George Gittoes, the prolific Australian painter and activist who has advocated for justice for over 45 years, was recently awarded the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize. As an artist, photojournalist and filmmaker, Gittoes has chronicled devastating conflicts in Somalia, Western Sahara, East Timor, Palestine, Iraq and other places all over the world. Today, Gittoes spends a lot of his time in Afghanistan, where he says drones fly overhead every 15 minutes. His Peace Prize painting Night Vision 2015 is a warning against the continuing depersonalisation of warfare through the use of unmanned drones.
Gittoes said, “These carry missiles which are controlled by people in rooms, a long way from Afghanistan. We go into the villages and see the destruction from the drones and it is very real. We can smell the death and the tears of grieving families, but the people who released the bombs are insulated from the pain they are causing. My fear is that the robotising of the military is happening without the general public being aware of it and unmanned enforcers will be upon us.”
Having witnessed violence for almost a lifetime, George remains an optimist: “I have great faith in ordinary people to persevere and finally achieve peace, regardless of the misguided leaders who take them into war.” Believing in the ability of creativity and communication to achieve collective harmony, he has dedicated his endless talent and energy to healing social and spiritual wounds.
In recent years, Gittoes had been working with young artists and filmmakers in the tribal belt of Pakistan, as well as producing his documentary Miscreants of Taliwood. Around seven years ago, he was approached by people from Jalalabad, who were looking for his help with bringing art to the city. “When I arrived in Jalalabad, there were no art schools, galleries, film training facilities, theatres or ways to bring art to the wider public. On my first day there, the last DVD/video store was bombed,” said George. “There are as many talented people in Afghanistan as in any country. Brilliant artists and filmmakers flocked to be part of what we were doing.”
Gittoes rented a building with a walled garden and painted it yellow. It quickly came to be known as the Yellow House, in a heartening piece of synchronicity with the Yellow House artist collective in Sydney’s Potts Point, the 1970s cultural icon that Gittoes helped found with artist Martin Sharp. “The artists of this Jalalabad Yellow House had never heard of Vincent Van Gogh but I am sure Vincent would be delighted to see his vision of a community of artists thriving in far off Afghanistan,” said George. Unfortunately, Jalalabad is now under threat from Islamic State fighters and they have since had to move the Yellow House to a more secure location next to a hospital, leaving much of the original painted walls, theatres and edit rooms behind.
Gittoes and his collective have produced multiple Pashto language dramas, including the children’s film Simurgh, made by the first female director of Pashto films. The group also runs a program that takes their films into villages to allow people to experience cinema for the first time.
Another major source of film distribution is in the hands of door-to-door ice-cream sellers. These young boys also decided to make a movie and became the central characters of Gittoes’ new documentary Snow Monkey, which screened at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam at the end of last year. With Snow Monkey, Gittoes brings the street children of Jalalabad into the hearts and homes of the Western world in an indelible way, at a time when there is a deluge of stories about human suffering.
Gittoes has achieved all of this in partnership with singer and performance artist Hellen Rose, who was a founding member of the Gunnery artist collective in Woolloomooloo in the late 1980s to early 90s. Hellen has been running women’s workshops in film, drama and radio from the beginning and many of her students are now highly active in professions which were exclusively male in the past.
The most important thing for Hellen and I is that people are understanding the power of art for bringing light into situations full of desperation and despair,” said George. “I’ve never been satisfied with the impact of my paintings and films when I have brought them back from war zones. But working with people who are caught up in war, as we are in Jalalabad, is enormously satisfying as we can see tangible progress every day.
Next, he is planning to take his work to Gaza and closer to home, to the banks of the Bourke River in western New South Wales. The aim is to create a Yellow House team ‘without borders’ comprised of Afghans, Australian Aboriginal people and Palestinians and later extend to other groups affected by conflict.
The Sydney Peace Prize is Australia’s only annual international prize for peace. For the past seventeen years the Sydney Peace Foundation at the University of Sydney has awarded it to someone who has made a significant contribution to peace with justice, respect for human rights and the language and practice of non-violence. Past winners include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky.
Follow George’s work at gittoes.com.