new street art in Kandahar ups the ante…

Some months ago I wrote about the growing phenomenon of “street art” at the KAF base in Kandahar, in south-eastern Afghanistan. There was even a response to the incarceration of Ai Weiwei here and there on the concrete blast walls.  Now we find the Australian official war artist Ben Quilty getting in on the act. His variation on the Australian coat of arms is a radical challenge to iconographic analysis. While the Australian War Memorial has mentioned his mural in passing in last week’s pre-publicity, we are yet to see them publish a photograph of the work, or to offer an account of the meaning of its symbolism. The inclusion of skulls and serpents (locally symbolising the infidel crusader) may pose a challenge to officialdom. This may yet prove to be the most radical “war art” yet. We look forward to the official account. Here’s what they say thus far… (This photograph was published in Air Force: the official newspaper of the Royal Australian Air Force, (Vol 53, No 22, Nov 24, 2001, p.17).

And this is the first version of the image: the one above has (for better or worse) been made specific to the KAF context:

Ben Quilty, Landcruiser, 2007, Chinese Ink and Gouache on Aquari paper, 188 x 282cm (from the QUT Ben Quilty Interpretative Guide)

This text by Don Walker accompanies the image: “It’s an old trick. Take a universal, publicly owned snatch of melody, fanfare, phrase or image and pervert it. Ben Quilty has used the Australian coat of arms, an image so official and hoary it’s almost invisible, and mounted it on a mesa piled with skulls. The shield-bearers are presented as road-kill, the kangaroo muzzle flattened by a double bogie. Between them now is a cairn of skulls knitted by worms and lies. The crest is a convict shackle, looking as though it was cut from a kerosene tin, just to make it clear that not all the bones belonged to Indigenous Australians. Like most people, Ben Quilty defies caricature. A bogan who chose to pursue a degree in Aboriginal culture. A petrolhead who buys his art supplies at Bunnings, yet carries tiny notebooks full of the most exquisite pen-and-ink sketches of Venice done in his recent youth. Close in, where Quilty works, his paintings look like a bad paving job. Step back twenty feet and he’s caught the whole sorry tale, a country built by the survivors of pogroms, massacres and land clearances elsewhere, who found a haven here on land cleared by massacres of our own.”

The image and text above was found here. We’re waiting to hear the AWM’s version…


Ai Weiwei: An Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia

Concerning the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei and numerous other Chinese citizens:

The Honourable Julia Gillard MP

Dear Prime Minister,

I understand that you will be making an official visit to the People’s Republic of China from the 25th to 28th April.

May I draw your attention to the recent reports in the press that 54 “dissidents” have been detained by the Chinese Government in the past two weeks.

Most notable among the many significant figures in this group is the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, who appears to have been detained under a series of variously mysterious accusations. All the evidence suggests this an extra-judicial process, as Australians would understand it.

His detention has been condemned by the unprecedented number of highly placed international institutions, artists and public intellectuals I have listed below.

Notable among these has been a spokesman for the U.S. Head of State Hillary Clinton, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Given Australia’s proud history of democratic rights and robust political debate, this recent rash of arrests and the consequential suppression of civil liberties and freedom of speech deserves your most serious attention. Just as the destiny and wellbeing of our two countries are closely tied together, so are our two systems of social justice. As an Australian citizen I urge you to raise these matters in your discussions at the highest level with the Chinese Government.

Yours sincerely

Nigel Lendon

19th April, 2011

The following international political figures have called for the release of Ai Weiwei:

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

The U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner:

Public Institutions who have petitioned for his release include:

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art
Juan Ignacio Vidarte, Director General, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao,
and Deputy Director and Chief Officer for Global Strategies, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Glenn Lowry, Director, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate and Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern
Kaywin Feldman, President, Association of Art Museum Directors and Director
and President, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Yongwoo Lee, President, The Gwangju Biennale Foundation
Michael Govan, Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Vishakha Desai, President and Melissa Chiu, Vice President of Global Arts, Asia Society
Jim Cuno, President and Director, Art Institute of Chicago
Julián Zugazagoitia, Director, Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City
Ann Philbin, Director, Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles
Olga Viso, Director, Walker Art Center
Alfred Pacquement, Director, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Paris
Arnold Lehman, Director, Brooklyn Museum
Jill Medvedow, Director, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Julia Peyton-Jones, Director and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes
and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery, London
Poul Erik Tøjner, Director, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark
Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Neal Benezra, Director, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Tony Ellwood, Director, and Suhanya Raffel, Deputy Director, Queensland Art Gallery, Australia
Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, Harvard Art Museums

…who have sponsored this petition at which has attracted more than 90,000 signatures

Plus also see the signatories to this open letter:

The most recent reporting of the arrests of the 54 “dissidents” in the New York Times of April 16 is to be found here.

Further details of this international campaign may be found here:

Image: with apologies to Shepard Fairey and with thanks to Ampersand Duck who wrangled the graphics. This image is not restricted by copyright and iconophilia encourages its FREE usage by others.

art where you’d least expect to find it…

Unofficial war art? War zone street art? Even if you’re familiar with the work of recent official Australian war artists (for example, in war zones, Charles Green and Lyndell Brown, or Shaun Gladwell, and in peacekeeping zones, Jon Cattapan and eX de Medici) you’re unlikely to have seen what the soldiers themselves are up to. Only from George Gittoes’ movies (notably Soundtrack to War, shot in Iraq in 2004) do we gain some sense of the culture of everyday life for members of the armed services in such arenas as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unofficial war art is another thing altogether. Here we see the work of the stencil artist ZEROSIX downtown in the Kandahar ISAF base. While you might say that the work of the official war artists is largely a matter of matching their highly protected experiences of being embedded against their existing personal styles and strategies, in this case it is the vernacular of street artists like Banksy and others which provides a set of visual conventions for ZEROSIX and others to work with.

David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club – based on a 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk – created the character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), who is also ambiguously the narrator of the film. While Fincher makes no claims for Tyler’s beliefs – “[the] movie couldn’t be further from offering any kind of solution” –  here ZEROSIX revisits Tyler’s values in a much more challenging context.

The Kandahar base is a massive fortress housing approximately 30,000 personnel. Its incongruous village-like atmosphere (the boardwalk, the fast food franchises) was criticised last year by the “notoriously sober” General Stanley McChrystal, who was reported as having said: “This is a war zone – not an amusement park.” Closing the fast-food outlets was an unpopular decision, since reversed. However it’s not so surprising that in any community of this size you will find at least a couple of artists. In this otherwise bleak environment, it’s probably the only mode of creative release available. That 06’s street art – or his tag – is permitted at all is itself unexpectedly humane.