Flourishing Yellow Houses

I have been out and about in the market a lot buying things to equip our two Yellow Houses and am constantly moved by the sight of young, former Taliban fighters, who have been released from duty and are now trying to adjust to a life where they do not have to hide in caves and mountains while being hunted by Australian and American forces. Always having to avoid being spotted and targeted by a fleet of robotic drones. They look lost and stunned, uneasy to walk the city freely. There is no formal Taliban uniform, but they are easily identified by their long black hair, usually oiled for an extra shininess. They wear an assortment of combat vests over regular cotton Pashtun clothing. They no longer carry arms or ammunition. They are mostly between eighteen and twenty-four years old, so grew up in the war and as fighters there would not have been time to go to school or university. They have no money and do not know what kind of job they are qualified for.  They all dream of finding a wife and starting a family.  I watched one, yesterday, in the second-hand clothing street longingly looking at a pair of white NIKE runners and asking the price, hesitating, then moving on. I felt the impulse to go and buy them for him. When they walk past the Yellow House, I wave to them, and they always come over and give me a handshake and a hug and ask where I am from. I tell them Australia and they smile and say, “You must be proud to have such a strong cricket team!” Afghanistan came very close to winning the World Cricket Cup. When they defeated Pakistan, the city erupted with joy. Australia only defeated them by a few runs.  It is art and sport that bond hearts, not war.

Afghanistan is a country where the people are restoring themselves after twenty years of war which ended with the American withdrawal in 2021. Before that there had been the civil war between the warlords and the Taliban and it followed nine terrible years when the Russians killed over two million Afghans, following the invasion.

The constant distraction of war has meant there has never been time to catch up with the revolution in social values our culture has been enriched by. That is happening now, and our two Yellow Houses are a welcomed catalyst.

Afghanistan has the lowest literacy rates in the world. In rural areas only two percent of people can read and write. When the Russians parachuted into their villages and began random slaughter the villagers had never heard of Russia or knew where it was, and later didn’t know why the Australian, American, and European forces were punishing them the same way. They asked, “What have we done?” Most Afghans do not have a clue what the Taliban Hierarchy believe or represent any more than they understood Russian Communism or American Democracy.  All they pray for is peace and hope that the Taliban can maintain it and, finally, let them get on with their lives.


The most elaborate art form absorbing the time of artists in Jalalabad is the design and construction of wedding-night beds. Every bed is uniquely Romantic with imaginative fantasy elements in a highly competitive market. If a Museum Director, wanting to exhibit the best of Afghan art, asked me what the highest art form in the country was, I would not hesitate to say, “wedding beds.” We are planning a show of wedding beds at the Yellow House and will interview the artists who create them for our film.

For the last few months, while I have been awaiting Hellen’s arrival at the Yellow House, all the Yellow House team have begun to see my preparations, especially for the bedroom, as being like the creation of one oversized wedding bed. I am 74 but that has not stopped many riské jokes about my first night alone with Hellen. And I must admit that, with the encouragement of everyone from the tailers who have stitched the locally designed curtains to the maker of our king size bed the room is romantic to the max. When I first arrived back in Jalalabad, I thought I heard a huge amount of gunfire and wondered why all this shooting was happening. I went outside and discovered the noise was caused by exploding fireworks from the many weddings that are possible now that the war is over, and the young Taliban fighters have returned to become grooms.  I refused a display of fireworks for Hellen’s return, but Itchy formally asked Hellen and I to hug as soon as she got out of the car, and we were showered with rose petals which the Yellow House team had kept hidden as a surprise. Everyone regards Hellen as the true boss of the Yellow House. It is the Afghan way to view the Yellow House as a family and everyone belonging to it as family members. Without Hellen it was motherless and in Afghanistan, while the men rule the streets the women rule the homes.


A few nights ago, I went to the market with Waqar trying buy Linseed oil. There were crowds reminding me of last-minute Christmas shopping in the 60’s, with my mother. There were so many people weaving between one another it was hard to move forward. We got into one of the yellow rickshaws, but traffic was equally dense. The driver had grey hair and a beard like mine and told me he had mistaken me for an old family friend, named Jamil. I did not mind the slowness of the ride because all the little stalls of the bizarre were lit up with colourful, low voltage, lights. making the passing scenes resemble an animated fairy tale of an exotic place no longer possible in 2023. The Afghan clothing would have been a challenge for a Hollywood couturier. I asked Waqar if he had seen the movie Blade Runner and he said “Yes, I see what you mean, it is like that.”  We came to a roundabout at the city centre where six roads intersect. No one would budge to give way. A lone, uniformed, traffic cop was frantically trying to end the deadlock. This went on for over 15 minutes with zero progress. Waqar and I began to think about getting out and walking but knew this would be unfair to the driver.  Waqar took out some notes, generously more than the cost of the whole trip. He tried to get the driver to take them and had one foot out the door when a single, unarmed, Taliban appeared. Within seconds the traffic was moving.

The driver was happy and Waqar said “That is what just one Taliban can do.”

I watched the short, young, Taliban dance around the vehicles making signals with his arms to bring order out of chaos and thought “That is the way to win over the hearts and minds of ordinary people.” Within minutes we were back at the Yellow House.  As we left the rickshaw the diver turned and said “The old people , like me , remember back to 1995 when all the chaos and bloodshed between the fighting warlords  seemed endless and how the Taliban ended it and brought stability.”


I helped Michael Moore make Fahrenheit 9/11 which showed how the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon was funded, planned and piloted by Saudi’s.  Neither Saddam Hussain nor the Taliban had anything to do with the Terrorist attack on the US. I was in New York a week after 9/11 and experienced the rage it had triggered against all Moslem people with cars diving around with bumper stickers urging the slaughter of Moslems. It was the beginning of an Islamophobia which in 2023 has zeroed in on the Taliban.

When I was in Iraq making Soundtrack to War the US soldiers I interviewed firmly believed they were revenging the 9/11 attacks. I found it hard to believe people from an educated country could be so fully manipulated by Bush’s lies. As I travelled around Afghanistan during the first months of the US/NATO invasion it was like I had been transported back to when the Crusaders were trying to take back Jerusalem from the Infidels. The rich playboy Saudi’s of Al Queda, with their Sheik, Bin Laden did not share their plans with the Taliban who knew nothing of the airline attacks until they saw them on the TV news. The Saudi’s escaped into Pakistan and few were caught or killed.  But American politicians new their voters wanted blood. The public demand for punishment on a grand scale for 9/11 was transferred to the Taliban and Saddam Hussain.  The Saudi’s have, as Bush intended, never paid the price.


George Bush did not invade Afghanistan to liberate the women and girls. In true Hollywood style a remarkable conjuring trick has been played on the public. The American Military Machine and its allies have gotten away with murder. Support for feminist values has enabled multiple war crimes to be overlooked. The shocking harm to the Afghan people, perpetrated in the twenty years of illegal occupation, has gone unquestioned, while the media focuses on the demonisation of the Taliban. This is no different to the campaign of misinformation about “weapons of mass destruction” but has been more effective because it has exploited the natural concern about women’s rights.

In Afghanistan the Fundamentalist Hierarchy, led by the Emir Haibatullah Akhunzada , have come to power as a consequence of US and Allied failure and corruption. Trillions of dollars were wasted and many lives lost because of:  A) the insanely stupid way the campaign against the Taliban was conducted and B) the culturally insensitive manner in which the Afghan population were treated.

Every morning at the Yellow House I wake up with my stomach in my throat worrying about how much the Yellow Houses are costing and how long we can sustain them. There is no funding coming from anywhere other than the sale of my art and an ever-growing bank overdraft on our Werri Beach house mortgage. However, the Australian Government, at great cost to Australian Tax Payers, turned the other way, while our most elite “operators” enjoyed killing Afghans for fun.  If you do not believe me you need to read Ben Mckelvey’s FIND FIX FINISH and Mark Willacy’s ROGUE FORCES. Our Commandos and Special Forces were corrupted by the Americans making Matthew Cole’s book CODE ABOVE COUNTRY a must to read.  And we rewarded these murderers with medals including Victoria Crosses – read Chris Master’s Flawed Hero and Nick McKenzie’s Crossing the Lines.

As someone who has had the unique role of accompanying Australian Defence Forces in all their deployments since 1993, I have infinite respect for both our special forces and regular army. However, the period of exposure to American military corruption and licenced criminality in Afghanistan and Iraq has damaged our most strategic and vital, fighting asset. But, our Politicians have excluded the Australian public from the decision to join AUKUS.  Nothing could endanger the peaceful future of Australia more than AUKUS. The next “wrong” war the US leads us into could end our isolation from conflict and bring destruction to our safe southern Island, sanctuary. When Hellen and I were filming our documentary, Ukraine Guernica in ruined cities like Borodyanka it felt different to war scenes in countries like Cambodia and East Timor. Ukraine let us see what it would be like if war ever came to a city like Melbourne of Sydney. The survivors were well dressed in cloths like we wear, and their children had brightly coloured push bikes and skateboards, like our grandkids. It was a stark reminder of what Australia has been lucky enough to avoid.

When things seem hopeless is when it is most important to provide hope.

Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin invented modern art at their original Yellow House. It nearly destroyed both, but the world is still inspired by what they created. We are optimistic about what the Yellow House in Jalalabad can achieve at a time when the news is saturated with images of insane violence in Ukraine and Gaza.

Artists are meaning givers and when the leadership around the world is failing humanity that is when meaning is most needed. Food for the soul.


In the morning in Afghanistan someone from every house goes out to buy freshly made round flat bread. Sometimes it is stretched into an oblong. Here at the Yellow House, it is no different and I have just enjoyed mine with a breakfast omelette. I tear the bread into strips and put my egg on top like it was toast. But the Afghans take small pieces and pinch it into the egg, squeezing it into a ball before putting it in their mouth. It is the same with all meals. Knives and forks are not used or provided.  Every mouthful of food includes the bread pinched into a ball.  Meals are eaten cross-legged on a carpet with the dishes in the centre on a rolled out serving mat. I assume this is why it is essential etiquette to take shoes off before entering a home or meeting room. No one wants the dirt from the road on the floor they eat from.

The bread is made in earthenware ovens which are super-sized pots. It is smokey work. The beadmakers knead the dough and then slap it onto the inside walls extracting it within minutes with a hooked stick.  Much of the other food is cooked in tandoori ovens which are, also, large earthenware pots.

The biggest industry in Jalalabad is pot making for the bread and tandoori ovens, some of the bread ovens are over two meters high and these are all formed perfectly symmetrically by hand. Many are never fired in a kiln but allowed to dry in the sun to a rock hardness. Hay is mixed with the clay like iron mesh in cement to give it extra strength and stability.

The potters work from sunrise to sunset, out in the open and all the work is manual. The straw is mixed into the clay by stamping it in with bare feet. It is dirty work and when offering a handshake, they expect to be grabbed by the forearm and not their clay covered fingers.  The kilns for firing the pots are at different locations and look as ancient as the families that operate them. Recently they have begun to be fuelled by cotton waste, vast quantities of it.

I spent years creating my Heavy Industry series of paintings, drawings and etching in steel plants and mines in Australia and am sure that the workers at a blast furnace or at the coal face would relate to these potters as comrades.


When I was a kid in primary school, I liked to carry my breakfast up the mulberry tree and eat it high in the fork of the branches away from everything.  Our neighbours, the Ledgerwoods, had a pigeon coop, their cooing provided the background music. The previous house owner, Mr Hedge had a workshop between the washhouse and the tree. Dad knocked the back wall out and put in glass making it into mum’s pottery studio. I could look down and see her wheel and sometimes she would be working at it. Many years later, girls from my school, who visited, have told me how much it meant to them to see an independent woman working as an artist in her own space. Back in the 50s and 60s that was rare.

I would often help mum wedge the clay but never learnt to throw on the wheel. I would model imaginary creatures like dragons, and she would fire and glaze them for me, and it was always incredibly exciting to see them come out of the Kiln. I wish some had survived. Mum’s influence on my painting, however, is enormous. Just as she loved the feel of clay, I love the feel of paint and often use my hands to apply it or scratch into it with my fingernails, a kind of tactile drawing. She would say “a work of art is nothing until you give it a soul which comes out of yourself.” Everything she made had a soul, especially her owls, pelicans, and tortoises.


When we were doing the Yellow House (1969-71) it was considered uncool to have parents involved in any way. The other artists banned their parents from coming to the Yellow House, even for exhibitions. Except Martin Sharp who involved his mum, Joe, as I did mine, Joyce.  Joe painted watercolour clouds on the mounts for the Magritte lithographs. Joyce got into our Magritte Surrealist installations in a big way, making ceramic feet turning into boots for both men and women, leaves that were trees, a reversed mermaid with a fish head and naked women from the hips, down. Plus, the setting for the table of the Stone Room.

Now more than 60 years later I am back with the potters of Jalalabad bringing their work to our new 2023 Yellow House and thinking of how things go full circle. 

My friendships with the Jalalabad potters have developed over many years.  But this time I have decided to work with them much more than in the past . . .  Already they do decorative touches to their products, but they have never used glazes and do not know how. 

I have shown them photographs of the large, decorated pots I have created in Australia with Cameron Williams and they are incredibly excited by the potential to go beyond the functional to beauty.  Cameron and his wife Coleen have loaded Hellen’s bags with over seventeen kilos of glazes and sent instructions on how to use them. Plus, we hope to get Cameron and Colleen to the Yellow House someday to share their lifetime of experience with ceramics.


At the very crucial meeting at Taliban Headquarters, Arshad took a photograph of me shaking hands with Maulvi Noor Muhammad Hanif, who is the Taliban Minister for Culture and Information. I was very nervous, fearing the future of the Yellow House was going to be questioned.

Looking at Arshad’s photo of me smiling with the Maulvi, wearing his black Taliban Turban, I have decided it is Surreal enough to be exhibited as art. The background set resembles something designed by Stanley Kubrick for 2001 a Space Odyssey. I feel tempted to get it enlarged to four meters by three meters, and include it in an exhibition with my paintings.

I have not ever thought “this is art” when in these situations as the actual engagement needs my full focus.

Both Carolee Schliemann and my wife Hellen Rose have, however, always “gotten” this aspect of my genre better than I have. It is one thing to do performance art in a gallery, theatre or  place where it can be documented and then exhibited – but it is totally different when I get myself into places like Taliban Headquarters, with all the dangers and implications, and make it work out with a result like,  A) a permit to film for 2 years without minders or surveillance B) confirmed protection of our Yellow House Art School and  C) an offer to help design their two new mosques. Hellen calls it “social sculpture.”

I prepared for this meeting for a month. Soon after being seated I handed thirty photos, showing me collaborating with local potters, to Maulvi Noor Muhammad Hanif (Minister for Culture and Information) while being watched by a full room the of his powerful Mullane associates.

By starting with a discussion about my appreciation of the excellence of Jalalabad pottery we slipped past any other issues that could be a problem. The whole meeting become light and happy. The Maulvi and his accompanying Mullane friends began joking light-heartedly. Having Arshad there was a coup. He is famous for his many roles as a comic star in Pashtun comedies and children’s films. Sitting like a tiny prince on, a huge lounge chair made him look more theatrical. Everyone, including the hardened Taliban, bodyguards wanted to take selfies with him. How could someone, who brings a hobbit sized star to a meeting, be bad?

There were, also, some deep philosophical discussions about how the truest happiness comes from working for others and not self-interest. They recognised that I am an old man who has nothing to gain from creating the Yellow House. It is a gift to the people of Jalalabad. They know the history of my commitment goes back decades.


Then the big surprise came when Maulvi Noor Muhammad Hanif worked out that I had been a friend of the 115-Year-Old Sufi in Pakistan who is featured in my documentary Miscreants of Talwood.  When Hanif was a Taliban Field Commander, he was a prized target of the Americans who would mount large operations to kill or capture him. When they got “too close,” he would escape to Pakistan. His hideaway was next-door to the school run by the 115-year-Old Sufi. One of the Sufi’s closest friends loved to sing Rumi Poems. The students would sing along and Hanif would join in. From his speech, I can tell Hanif has a beautiful singing voice.  According to anti-Taliban propaganda they are supposed to hate Sufis.

Our minds are conditioned by the media and shared group perceptions about others. I can imagine people in countries like Australia the US and UK feeling absolute revulsion at seeing me shaking the hand of the Maulvi and smiling.


As I left, I told Maulvi Noor Mohammad that I would do a special painting for his office. He was delighted and said, “I must find a suitable gift for you.” I replied with my hand to my heart “your friendship and support for the Yellow House is more than enough.”

I have rarely worked so hard on a painting and titled it Call to Prayer. It took over a month and when I delivered it to Taliban Headquarters, everyone, including the other Taliban Leadership came out to see and loved it. It will be hung above Maulvi Noor Muhammad Hanif’s desk in his strange Kubrick like reception room, to the right of the Taliban flags. Nothing could have cemented our friendship more than this painting.  The Taliban will be welcome guests at the Yellow House, and we will share many meals on the lawns and discuss ways we can work together to make a better future for Afghanistan. This is real physical proof that art can succeed where twenty years of war failed.


I left it until after these meetings to paint Yellow House signage which enables everyone in the city to see where we are.

Salahuddin and Zabi were eleven-year-old ice cream sellers pushing plastic carts when they first came to the Yellow House and decided to make a drama about their lives and called it SNOW MONKEY. We appropriated the name for our Documentary SNOW MONKEY in which they feature. Now, they are both handsome twenty-one-year-old men and regard me like a second father. They have been involved in every arduous task in remaking this new Jalalabad Yellow House. As well as being excellent cameramen and writers they are both good with a brush.

I spent a long time coming up with the style for the YELLOW HOUSE print. The blue paint was specially mixed by our local paint store friends based on a cerulean blue tube of oil paint I sent down with Arshad. The blue and Yellow was an acknowledgement to our link with Ukraine with the “Blue and Yellow House” Hellen and I helped to create in the ruins of House of Culture in Irpin.

At the end of the day, I leant on a wall and looked at what we had achieved and was very happy. I knew repeating the YELLOW HOUSE signage on our walls, on the busy street, the following day could be tricky. But it went like a breeze. With Zabi and Salahuddin helping we were like three musketeers, with brushes, getting smiles and well wishes from all passers-by.

It was only when I sent photographs showing the sign on the outside walls of the Yellow House that friends wrote back saying they did not realize how much bigger the New Yellow House is. It was a former Business and English Language school and looks as impressive as any Established Art Institution. The upward arrows set in the concrete wall are appropriately symbolic of our optimism for the future. 

George Gittoes artwork is available to purchase here

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