With the release of our film UKRAINE GUERNICA – ART NOT WAR I found myself in the centre of a debate about whether art can actually bring change and help to prevent war.


I am back in Afghanistan and I am more certain than ever that the kind of socially committed art and teaching we doing at our Yellow House is making difference to many lives here as well as informing the outside world . . . We are proving, in a very real way, that art and education can succeed where twenty years of war have failed.

Some years ago, I bought the book Time Out of Mind – The Lives of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell but quickly found Bell to be a writer, who does not understand or respect the power of art, regardless of the Financial Times declaring his book to be the “best biography that rock has had.” On page 457 Bell is at his most sceptical “All the wars say that humankind is not altered in the slightest by art, however passionate, however moving, however true. That had been the youngster’s insight in the ‘60’s. Protest songs made people feel better about themselves, but they did not truly change anything. The cities of the western world would erupt against the Iraq conspiracy. Brave songs would be sung, and brave words spoken, but the military machine would roll on regardless.” With the murder of JFK, his brother Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John Lennon. Dylan was in serious danger as a high value target, yet with great courage he continued to perform openly, including the Rolling Thunder Tour where he travelled to small, unprotected venues. Just as Picasso, the painter of Guernica, stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation when friends encouraged him to flee to Switzerland or America, Dylan kept out there regardless of the incredible risk. His songs reached millions and made them think about what was going on that was wrong. Bob fulfilled his job of inspiring change. The game is not over, and peace can still win.

I began work on my Hotel Kennedy suit of 24 etchings in 1968. The first etching is titled The Hotel Where Kennedy Entered and refers to the Ambassador Hotel where Bobby Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan when he walked through the kitchen hallway. Those assassinations took America and the world into a dark place, and it is still searching to find a way out. Each atom of art we make helps to alter the DNA of our violence towards one another and the natural world. Art is the best chance we have to evolve beyond destruction.

The “answer” is still “blowing in the wind” but a new era has begun where artists are going beyond influence to intervention.  Banksy has created the Walledoff Hotel in Bethlehem, and our Yellow House Creative Centre in Afghanistan has been running for over twelve years. Last year we defied Russian attempts to destroy Independent Ukrainian culture by bringing helping to bring bombed the House of Culture in Irpin, back to life.

On my way back to our Yellow House I stopped to receive the honour of a Peace Award from the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at Peshawar University. My work in the Tribal Belt of Pakistan goes back to before 9/11 when Russian landmines were killing and maiming innocent victims both there and in Afghanistan. Later in 2007/8 I made my film Miscreants of Taliwood from my base at the SS Club in Peshawar. This Old City dates to when it was a Trade Centre on the Silk Road when Marco Polo passed through. I know and love this Old City as much as Sydney and, these days, I feel more at home there. We did much of the edit of our recent Ukraine films there with Khuram Shehzad.

In Peshawar and Afghanistan two times exist simultaneously – the ancient past and an encroaching modern present.  Ali Baba and the magic lamp meets Barbie.

As I walk along a familiar lane past one of the murals, I painted years ago, there are skeletally thin children and old people scraping through putrid garbage for, I do not know what. Two beggar girls spring down from a wall and push their faces, horridly distorted by burns or a disease like leprosy, into mine, wanting money. But there are too many beggars to give to all of them. Next there is an almost supernatural shadow being, seated on the pavement resembling a stark black and white drawing from a Graphic novel. It is a woman, cross legged and 100% enshrouded in black cloth, including her face. She has a white artificial leg resting on her lap. A tiny donkey, head down struggles past with a load of wheat sacks ten times its own wait. It looks up to me with one pathetic eye as a child, with a cane, whips it on its bony rump. The donkey is followed by three women in filthy yellow and brown burqas, one holds a baby, but it seems to be dead.

There is a rumble like thunder as jet fighter planes fly overhead breaking the sound barrier and a 50 cal machine gun swivels around in my direction, from the back of a camouflaged pick us, as a military convoy, speeds its way around traffic. The identities of the soldiers are concealed by black balaclavas with white skull face stencils, grinning. Death on wheels. Through a window there is wide screen TV showing Israeli rockets exploding in Gaza with a cut to dead Palestinian children in a gutter.

Yet, amidst all this, there is the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at Peshawar University.

I ask one of its students, Shanda, what she plans to do with her degree when she graduates and she replies “Find a job with an NGO or the United Nations.” I tell her she can get work experience at our Yellow House across the border in Afghanistan. She could help my wife Hellen teach skills to girls. Rawan is excited by the idea as are her circle of student friends.

I’m glad the speech I gave the day before, when accepting the award, has inspired them.

Walking out of any shop here I am swarmed by beggars before I can get my wallet back into my pocket. It doesn’t help to turn my head and pretend I don’t see them and waving my hand to indicate ‘no’ or pushing the most persistent ones away is no better. Constant refusal gets to be hard going. I have sympathy for all of them, especially the children and handicapped but this time I have more than sympathy, I feel an affinity.  Everyday Hellen and I have been, literally, begging for people to buy art to help us fund the Yellow House. We are not a registered charity and have no Government funds to assist us, everything we have is going into this project and that is not enough. The rebuffs range from being told that the cost of living has risen so much in Australia that no one can consider buying art anymore, to friends telling us we have made them feel uncomfortable by asking and that someone my age with an established reputation should not be diminishing himself by offering my art at reduced bargain prices.

Do Hellen and I feel shame at doing this?  No, each sale means we can do more to make the Yellow House succeed. We have run the Yellow House in Jalalabad for over thirteen years solely on the proceeds of art sales.  Buying and building the new Yellow House in a safer area is taking a lot more money than we have. Our dream is that the Yellow House will continue to flourish and last long after we are dead. We do not see the Yellow House belonging to us but to the creative people of Jalalabad.

The Australian Government paid out one million dollars a year for each soldier deployed here. The twenty year war cost NATO and the US trillions of dollars, only to have the majority of Afghans hating the occupiers, as they did with the Russians, and happy to see them go. The Yellow House is our chance to show art can win where war has failed. The cost of one Hellfire Missile would be enough to fund us for years. Every morning, back when the airport was controlled by the Americans, at the Yellow House we would see a fleet of Drones flying out from the US controlled airport, all laden with missiles. In the afternoon they would all return empty. The majority of the targets they were striking were the homes of poor farming families, like our neighbours at the Yellow House, with no connection to the Talban or Al Qaeda.

When I was coming across the border from Pakistan, after receiving my Peace Award, I was singled out and taken to an interrogation room. There were about ten hardened Taliban fighters waiting in the room, some with machine guns in their laps. Their Commander Iqbal Takal was head of border intelligence and the most fearsome men I have ever encountered. He immediately said “You are Australian. Do you know Australian soldiers killed innocent Afghans.” I replied “Yes.”  Then he pulled up the legs of his trousers and his long shirt showing savage scars, “these were done by Australian dogs, your soldiers set them on me and did not pull them off, then I was tortured in their jail. This is why I hate all white people.” Our audience listened to every word of the conversation intently and I kept looking to their facial expressions to see if their attitude was softening. I had my friend Waqar, who knows me and my history better than myself, to translate.

But words don’t work here, it is all in the eyes. Any hesitation, nervousness or guilt in the eyes and things can go very badly. At every chance I would look Commander Iqbal Takal very firmly in the eyes, eyeball to eyeball and felt him digging into my soul.  In the end he offered to help in whatever way he could and gave me his contact details. It was warm handshakes and exchanged smiles with his fighters as I left. Had I not been an artist but someone with blood on my hands it would have gone very differently. A small group of Yellow House artists were waiting nervously, a distance away. They know the risk I take every time I return and were relieved to see me. There were lots of hugs and a vehicle home to Jalalabad.

My first night in Jalalabad is always at the Spinghar Hotel where I can have a hot bath, make a cup of tea, and get a good sleep. The Spinghar dates to the Colonial Era and has always been owned by whatever government is in power. Bin Laden stayed in the same room as me when in Jalalabad. Presently the Spinghar is owned by the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban. The building is vast but nearly empty of other guests. The management welcome me back like returning family. The Spinghar is surrounded by one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. The garden was designed centuries ago by Sufi, artist gardeners and their descendants still attend to the plants. The garden is laid out geometrically, like a floral mandala, with layer upon layer of symbolic meaning. The flowers and fruits tell a mystical story with fragrances and colour.  Winter is approaching leaving only a few roses in bloom. I took photographs of some to email to Hellen. I am missing our wedding anniversary, and we will not be together to celebrate. The plan is for her to join me in a few weeks.

Today, 17th October I arrived back at our New Yellow House with Waqar and Ashrid in a yellow rickshaw driven by Itchy, who is a talented actor/comedian and a Yellow House stalwart.

I purchased the house, last year, in the tribal area below the sacred Spinghar (Spirit) Mountain, which has great significance to the villagers who are its traditional custodians.  

Our previous Yellow House was in the city, making it a choice target for terrorist groups like ISIS. The risk of a bomb blast was too great there but in the new location we are safe and protected by the community.

As we entered our gate students were steaming out of the Large High School which is a few hundred meters away.  Many were mature age girls, and all were dressed in typical school uniforms similar to those worn in Australia. Several recognised us and welcomed us back knowing that when the Yellow House reopens, they will be coming to our art and media classes. The restrictions on older girls going to school in other parts of Afghanistan is not happening with these girls from the surrounding tribal villages.

Ahsan is our neighbour and has been the Yellow House caretaker until my return. I had a gift of a soft Koala Bear toy for his little daughter Hadia. Ahsan drives the blue circus truck when we take our Cinema Circus out to remote areas like Tora Bora, where the children have never seen a film, heard music, or watched actors perform. His daughter Medina was the star of our most popular children’s film Simorgh, and it is in his village where we have had the freedom to film dramas with women directors in charge and the majority of the cast, women actors. The open-minded friendliness of the villagers has been tested over more almost 15 years.

The amount that has to be done before the new Yellow House can function is daunting. Ahsan will supervise the construction while I set up a table in the yard and paint, but always present to be consulted or lend a hand. We have to dig a septic tank for toilets, set up solar panels for power, drill 38 meters for water to be pumped out, put in wiring and plumbing, add a second story to the main building and build classrooms.  My drawing books are now filled with sketches to show the builders. It is not necessary to get building plans approved in Afghanistan, but we do need a permit to drill.

When I was 18, I attended Clement Greenberg’s lecture on American Minimalism at Sydney University. I was the only student doing works inspired by Malevich and Mondrian that fitted with Greenberg’s aesthetic.  My Professor, Bernard Smith, arranged for me to show some examples to Greenberg and he was impressed enough to invite me to come to New York.  That was the end of university for me. I got a job as a chainman on the new Cahill Expressway and was soon on my way arriving late in 1968.  But after a few months in New York, I realized that hard edge and minimal abstraction was not addressing the huge issues of Vietnam and Racism.  It was only when I travelled to San Francisco to see the World of Man Photographic Exhibition that I discovered where what I was searching for was at. They were showing the heart of humanity and like Nic Ut’s Napalm Girl Kim Phuc, and Eddie Adam’s shocking execution were fuelling the anti-war movement and making it harder for the politicians and Military Machine to justify. Same with the images of police dogs tearing at the cloths of black protesters in the civil rights movement. Their cameras were weapons against injustice.  This was not art about art as Greenberg would have it. It was art about humanity.

My own photojournalism at the Kibheo Massacre in Rwanda brought an atrocity to the eyes of the world which would, otherwise have been hidden from view.  But what I am doing now is outside the context of war journalism. I am still using my still and video cameras every day to make documentary films and get images out, however, what I am doing at the

Yellow House with my wife Hellen and Afghan team is direct action, impacting on the lives and environment of this conflict zone. As we work on the construction there are always children of different ages watching and listening in on our conversations. They know the Yellow House will give them better options for a better future.

Ahsan is uneducated but his natural brilliance shines. Part of his motivation for helping to build the Yellow House in his village is knowing how much it will help create opportunities for his kids to escape from the harsh life he has known as an illiterate farm labourer.

We have seen this generational uplifting at our previous Yellow House. The children who are the main characters in our documentary, Snow Monkey have all gone from seemingly inescapable poverty and illiteracy to becoming successful high achievers.

While I admire the brave work of the film and photojournalists I befriended in Ukraine, how we are using our art and communication skills to help in this direct way is very different.

The troubles of the world are seen on TV and in print by viewers in much safer places. Presently it is the bombardment of Gaza after the Hamas Rocket Attack on Israel that is shocking people but they keep leaving it to others to solve these problems.  Not only with war but with the ever-increasing environmental disasters. What we are saying at the Yellow House is “It is too late to be leaving it to others, get out of your comfort zone and find some way to help fix your world! Make real difference!”

If you want to find out how it can be done watch some of our documentaries, like: Bullets of the Poets (Nicaragua), Rampage (Miami), Miscreants of Taliwood (Pakistan), Love City (Jalalabad), Snow Monkey (Afghanistan), No Bad Guys (Chicago) and Ukraine Guernica.

After spending more time in Jalalabad we realized the Village Yellow House was not enough to fulfill the needs of the broader community. We have now acquired a City building which was a former school for Business Studies and are working between the two. This way we can create a bridge between tribal villagers together with urban creatives. The ongoing story of both will be in future dispatches. 

The Yellow House, Jalalabad, is funded by the sale of George Gittoes’ art. 

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