George Gittoes’ I Witness exhibition showcases the first major survey of the artist’s work presented in Australia after a career spanning more than 40 years. This is a completely free exhibition running from 24 May – 27July 2014 at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre. Big Bear and I went along to the artists talk of the exhibition and also enjoyed a lovely brunch/lunch at the gallery’s café beforehand, which you can read my review on.
My knowledge of the artist was (unfortunately) pretty sketchy coming into the exhibition. But I did know 2 facts – he was Australian and he was famous! (Yeh, so not great). Thankfully, I walked away from the exhibition with a deeper understanding of not only the artist’s work but also a new perspective on important themes and subjects carried throughout this impressive career of work. The exhibition captures George’s paintings, drawings, films and process diaries and conveys some strikingly shocking and sobering stories. The crux of his work interrogates his experiences of war and conflict, particularly through the areas of Nicaragua and the Philippines in the 1980s, Rwanda, Cambodia and the Middle East during the 1990s, and modern day Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the opening of the exhibition the artist held a walking tour and talk of his work. Big Bear and I did a quick scan of the exhibition prior to the tour. Walking out I didn’t feel particularly joyous or uplifted, mainly because the subjects are designed to be serious and often graphic and confronting. But it definitely has a way of drawing you out of your inner world for a while and having a decent think about the world around us and what is happening in places so foreign to you.
The artist arrived and, as you do, painted some finishing touches to his ‘monkey’ artwork hanging outside the entrance of the exhibition – nothing like last minute! Walking into the gallery, George told us of his beginnings at the 1970s Yellow House, an artist community established by prominent Australian artists such as Martin Sharp and Brett Whiteley based in Potts Point, Sydney. A really respectable characteristic of George is his ability to get so intimate with his subjects and interrogate the human experience firsthand. Many of his paintings aren’t simply a general capturing of war – each work has its own personal story and experience, and carefully invites viewers to walk in George’s footsteps through his own encounter with human suffering – the boy who was disembowelled after his donkey stood on a landmine, the lady being sexually assaulted, walking through seas of dismembered bodies, tortured subjects etc etc… you get the idea. For someone who has experienced these scenes first hand, George is very open and willing to share his stories and seems very grounded at the same time.
Some of his more contemporary paintings and films explore America’s involvement in the Iraq war. George spoke about the myth of the ‘war hero’ and questioned the complexities of young soldiers going away to war and feeling country pride and allegiance when battling the enemy, but often returning home with post-traumatic stress because the soul, mind and spirit of the soldier can’t recover from the atrocities of war. Some of his film footage was also picked up by documentary maker Michael Moore in his film Fahrenheit 9/11, particularly around his subject of violent music that soldiers listened to in order to energize them prior to going in for battle. This is just one example of how George’s subjects have received widespread international attention.
Wherever he travels he’s often plagued with questions calling for him to paint ‘happy’ subjects. But to George, his topics aren’t simply ‘anti-war’ or a straight up depiction of war, instead it’s about calling for “hopeful change in the most appalling situations”. Audiences are therefore encouraged to look, listen, feel and learn, and question the ethics of going into war and the trail of destruction it leaves behind on innocent victims.
Dangerously real, interrogating and confronting.
Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre
Exhibition runs until 27th July
782 Kingsway Gymea, NSW, 2227
02 8536 5700