George Gittoes’ diary

Recently, artist George Gittoes was announced as the recipient of The Sydney Peace Prize. The jury recognised the Sydney-born 65-year-old 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.”

Gittoes says the award was welcome recognition that “creativity is the opposite of war, artists can make a huge difference”. Gittoes will be presented with the prize in November when he delivers the 2015 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture.

Nowadays George Gittoes lives for part of each year at the Yellow House in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, which is known as a Taliban “stronghold”. Here, he works with young people of the city where they can express themselves through art, film and Pashtun culture and hopefully make a change in their lives. Over the last few years Gittoes has been sending me his “diary updates”, with regular entries of his time while working overseas, and especially from the Yellow House, painting and filming throughout Afghanistan.

After a recent return to Australia and a catch-up over a cup of tea, he gave Artist Profile permission to run some of these private entries.

31 August 2014:
I, Julian Assange

Hi Steve, we have been in Afghanistan for a couple of weeks now and all is going well. We have been building and expanding the YHJ [the Yellow House in Jalalabad] because there is so much activity. I recently visited Julian Assange in the [Ecuadorean] Embassy [in London]. I see him as a Wild Colonial Boy like Ned Kelly, and did three small portraits titled ‘As Game As – Ecuador Embassy’.

I am writing this from Kabul and am not in an altered state with my writer’s hat on but feel the last week is very special and I need to get some of it down before my memory becomes fuzzy.

When John Shipton [Julian Assange’s father] came to see our last production of Afghan Book of the Dead at the Rockdale Yellow House he suggested “Julian likes to have Australian visitors”. John often comes to our events … and so on the third-last day of our time in London we got news Julian wanted to see us.

We were in London after Norway where our film was one of three nominated for an Amanda Award. Love City didn’t win but I was able to interest the Nobel Museum into showing I Witness at some future date. I also took the opportunity of being in London to visit the art curator at the Imperial War Museum, Kathleen Palmer, and see the show of WWI artists.

On the train to the airport in Oslo two items dominated the news which was on a flat TV screen in the carriage … there was a breaking news story that Julian Assange was considering leaving the Ecuadorean Embassy and that a journalist by the name of James Foley had been decapitated by ISIS militants in retaliation for US air strikes. Both stories would soon affect me, directly.

The BBC had organised a studio for a 27-minute interview, which would have been good publicity and promotion for what we are doing at the Yellow House, but in one of my sleepless nights I decided it would be too dangerous. The Taliban have already offered to remove my head and this latest decapitation could embolden them to go ahead with the threat while I am in Afghanistan. The dangers I will face making Snow Monkey are going to be exponentially higher with the rise of ISIS and the success of establishing an Islamic Caliphate over the territory they have captured in Syria and Iraq.

I assumed all the media associated with Julian would take away any chance of a visit. I had thought, from the time John first mentioned the possibility, that it would be foolish for me to visit Julian and make the connection in the minds of security agencies when I was about to return to Afghanistan. The one principle I have lived by is not to allow myself to become connected with any subversive political organisations. I know that while ever I am a free agent and pursuing my own inner directions I will be safe from negative judgements by the intelligence organisations that monitor people working in war zones. There is no way I want to be linked to Julian when about to step back into the frontline, so I was feeling OK about not seeing him.

I was walking through the National Gallery looking at a Caravaggio when I got a call that Julian wanted to meet me. When something like this happens I say, “Well regardless of the risk, it must be meant to be.” I never question destiny!

I did not know what would be possible, so I went prepared to film or paint, putting the movie cameras in my black bag and three smallish canvases which I primed with Ultramarine Blue.

With all this stuff Hellen [Hellen Rose, George’s partner] and I got a taxi to the Ecuadorean Embassy – telling the driver it was next to Harrods. Hellen was determined to buy Julian flowers to bring a sense of the beauty of the outside world in. Plus a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey and some chocolate. There were three cops outside the doors and two dark blue big vans that looked like they could have electronic surveillance equipment like in the movies. A cop with a bullet-proof vest was at a desk inside. I was surprised to see a London cop in Ecuadorean space.

The atmosphere inside Embassy reception, once we had passed the security door, was very relaxed and Juan, our contact, appeared. He was dressed in a dirty T shirt and greasy jeans and was a bit overweight … not what I expected as Julian’s main assistant. He had researched me well and asked how the Ice Cream Boys were doing in Jalalabad … then amazed me by saying how much he wanted to see my early Nicaraguan film, Bullets of the Poets. No one brings this film up any more … he had really done his homework.

The room had a receptionist and ornate antique chairs with an ornate ceiling grid that brought home the sense of a gilded cage.

It was not long before Julian appeared. He immediately told us that he wanted to do our discussion in this room as a kind of political gesture to make a point. The new ambassador had taken away his meeting room and he wanted to make him as uncomfortable about this as possible.

Julian soon showed he had done even more research on me than Juan – it was clear that our access was a well considered item and highly selective.

I told him I knew his dad John Shipton and he was surprised. This was something that had slipped past his attention but the link to family immediately made him much more relaxed.

In this first talk session I was pretty stupid and in my attempt to make Julian comfortable with my credentials I probably gave away too much information to those listening. It was something that would keep me awake for a few hours after I left … milling it over in my head.

Gradually Julian became relaxed enough to suggest we get something to eat, asking for “anything unusual and out of the norm”. Hellen shot back to Harrods and Julian and I got into some big issue items. I asked him how much his situation was preventing him from doing creative work and he replied he was sad and frustrated that he was only at about 25 per cent capacity. I am not sure if we went into his computer and editing room before or after Hellen arrived back with sushi and other items to feast on.

In the course of our conversation he showed an advanced and deep, critical knowledge of film, especially political documentary. Julian said, “I suppose with you coming from Afghanistan you are used to eating on the floor.” He had gone to his room to get a black toolbox which he used to improvise a table. Hellen sat a large plate of sushi on it and Julian mixed the wasabi sauce with the soy sauce. Hellen had also purchased a bottle of sake. It went down very quickly and then he jumped to his feet and disappeared again, returning with about eight partially full bottles of spirits hugged to his chest with both arms. These were his offerings and he did a spiel on the virtues of each – he went for chilli rum and I selected an exotic whisky. At this point Julian got super relaxed and stretched out on the floor, full length and slipped his shoes off showing pink and grey striped socks … I had lost my shoes half an hour earlier.

This was no longer a meeting but a get-together of friends from the same country and culture with similarities in our pasts and professions.

I don’t think it would be fair on Julian to detail all the subjects we discussed. The whole time it was clear Julian was aware every word was being recorded and I sensed when he would put in messages not for us but for his listeners. A big one was that he was certain he would be in the embassy for another year or more. Only a few days ago there had been a press conference where the media claimed he was ready to leave and give himself up. He explained this had no truth to it.

At one point he got me to stand up and come over to the side window where he pushed the drapes aside. Here was another big dark blue van and a fast looking cop car with stripes and decals. He wanted me to see this and … seemed proud that he and Wiki had eaten up an entire counter surveillance budget which had originally been earmarked for other, wider applications. It was really obvious that huge amounts of money were being spent.

The face I sketched out on my three blue canvases soon acquired the Ned Kelly helmet eye slit. I saw Julian looking through this slit in the windows like Ned at the coppers surrounding him. For some time I have been describing and drawing Julian as a modern day Ned Kelly and titling the works ‘As Game As’. More than ever this image cemented in my mind – Julian, like Ned surrounded by English coppers using his computer skills like armour to repel their bullets. The next morning we were to fly out of London for Afghanistan and I had already had about three sleepless nights. I realised that if I was to function properly at the airport security with all our equipment I would have to call it a night.

The sushi meal with Julian lying on his side and making lots of jokes reminded me more of being with a really intelligent hippy at Nimbin or Mullumbimby at an outdoor campsite. I could see this is where this boy from the bush wanted to be and for a short time we had helped him escape his gilt prison.

Julian saw us back into the Embassy reception. We got our passports back and both gave him big hugs. Julian made sure to tell me not to answer any questions from the Bobbies outside and refuse to give them our names. Then he explained we could not open the door until he was back in, hidden in his room.

He punched the keys to his door and disappeared like the phantom he is.

I’ve finished writing this at the Yellow House in Jalalabad. We have made it safely down the road but a truck which was 30 minutes in front of us was hit by rockets and we came to it burning with tyres melted into the bitumen. Afghan Special Forces were all around it. The driver had been kidnapped and the whole thing was a puzzle because the truck was only said to be carrying grapes.

As soon as we hit the YHJ it has been all talk with happy reunions and meetings. Our street was blocked off because it has just been surfaced. I got out of the car and walked to the gate but the people inside had been alerted and we met open-armed with kisses and hugs. The first I saw was Ishtad, our cross-dressing cook, who ran to me like in a Hollywood movie with arms open for an embrace … I managed to avoid kissing him on his puckered lips and planted kisses on both his cheeks …. Then the same for Amir Shah, Noori, Renne and finally Waqa.

10 September, 2014:
Yellow House – Green Harmonium

Why is the green of Sufis different to green as we know it? When I was in fourth year and my first year at the new high school, Kingsgrove North, I persuaded my art teacher to allow the First Level art group to specialise in Islamic art.

I always read beyond the syllabus – in ancient history I read all the Greek plays and Marcus Aurelius. We did The Plague by Camus so I read every bit of existentialist literature I could find and then moved on to Huysmans’ Against Nature and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist so it was natural to seek out Islamic literature.

It started with a Penguin paperback anthology of Persian literature, translated by Nicholson, which had a miniature of Mohammad’s ascent into Paradise on the winged horse/donkey on its cover. This cover image and two items in this book changed my life – a section of Rumi’s Masnavi with the lines “I must pass beyond the angels blessed, for non-existence proclaims in organ tones, to Him I shall return”. And the best version of The Parliament of the Birds, by Attar. Once I had read these stories I was hooked. I was able to get mail-order copies of Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes and other things translated by him – including, I think, The Way of the Sufi.

My first big encounter with a living Sufi was with the 115-year-old Sufi who features in my film Miscreants of Taliwood.

Today, however, has been fantastic because I have met my second great living Sufi. He was playing a harmonium and singing Sufi poems in the needle park near the Spingar Hotel gardens. I was helping one of the Ice Cream Boys, Irfan, search for his father who is an addict. I have invited him back to the Yellow House and hopefully we will have him here by tomorrow and I can write about him bringing his blessing and magic to this place.

When I think about it I have unconsciously made the Yellow House resemble a Sufi teaching school. Our garden has a very similar feel to the Mosque courtyard of the 115-year-old in Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how the old bubba reacts to it. I think he will be very comfortable and ask to stay the night. Hope so! The yellow stage, monkey, peacocks and painted hoojrah should suck him in.

After hearing him sing the two songs I paid him to sing to our cameras I could not stay any longer – as I did not want to feel this high point diminish but I did not want to walk completely away, either. I went to Janet’s tea shop which was less than 100 metres away and quietly drank warm milk tea and listened to his now distant voice.

My thoughts were ‘non existent’ – the profundity of his presence was something that did not allow room for ideas or thoughts to form in my head. (Note: I sent Amirshah and Irfan off to seek the addict father in another direction until they rejoined me and we continued the search in a different park.)

These Sufi sages are living treasures as priceless as a museum full of tangible art … their intangible presence has more impact than rooms full of Van Goghs and Rembrandts. I remember feeling like this the first time I experienced Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado … I just had to sit for a time away from them. It was not so much what was on the canvas but a sense of Rumi’s “Non existence proclaiming in organ tones, to Him I shall return.”

The lines I remember from the 115-year-old Sufi in Miscreants were:
“Look beyond”
“It is not in books” and
“If there is one very ripe melon in a patch the others will ripen by being near it.”

18 December 2014:

Hi Steve, I have done a lot of exciting new paintings in Jalalabad. I will be back in Oz, hopefully, in January. The new work addresses the death cult imagery of ISIS and the Taliban. It is back to Gittoes dealing with the darkest realities. This has been a tense time for us … as you can imagine and we have had personal death threats aimed at us by the bad guys and delivered to the Australian Embassy.

25 December 2014:

There is a lot to convey from this rich period in the heartlands of Islam. I spent Christmas Eve shooting a music video on top of the Buddhist Mountain with Mutazah singing to our little band of rascals. The Ice Cream Boys, the Ghostbusters and the Gangsters plus our monkey Tim Tam. Mutazah wrote this song for true boys and we will broadcast it on a digital billboard in the centre of the city. Today, Christmas Day, we are madly editing it for the screen. I want the kids to have a real sales success with their first movie. The Gangsters want to make their own, next, it will be titled Gangsters of Jalalabad.

It was a tough day but the Guardian Angels of Christmas were taking care of us when a squad of mean looking men (probably Taliban or bandits posing as Taliban) turned up when I was alone with the boys on the mountain top. The angels sent Asam out of nowhere.

He appeared with some shepherds (very Christmas angel) and he embraced me and the armed men decided they could move on as I was part of the community. Asam is Medina’s father from Love City and drove our blue truck. It could have been the end of it all if he had not appeared.

Have a great day. Think of us in the Jalalabad Yellow House. It feels great to be doing this work for peace and creative freedom in such a troubled world ending 2014.

1 January 2015:
Happy New Year from the Yellow House Jalalabad!

Hi Steve, here is a shot of Gul Minah at the Yellow House with her older brother. She is five or six and lives off recycled rubbish collected from the mean streets of Jalalabad. She is there late at night in the semi dark being a mother to her brothers including a three-year-old. They eat garbage and drink the residue from discarded soda cans.

They were nervous about visiting – she is at constant hyper alert in terms of her own self protection. I have organised (actually paid a 1500 rupee bribe to the owner) for her to be able to collect all the aluminium cans from the roof of Burger Chief – the largest fast food restaurant in Jalalabad. This saves her from the possibility of pricking herself with an AIDS infected needle while sifting street garbage. The cans at Burger Chief are like treasure for Gul Minah. It was a delight to see her eyes widen when she first saw the big pile and knew she could fill her sacks and earn money from them without hours and hours of scavenging.

Wishing everyone the maximum of good luck for 2015.

3 January 2015:
Rickshaw Paintings

This is a first preview of the large work I have been doing at the Yellow House, Jalalabad. I have taken all the images from the backs of rickshaws and placed them in abstract backgrounds. A local rickshaw painter has been helping me to get the images in the style of the rickshaw art.

There is a lot more to do. The faces on the rickshaws reflect the way the driver-owners perceive themselves. An extension of their personalities. All the faces come from Pashto language films and I have worked with most of these actors from Jangir to Abas.

This painting and similar, smaller works tie my painting into the film work of the last seven years. It fits perfectly with Miscreants of Taliwood, Love City Jalalabad and the new movie Snow Monkey. Through this period I have been making, writing and producing a lot of Pashto movies. The list is extensive and I am known to everyone in the industry.

Originally I got involved out of defiance to the Taliban who were blowing up video stores and killing actors and crew. Then I got absorbed into the industry and began improving the quality of the movies from within.

The rickshaw paintings do not relate to the movies I have helped to make. They are the truest expression of the bloodthirsty macho ethos of this place and Pashtun men. This is the same spirit that has been taken up in a different form by ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

Living in this culture you see animals beheaded every day. I walked to my corner store this morning and a beautiful cow looked up at me with terrified eyes as two men slit her throat and slowly hacked away until her head was off and the life had gone from her eyes.

Blood and knives are everywhere. Every man carries a gun.

The irony is that the Taliban do not permit the representation of humans or animals. This means these images are constantly vandalised. In the final version of my large work I will mess with a lot of the faces – vandalising them the way the Taliban do. These vandalised faces remind me of Francis Bacon and they are much better aesthetically once they are screwed with.

11 February 2015:
Back Home – Sydney Peace Prize

We are back and in one piece – I am painting at Arncliffe and working on the edit of the new film Snow Monkey at Surry Hills. I just got the amazing news that I am about to be awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for 2015. There is only one of these each year and it usually goes to internationals … it has been awarded in the past to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Xanana Gusmão, Dr Hanan Ashrawi, Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky and Hans Blix.

This is a wonderful recognition of a lifetime of work. I have to do a big public talk at Sydney Town Hall in November. I said I would only agree to it if Hellen could sing two songs as part of the event. They were very happy with this. The prize is awarded by the Sydney Peace Prize Foundation in association with Sydney University.

8 March 2015:
Fall of the Rogue Apes

I have been working in the studio this weekend and listening to the new 35-minute Dylan album … and wondering what has happened to this poet of protest – at a time the world most needs an end to the insanity he is crooning sad love songs.

I have started a series of drawings and paintings called Fall of the Rogue Apes – they are as dark and sceptical as it gets. Swift would have found them amusing as he talked to his horses in the later phase of his life, when he had given up on humanity.

The world out there is looking pretty dark … it is barbaric that the military who are fighting ISIL have not given priority to the destruction of the ancient Assyrian works at Nemrud. They should have known the importance of the site to all humanity and had satellites and predators watching and forces ready with a brief to keep it safe for future generations. With the first movement against the site, planes or helicopters should have been on alert and sent to take out the bulldozers. If they can take out a fast moving Taliban car they can do the same for a bulldozer. I am less interested in extending the front line in a Kurdish village or Falugia than stopping this destruction of civilisation’s continuity.

There is nothing I like more in art than these winged, long-bearded, half men half lions of Assyria – now the best of them are only pictures in books. It is good some are in museums but their essential link to past lives can only be felt in the context of where they were made. They are much older than the Buddhas of Bamayan.

7 July 2015:

Here are some pics of ‘Civilisation’. The entire work was painted at the Yellow House in Jalalabad during the period of shooting our Snow Monkey film. It is often in the background of scenes at the Yellow House in the film and there is one scene where a young aspiring artist, Salhudin, is painting it with me and talking about how he wants to be a painter and open a design shop.

I often employ local designers to create the covers and posters for our movies. One of these designer/artists was killed in a Taliban suicide attack – so it always makes us very sad to see his work advertising our films. He was only a teenager and the time I brought him to Jalalabad was the first time he had been out of Peshawar … when he looked around the city it reminded me of being 18 and seeing New York after leaving Australia.

This ‘Civilisation’ painting does not have the usual figurative structure found in my bigger compositions but it embodies a whole period of work in Pakistan and Afghanistan going back a decade or more. In some ways it was like painting one of Monet’s huge waterlily works. However, a big, initial influence was a show I saw at the Tate Modern, last year of Malevich’s abstracts. I have always liked Malevich and was highly influenced by him and the constructivists like Mondrian when I was young and thinking I was going to have a career as an abstract painter. It was these abstract paintings that Greenberg saw and which got him to invite me to come to New York in 1968.

Various members of the Yellow House helped with this new painting as a kind of living art class … while they helped me they learnt to use paints and brushes and this could assist them to get work doing signs etc on a commercial basis.

We will be heading back to Jalalabad around late August. It is going to be good to see everyone again.

11 July 2015:
Uncongenial Art

Great quote from the foreword by Professor Declan McGonagle. It was the only book I do not have on the work of my old friend Leon Golub, Echoes of the Real by Jon Bird. The foreword is titled: The Uncongenial Art of Leon Golub.

There is no artist I feel more affinity with than Leon. He loved my Soundtrack to War and I am sure, bowerbird that he was, he took stuff from it. For the gatekeepers of the inner sanctum of what is allowed through as acceptable in my recent retrospective I Witness could have been titled The Uncongenial Art Of George Gittoes and it would have fitted their perceptions.

I waste a lot of time thinking about this stuff and so did Leon. It is not like the CIA sent out a directive to all museum curators and directors, “Thou shalt not support art with political or social content.” It is more like my observation of the two journalists who visited the Yellow House. They had fallen for all the consensus lines the US military establishment would want them to spruik to justify the war in Afghanistan, and when confronted by my plea for an alternative view they got semi hostile. Yet neither of them would agree that they are puppets, doing the work of the Establishment. There must be some pervasive need to conform to consensus, an animal herd thing, where both the journalists and the gallery gate keepers instinctively know they are putting the smooth progress of their careers at risk if they act outside the square and look beyond “official seeing”.

After returning home, I rented a car and we drove down to Werri Beach. That is where I am writing from. We have started our seven-day holiday in paradise. We are about to do a coastal walk with our Jack Russell, Snug, and on the way back I will go for a surf.

We are hoping to buy a beachfront block here and build a perfect home/studio/sanctuary. A new Yellow House on the South Coast of Australia. It will not be the end of me going to war or fighting the good fight – not by a long shot – but I need a place to recharge and get things into perspective. Perhaps this should end with me putting a sign up on my door ‘Gone Surfing’.

Courtesy the artist and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston

George Gittoes is represented by Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane

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