When Huffington Post reported that George W. Bush was about to embark on making a series of portraits of world leaders – I nearly wept at the serendipity of it all.
I regularly seek space for my diverse set of interests to converge. As a non-traditional portrait artist obsessed with political propaganda and defacement. As an international relations academic and a former diplomat who served in Iraq (and wrote a book about that). And as a publisher who has recently published Dr Al Safi’s book, highly critical of the US in Iraq – this is great news for me indeed. To add to my excitement, the New York Times reported that the news of the portraiture had been inadvertently revealed by Jim Glassman. Master propagandist and public diplomacy expert Jim Glassman, doesn’t let anything just “slip”. I regularly use the footage of him preparing for the Arab Spring (astonishingly in 2008) with my students.
Only last week I penned a piece “Paintbrush Diplomacy” about Hilary Clinton’s (and my own) claim that art and diplomacy needs to go hand in hand more. Maybe George has read it and been inspired?
The question is…how do I respond. Having produced my own series of paintings called “World Leaders” is it time I came clean and made 19 defaced portraits of Mr Bush?
Prime Minister, David Cameron has flown back to the UK to address what he says are “increasingly serious concerns” over his relationship with Downing Street cat, Larry. Breaking away from him crucial role of negotiating a truce between the US and German governments over high profile phone surveillance, his return to the UK is amid media speculation of a rift between the pair.
Beware the legitimiser.
In a society where harming animals is not accepted, pulling legs from a fly, squeezing a cat a quite joy. But meet a hunter or badger baiter and you are more likely to join them take pleasure in blooding faces in red coats. There are others. Why bother seeking help when nobody else is?
Accepted. A sexual attraction to minors fuelled by images of children on the internet and then contact with those who feel the same. No longer alone, not the only one, perhaps it is normal. Abused yourself, “it never harmed me” Seeking to normalise. Mainstream hype and hysteria – thinking it was an affliction that needed help, but no! There are others. We can’t all be wrong.
Imagine you are angry. Not just angry but furious. So mad you will kill. Your family dead or dishonoured or both. You have fire in your blood. There may be social injustice or a inability or unwilling of those who should protect. You are powerless, abused, weak, discriminated against. They hate you anyway, so why not? The switch flicked and now you are primed to kill or die yourself to express your angst. Theres not medical intervention for your mental state. You can’t even share it. But then you can. There are others. Plenty of them. They feel like you and empower you with the mental and physical tools you need. They will whip your mind until you will die smiling for them too.
Beware the legitimiser.
(The following Manifesto was developed in the summer of 2011 during a residency at an allotment – “Art, Gardening, Politics & Cake”)
THIS MANIFESTO SHOULD BE PRINTED ONTO HANDKERCHIEFS AND GIVEN AS GIFTS TO PEOPLE SELECTED BY THE ARTISTS
MANIFESTO Inspired by Manifestos of DaDa and BlahBlah, this is an ironic penning that shouldn’t be needed.
Should artists sit and discuss “the problem with politics” when politicians are unlikely to debate “the problem with art”? Here’s one problem: Less than a quarter of MPs are women, but only 3-5% of art in permanent gallery collections is made by women and only 2.5% of artists in art reference books are female. Perhaps we need to address the balance at home before straying into another’s House – upper or lower. Perhaps we will. But we can get away with political discussions, because this is about all of us. We live in a democracy – and it’s right that we participate in this discussion.
I Represent: Politicians are the least trusted profession in Britain. The public vote for them, yet many feel they are offered an inadequate choice of candidates and that the political environment and the political system does not attract candidates that actually represent their communities. We would try to change that. We would stop anyone entering the political system via the GSCE-A-level-politics degree-GAP-year-political-internship-political-candidate route.
How it looks: We love talking about the aesthetics of politics and think this is where, as artists, we can offer the most valuable input.
The aesthetics of both House are overwhelmingly masculine. Hard edged. Somber. Traditional. Old fashioned. We like red for the upper house (which could be brighter to wake them up a bit) and the like green for the lower house. However phallic, we do like Big Ben. The clock performs a practical function (IE it tells the time well). Aesthetic changes would include:
Janice & Jaine
As I am about to head to Iraq once more I thought it would be a good time to share an extract from my book about my time there in 2006. This post was first published on the World Bank website in 2011 – please leave any comments there: http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/better-basra-five-years
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3 November marks five years since CommGap writer Caroline Jaine was evacuated from the Iraqi city of Basra. In 2006 she was heading Press & Public affairs at the British Embassy Office, during what proved to be one the most perilous moments during the British occupation. Today her book – a personal account of her 100 days in Iraq – is launched with a seminar at the House of Lords in London. The seminar, like the title of the book, draws from the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan for a “Better Basra” and looks at whether the city is in fact any “better” today.
An extract from A Better Basra appears below:
Here was that movie feeling again, but this time the soldiers, perhaps about a hundred or so of them, were like extras waiting to go on set. I was intrigued about where they had been, what they had done in Iraq so far and where they were off to. What was their day like? Why weren’t they at that moment busy “soldiering”. I guess even soldiers have lunch breaks or dinner breaks, whatever the time was (I had no idea). These men (and a few women) were three-dimensional human beings – some were glum, some quietly sitting reading, others smiling, joking with animated bellows of hearty laughter. Some were smoking – like I was, AGAIN. Some were munching on fresh Subway sandwiches or drinking coke. They barely glanced up at Chris and me, which surprised me, considering how clearly different and civilian we looked (and felt). I must have been nearly twenty years older than many of them, and by now my linen shirt was soaked a darker shade with sweat; I had beaming, red, exhausted cheeks and was severely squinting from lack of sunglasses. To say I felt self-conscious was an understatement. We had stumbled onto the wrong film set, clearly. They were being filmed by Spielberg, whilst we were in a cheap cable TV documentary about inadequate civil servants.
Many hours later, after more dozing (Chris) and more bewilderment (me), the pair of us, weighed down with body armour, bags, and those damn batteries were shouted into the back of a Merlin helicopter by an airman waving a small, flickering torch in the darkness. Watch out for the rear rotor, watch out for the rear rotor I kept telling myself, remembering my training. I tried to follow the quick pace of the body in front of me to keep in line with his path. It was very dark. The blades blew warm dust up into our eyes and did not stop turning – they only touched down for a few minutes, enough time to load and then they were off like a shuttle bus.
The helicopter flew with its lights out so as not to be seen and I could just about make out the outlines of the 20 or so soldiers who were, like me, strapped into their seats. I had been warned that strapping yourself into a Merlin was a tricky operation, but it seemed I had acquired an unlikely skill. I may have been a civilian, and a female one at that, but having had three children and strapped them all into baby, child and booster seats with various buckle configurations – I was better placed than any to fathom the military seat belt situation. It proved no challenge. The first of many examples proving that motherhood was a good preparation for war.
We flew with the flap at the back of the helicopter down so that the rear gunner could precariously perch with his weapon facing any potential threat from the ground. He was attached to the Merlin by a thin cable, and my maternal instinct wanted to say, “oh do be careful! You could fall if you don’t watch out! Are you sure that thing is strong enough?” Not that he would have heard me – the noise was such that his ears were well protected (a little more impressively than my squishy yellow ear plugs from Boots). Another gunner was poised at a side sliding door, opposite me. Apart from soldiers, the space was also packed full of bags, boxes and equipment forming lumpy night-time shapes down the central aisle of the aircraft. As the side gunner turned to flick switches and talk into his very complicated looking headgear, the light from the console revealed an almost childlike face. A teenager, it was clear, and not that much older than my daughter. He turned back, fixed his night sights in front of his eyes and stood ready by his weapon and we lifted off. My tummy lurched in a heady mixture of excitement and fear.
Once we were up in the air, the gentle turbulent sway began to calm me slightly. I caught glimpses of Basra City below and thousands of dots of electric light told me that contrary to the rumour mill, Basrawis had some power at least. It looked like any city, flying over it by night and I wondered how it would look in the daylight – although I understood well why we were now flying under cover of darkness:
Bloody battles were fought on the streets of
Basra last night after a British helicopter
crashed in the city, reportedly killing four
airmen and drawing an Iraqi crowd shouting
‘Victory to the Mahdi army’.
At least three British army vehicles were set
on fire as the crowd hurled petrol bombs at
troops trying to reach the blazing wreckage.
Iraqi police officials believed the aircraft
had been brought down by a shoulder-fired
missile. Four charred bodies were seen inside
it, reports said.
Source: Jason Burke and Ned Temko in the
Guardian, Sunday May 7 2006
Although deafening, the thudding drum of the helicopter was somehow reassuring. Something about the sheer forward movement of travel makes me feel like I am achieving something, and my confidence grew as every minute passed. However somewhere very deep down a small voice inside me was saying, “Just what the hell are you doing now, you fool?” I told the voice to shut up and reassured it that there was no doubt, I was going to have a rich and rewarding experience. I even foolishly told myself that the difference I would be making to the lives of those people down below me in Basra was worth it.
Another thud, this time out of sync with the turning blades and in an instant flash the expression of every fellow passenger was illuminated. They looked bored, tired and showed not a flicker of reaction – unlike my own expression which must have glowed in absolute terror. Chris glanced at me and the soldier sitting next to me shouted in my ear – “it’s alright ma’am, it just means they’ve got a lock on us”. Funnily enough, the reassurance didn’t really help much. I had heard how counter measures worked – a large flash of heat fired so that anything heat-seeking would be attracted to that rather than the aircraft. But for some reason I wasn’t expecting it to make a bang, which to the untrained ear could easily be mistaken for being hit. I was also unprepared for the dramatic twists and turns of evasive flying that followed, which to a stupid person, could also be mistaken for the fact that we had been hit. The only thing keeping me from peeing my pants as we (deliberately) rapidly lost height was the relative calm of the people around me. Chris grinned at me in the darkness, he really was one laid back dude.
The journey was only about ten or fifteen minutes long. The lights vanished and water could be made out very close beneath us, the downdraft from helicopter creating ripples in the blackness. I knew we were nearly there, as the Basra Palace Compound was situated on the banks of the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.
The Palace itself could not be seen as we landed and disembarked with similar shouts and flickering lights as before. Within minutes a waiting huddle of soldiers on the ground had clambered on board the craft we had just left. Moments later the Merlin was shuddering off into the darkness again, leaving me open mouthed in disbelief that I had been on board such a machine. I felt well and truly part of the war-movie.
This article was originally published in Dawn on http://dawn.com/2012/06/04/political-art-and-pakistan/
PLEASE COMMENT ON THE ORIGINAL POST
In 2010, I abandoned a career in the Diplomatic Service in favour of becoming a full-time artist (and finishing my book). At the time, it felt like an emotional escape from my disillusionment with the world of international relations – my specialisation in conflict and communications feeling somewhat impotent in a sea of global instability and media menace. However, a vision of myself surrounded by paint and canvas, disengaged from the world, could not have been further from the truth.
Two years on, and my art-work has begun to be a place where I can genuinely express how I feel about the world around me. It is going way beyond straightforward painting on canvas. It has become a place where I can engage and include far-flung communities.
Having explored British-Pakistani artists and their talents I am dedicating this post to Pakistani artists. My main motivation being that despite making several pleas to my usually well-connected online community, very few were able to name Pakistani artists that were socially or politically engaged. I found three that particularly struck a chord with my own work and passions. There are thousands more.
Born in Junagarh as the World War II began, Abdul Rahim Nagori, sadly passed away last year. His paintings were anti-military, anti-dictator, anti-violence – and Pakistan lost not just an artist, but an activist. Researching his work, I nearly fell off my chair when I saw his work with playing cards. Having just spent months hand-painting a set of 52 playing cards, I was intrigued to find AR Nagori using the very same language. His three paintings of the kings of spades, hearts and clubs show Pakistani dictators – General Pervez Musharraf, General Ziaul Haq and Ayub Khan. Sixteen years ago, Nagori said, ‘Some artists are interested in solving the problems of style and techniques, while others use style and technique to express their social and political views and in the process undertake ‘artistic responsibility’. He argued that as long as there are “socio-political wrongs to be righted and as long as an unjust and ugly condition requires change” – art should visually educate and lead people to awareness for a better society.
The work of Salima Hashmi is both delicate and dynamic, both feminine and strong. Hashmi takes a political stance as an anti-nuclear-weapon campaigner and peace and women’s rights activist. In 2001, she published a book about the lives and works of women artists in Pakistan. Salima has creativity and politics in her blood – she is the daughter of renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and peace activist Ayls Faiz and her cousin was the late Salmaan Taseer.
The multi-talented Ijaz ul Hassan writes as well as paints. His work spans decades and is diverse and iconic –from abstract to the figurative, from drawing to mural. Since Hassan was one of the first activists to be arrested by General Zia and thrown into Lahore Fort, he has not shied from political content – sometimes in obvious in-your-face depictions of executions – others in subtle content woven into the nature of trees.
By presenting these three, I have only scratched the surface of social and political art in Pakistan, but it is there for the taking. During a visit to Karachi University last year, I was astounded at the quality of work being produced by the fine art students – one artist cutting up thousands of passport photos in a comment on social identity, another fixing thorns onto lipstick and baby bottles -demonstrating a sophisticated contemporary art-practice way beyond what I expected in a “developing nation.”
Some queried my move from foreign-policy to art-practice and although there is fierce debate about whether art changes or simply reflects society – I have no doubt that it contributes positively to debate and open society. Furthermore, the way art can work in our connected world, can mean greater public input into the development and participation of art. It is not just the finished aesthetic that takes on meaning, but art, like my own playing cards, can now be funded by art appreciator and communities of people interested in what you have to say. It is far more than paint on canvas.