the neighbours were refugees from the devastation of WWII. It was pre TV and while I was still in primary school I began doing puppet shows on our back lawn for the community kids. I donated the money I raised to the Red Cross and was thrilled to see the profits from my creativity going into helping people in less fortunate countries.  Later when I did the Yellow House with Martin Sharp in Potts Point in 1970/1 I took up my puppets again but it was not the same because those who came were enjoying them purely for entertainment. I wrote to Mother Theresa of Calcutta asking her advice on whether I should go back to university and study something more useful to humanity than art - like medicine or engineering. She wrote back and told me to use the gifts God had given me but to use them for the benefit of others. I have followed her advice to the letter and am a very fulfilled 66-year-old with many more projects in places where war and poverty have reduced the value of people’s lives and where art can enrich them and give them a path to creative jobs and sustainability.

My personal solution is to create models like our Yellow House in Jalalabad which proves that creative education and productivity can flourish in a war zone where trillions of dollars have been spent by governments to train and weaponise the population for further ongoing and unending conflict.

– George Gittoes

How important is it to use art and film making to cover issues relating to war and conflict?

It cost 1 million dollars a year for each individual soldier that participated with Australian Forces in Afghanistan. In the end it was all for nothing, many people were needlessly killed and the Taliban have retaken the region the Australians were based in.  Our project in Jalalabad is still running and achieving new goals every day - it has been funded by the sale of my art and film projects. This proves that creative enterprises are much more successful in bringing about social change and conflict resolution than costly military adventures.  Many of the soldiers who have come back from the Afghan Occupation are suffering from serious post-traumatic stress and many have committed suicide, unable to live with what they have been involved in. Those who have worked at our Yellow House are filled with joy and pride in the contribution we have made.

Having worked in many war zones over the last 45 years I have come to believe that war and destruction are barbaric and place humanity below the apes in terms of civilised behaviour. It is a wonderful privilege to be able to create in the face of the destructive war machine. Too often wars are for profit and the cabal of intelligence agencies and corporations delude the broader population into supporting them through using fear and false propaganda. Artists working for peace have the skills of communicators and are in the David and Goliath struggle to end war and industries of blood-for-profit. Humanity can only evolve beyond war with the help of dedicated artists who represent creation over destruction.

Those who believe there is nothing beyond the physical universe can function without ethics but art is the proof that there is a spiritual reality which knows that when someone kills or injures someone else they destroy part of their own spirit. Art is an affirmation of the spiritual in an age when religions are causing divisions which lead to more violence.

Can art and film be more effective in bringing issues of injustice to light better than traditional news forms?

The news media is controlled by self-interested tycoons like Rupert Murdock and politically cautious public networks. Artists are, in a sense, self-publishers. They embody freedom of expression. All dictators throughout history try to control the arts from Hitler, Saddam Hussain, Putin and most recently Erdogan in Turkey. Democracies like Australia take art for granted and as the recent closure of Sydney College for the Arts shows they demonstrate almost criminal indifference but malignant dictatorships always come down hard against art because they are aware of its power to move people against injustice and towards protesting what is clearly against their interest. Our politicians either see art as trivial and not worth supporting or are happy to see it sidelined because in a democracy it is easier to stamp it out through the withholding of financial support than the more ruthless methods used by dictators. Either way, the arts are always under threat and it will always be a struggle for genuine artists to bring issues of justice to light.  Artists need to be very tough and resilient and if, like myself, they manage to survive a long career of sticking to what they believe they will begin to have a louder and more influential voice - and become much more difficult to silence.

You have inspired many young people especially in Afghanistan, and one of them was kidnapped by ISIS. What was that experience like?

One of our most talented students, Zambia, was taken captive by IS (Daesh) and forced to carry guns for them with the threat that his mother and sisters would be killed if he didn't. When his family moved to safety he was able to escape and returned to our Yellow House.  Once back he picked up the digital movie camera he had learned to use and said " I will dedicate my life to using nonviolent ways with this camera to expose the evil of these people rather than ever considering using a gun against them. Being able to tell the stories of the terrible things they do is a more effective way of defeating them than engaging in more killing."   The feedback I get from a huge number of young people in Australia and worldwide who have been inspired by my work and written about it in essays is the greatest impetus for me to continue in the dangerous and often uncomfortable work in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

George Gittoes

What do you hope your work through art and film achieves?

I am a very lucky individual because if I knew I was going to die tomorrow I would feel complete and that I had achieved all the goals I set myself up when I was a young kid doing puppets in Rockdale. It is important not to back down and keep following the road your heart leads to and if you can live a life which realises your highest ideals than will bring great inner happiness.  I am an optimist and believe the work of the many creative artists throughout the world who are passionate about social justice will always win over the darkness of greed and corruption.

Your recent work focuses on the Middle East, how is your work making a difference to how people view conflict in the region?

Worldwide people are losing faith in what their politicians are saying and backed by deluded economists. The majority of people in the world are getting poorer while the super-rich are the only ones who have benefited by globalisation. When the disparity between rich and poor becomes too great it creates monsters.  My personal solution is to create models like our Yellow House in Jalalabad which proves that creative education and productivity can flourish in a war zone where trillions of dollars have been spent by governments to train and weaponise the population for further ongoing and unending conflict.  The affirmative support I keep hearing from people who have been moved by my art and films is the only way I have of knowing that it is making a difference.  The art establishment and governments show no indication of wanting to be touched by anything outside their own agendas.

What does the Sydney Peace Prize mean to you?

The Sydney Peace Prize gave me the happiest day of my life when I went out to Cabramatta High School and met thousands of students from schools in Western Sydney where the vast majority of students were refugees or migrants from countries less fortunate than Australia. The students made hundreds of ceramic tile representations of the Yellow House buildings as they could imagine them in their own original countries and cultures. With students I let hundreds of white peace doves away into the sky as a symbol of our unified desire for peace in the world. I felt Australia was a lucky country to be enriched by such cultural diversity.

Where do you see your work taking you?

Although I am 66 years old and have had both knees replaced, recovered from prostate cancer and other serious surgery I am going onward with my work in war zones and places of social injustice and racial discrimination. I will continue to support and personally contribute to the Yellow House in Jalalabad while attempting to open similar creative spaces in places like Gaza, Syria and Brazil. My next film is called 'Brown Sub' and will take me back to the poor black projects area of Miami, called Brownsville to make a sequel to a film I made there ten years ago titled 'Rampage’. Under Obama life has gotten much worse for the poor African American communities in the US, especially with the export of jobs to other countries like China and India leaving almost universal youth unemployment.  Recent police violence has polarised the communities to a point close to civil war - a level of tension I have not experienced since I was in the US in 1968 working with the civil rights movement after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.  If Donald Trump succeeds in his presidential bid the film will be shot in a new and much less tolerant America. It is a terrible to say that I am anticipating this to be a much more dangerous film to make than any I have made in a war zone like Iraq or Bosnia.

In October my book 'Blood Mystic' will be published and I will be promoting it worldwide with talks and book signing. I expect this book to have greater impact than any of my films or exhibitions as it brings together a whole lifetime of work in all mediums and fully expresses all I have been able to learn from my experiences as a witness at the frontline of human conflict.

Gittoes received the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize for his work. The jury cited the following as the reason for the award, “For exposing injustice for over 45 years as a humanist artist, activist and filmmaker, for his courage to witness and confront violence in the war zones of the world, for enlisting the arts to subdue aggression and for enlivening the creative spirit to promote tolerance, respect and peace with justice.”


The Point

Sydney Peace Prize winner, Gittoes, says his aim is to inspire proactive responses to violence through art


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