George Gittoes

There are journalists and photographers who are drawn to extreme situations – war zones, natural disasters, countries where violence and fanaticism are parts of everyday life. Few artists feel the same attraction to these dangerous places.

George Gittoes has been travelling the world for over forty years, visiting those regions that appear in brief, blood-spattered segments on the nightly news, preceded by warnings that some viewers may find such footage disturbing. Gittoes’ website details the places where he has set up a 'mobile studio', recording his impressions in paintings and drawings, photographs and films. When the Sandinistas fought Ronald Reagan’s Contras in Nicaragua, Gittoes was there making a documentary, The Bullets of the Poets. When the IRA was setting off bombs in Ireland, Gittoes was busy with his pencil and camera. He has been to the townships of South Africa and the killing fields of Cambodia. He has been a witness to genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda. He was in Baghdad when the World Trade Centre was attacked, and has made repeated trips to the Middle East during the American occupation. His most recent film, The Miscreants of Taliwood, was made in Taliban heartland, on the border regions where Pakistan meets Afghanistan.

Gittoes has an international profile that would be the envy of any other Australian artist, and claims – with every justification – to be one of the top ten documentary makers in the world. When John McDonald spoke with Gittoes for Issue 12, 2010, the artist was in New York, where his films had just been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, while he participated in a group exhibition called ‘Ressurectine’ at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. He was also preparing for a major exhibition called ‘The Blood Aquarium’ to be held at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, and planning to soon return to Pakistan to carry on with his film projects. Typically, this was only a small part of his schedule.

You’re constantly on the move George. Where is home nowadays?
I don’t really have a home any more. I’ve become completely rudderless. I haven’t any base. I’ve given up feeling that I’m returning home. I just see everywhere as home. I’m totally at home in New York, in Berlin, or in Pakistan, where my friends treat me like a member of the family.

For forty years, you’ve focused your energy on representing war and suffering. How did it all start?
I’ve gone for the dark line from the start—my drawing hasn’t changed since primary school when I first did drawings that came naturally to me but disturbed other people. Some artists are just born to rebel against the prevailing styles and dogma of the established art prejudices of their day. After a short flirtation with minimal abstraction, which took me to New York in 1968, I met the African American artist Joseph Delaney who specialised in works based on his experiences of the civil rights movement. Joe got me drawing from life in the streets of New York—entering that torrent of human history in the year of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations meant I could never turn back to the safer ground of abstraction or decorative art.

Do you think there is something to be achieved in taking this dark line to an audience?
I think to create in the face of the massive destruction that is war may be quixotic and futile but that’s exactly what makes it the obvious thing for artists to do. When I work in a studio I feel life is rushing by outside and I resent the paintings for stealing time away from the very short interval I have to experience the world and humanity. Working in a war zone with death all around I appreciate life more and every moment becomes precious. Painting and drawing helps me to see and feel these moments more intensely. I start with what is very real—like the machete-cut faces of victims in Rwanda—and progressively move towards a mystical or supernatural interpretation. That’s why I am more comfortable with the label of ‘religious artist’ than ‘war artist’.

I’ve always felt I did not have to do decorative art or stuff for the art market because there were plenty enough artists doing it but I don’t know any other artist in my lifetime who has consistently gone into harms way to express the insanity and inhumanity of war. By following the intuition to repeatedly face the horrors of war and make art enables me at 60 to look back on a very consistent body of work—happy to have never been swayed or deviated. I don’t see myself as anti-war crusader but am proud to have saved some lives along the way, given a lot of suffering people a bit of comfort and helped some humanitarian projects. Anyone who watches my film The Miscreants of Taliwood will see I do not take myself over seriously … and agree with Dante—life can be transcended by recognising the Divine Comedy.

Tell me about your travels this year.
It’s grueling. It’s unreal. I’ve just been in Honduras looking at the reef and the oil slick. I was in the Gulf and then I was in Texas. Before that I was in New York. I’ll go next to London where I’m doing a talk at the Frontline Club. Then I go back to Germany and wind up my studio. From there I go to Bologna, where I’m one of the judges on the film festival, and my films are showing. After that I go to Norway for another project. I come back to Australia for about ten days then I go to Pakistan and Afghanistan, probably for five months. I won’t come back to Australia, but will fly directly to Texas where I’ll start working on ‘The Blood Aquarium’. While I’m doing that my film editor will come to Texas and work on two films with me, side by side.

This is only the part I’m sure about. Already the Zapatistas have asked to do something about the drug wars in Mexico. I’m fascinated by this ecological disaster in the Gulf, and this will find its way into my work. I’ve also started to make a film about a cage boxer, because it says so much about America. Meanwhile, the Chinese have recently bought a big painting of mine, and they’re talking about doing a show—a retrospective in Beijing. I love China, so if that happens I’ll probably go there for six to twelve months. It’s just a fucked up life.

How long can you carry on like this?
When we spoke about two years ago, you said you felt you were suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Well I’m over that. I’m feeling extremely healthy—really light and happy inside, and that’s reflected in the humour of Miscreants. I had a period when I thought I had a stress disorder, but it was probably just too much of Australia, and sheer fatigue. Inwardly it’s funny, even though I’ve been in Rwanda and Bosnia and I’ve seen all this death, none of it seems to have stuck. I don’t have nightmares. I don’t feel damaged.

Is it because you’ve become hardened?
Absolutely not! Wherever I am, I do good things. I’ve helped create scholarships for girls in Pakistan, and I’ve got Oxfam to finance three Pashto movies to help revive the film industry. In Rwanda I saved babies. I’m always getting asked: ‘How do you cope?’ The truth is, after a while everything in the normal world seems beautiful. You feel so lucky to be able to go to a supermarket where you can get nice food. You come out the other end of the tunnel and start feeling very happy with life. I just love people. I walk around New York with the hoboes and eccentrics. I talk to people’s dogs, I pat babies. I’m not at all hardened.

Don’t you find it stressful to go back to places like the Pakistani border? Or are you high on the adrenalin?
Neither. I think it’s going to be a ball in Pakistan. I enjoy what I do and I think you can see that in Miscreants. I don’t live on adrenalin. From the outsider’s point of view it might seem that what I’m doing is chaotic, but it’s quite a big thing to do three feature films in another language. I get caught up in the conceptual side of making it happen and I try to do it in the safest possible way. It’s show business and it probably looks more dangerous than it is. There is always the possibility of getting killed, but I’ve managed to stay alive so far. I’m like a Forrest Gump. I’ve bumbled my way through all these situations but the body of work holds them together.

Tell me about the films.
As I said, I’ve managed to get Oxfam to provide the money to do three Pashto dramas to help recreate the film industry there in the face of the Taliban. That’s going to be a risky thing to do, and I think the Taliban will probably come after me at some point while we’re making them. Then I’m going to Afghanistan to make a film called Comic Wars, which is about American culture going to war. I’m taking along an ensemble of Pakistani actors there to make another movie called Scarface in Kabul, which is a similar sort of film to Miscreants. I’m hoping to take my cast into the houses of big heroin suppliers who have made so much money they can’t spend it, so they’ve built the most horrendously kitsch grand palaces. Some of the most expensive houses in the world are now in Kabul—which is an insult to the poverty of the rest of the country. I think comedy is the way to go—it’s the only way to deal with so much of this stuff.

It sounds like the boundary between fact and fiction is constantly being crossed and recrossed.
Absolutely! With the Pashto films, all the actors are going to play characters based on their own stories in Miscreants. Kireen is going to play herself, as a mother who is forced into acting because her husband is dead. She wants her daughters to get an education and doesn’t want them to act. Javed is going to be the laborer who gets discovered and becomes a star, then gets captured by the Taliban. The old Sufi is about 117 and is going to play himself again. Ishfaq is going to play the producer. And the funniest thing is that the three films we’re making—the stories of Taliwood stars being attacked by the Taliban—will be Pakistani versions of the Twilight films, so all the actors are going to be vampires. You ask me if I worry, but I just can’t wait! I’ll be going into Pakistan, trying to get through customs with a suitcase full of vampire teeth and werewolf fur.

What about the show in Houston? Is it going to be a retrospective?
‘The Blood Aquarium’ is not a retrospective but it will have many of the characteristics of one. I’m including my early abstract film, Rainbow Way, as a continuous back projection loop, and also the Hotel Kennedy etching suite from the Yellow House days in 1970. The show itself will be like walking through an illustrated pop version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s based on eight stories I’ve written in connection with my experiences, but they’re fictional—like a comic book. The paintings come first, the stories come second. There’ll be text on the walls, sculptures and installations, and short video loops, which constitute a new genre, halfway between film and still photography. It seems fanciful but suddenly you’ll come upon a little screen and realise that my representation of a mosque where a bomb’s gone off is based on a real experience. That’s what makes my work different: the fact that everything is based on real experiences – the fact that I was there and kept a visual diary.

Are there any plans to bring the show to Australia?
At the moment I’ve got no plans. I’d really love to bring it to Australia, but I’d be very surprised if anybody wanted to take this show. It’s a shame because I think this exhibition will contain my best, most mature painting, just like Miscreants was my most mature film. The work is different this time. I’ve been through the same kind of changes as Goya, who went from recording the atrocities of war to the more fantastic scenes of the Caprichos. This show is not about the externals—it’s like the abstract response of someone who’s been exposed to all this horror and violence. It’s a journey into the underworld, into possible hells. And for me it’s very important because I’m sick of all the darkness I’ve carried with me throughout the last forty years. I don’t think anyone on earth has seen as much death and violence as I have. Ideally I’d like to leave it all behind in Houston, the city of George W. Bush. After I’ve done this batch of films and the Houston show, I’m hoping I can give some thought to the joy of life.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 12, 2010

George Gittoes: On Being There
8 February – 26 April 2020
Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW

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