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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Man of war

by Tedi Bills, 19 December 2016

Love City; George Gittoes on hilltop 2013
Love City; George Gittoes on hilltop 2013

Within the international art world, George Gittoes is accorded a kind of mythic status, courtesy of his ability to survive and capture the essence of the experience of blood, misery and violence in the globe’s worst conflict zones. Conversing with Gittoes proved to be an experience in itself. With dynamic eloquence and boundless energy, the artist spoke to me about the importance of creatively documenting war, the evolution of his artistic process, and his faith in the value of art as a tool of social justice.

Born in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale, Gittoes’ interwoven zeal for art and altruism became evident from a young age when he began hosting puppet shows for his neighbours and friends. After his audience swelled to 300, Gittoes started gathering coins and donating his earnings to the Red Cross. Nostalgically, he remembers adoring ‘the idea that this kind of very young art could help other people around the world’. Although his passion for puppetry continued unabated into adulthood, Gittoes struggled to find a way to marry his passion for fine art and social justice while living and working in Sydney as a young artist.

In 1970 Gittoes helped establish the Yellow House, an artists’ collective in Sydney’s Kings Cross devoted to providing a creative refuge for the city’s emerging talents. While the artist revelled in the unorthodox energy of the collective, he found little joy in presenting his psychedelic puppets to the youths that frequented its halls. Gittoes recalls, ‘The theatre was full of hippies tripping out. It made me feel very, very hollow, and I thought these people could take a tab of acid, and a bus shelter or a storm water drain would be just as interesting as my puppets.’

Gittoes’ desire to make art that transcended entertainment led him to leave the Yellow House and embark on a journey of personal and artistic development. In 1984, this quest swept him far from inner city Sydney to the Cold War proxy conflict in Nicaragua. Here, Gittoes produced his first war documentary, The Bullets of the Poets, which follows the stories of female Sandinista revolutionaries who use poetry as a means of finding inspiration and strength in everyday life. With his reputation as a war artist subsequently established, Gittoes was granted permission to travel with Australian peacekeeping troops through Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda and the Western Sahara. Over the course of his career, Gittoes has also worked in the Philippines, Palestine, South Africa, Ulster, the Congo, Mozambique and Bosnia.

Gittoes’ interest in filmmaking intensified during the 2000s. In 2003 he travelled to Iraq to film Soundtrack to War, a confronting documentary examining the significance of music for young soldiers during wartime. Three years later Gittoes filmed Soundtrack’s sequel, Rampage, in Miami’s notorious Brown Sub (Brownsville) ghetto. Most recently, Gittoes has established an artists’ co-operative in the heart of Jalalabad, affectionately named the Yellow House after the Australian collective. Far from representing a peaceful example of ‘coming full circle’, Gittoes’ decision to found an Afghan iteration of his Sydney alma mater demonstrates his undimmed commitment to engaging in a no-holdsbarred interrogation of the human condition as it exists within conflict zones.

Gittoes’ career and body of work reflects his interest in critically engaging with war and conflict. The artist explains that his approach to representing carnage is informed by an adamant refusal to ‘ignore any trauma’, claiming, ‘I’ve always put human life and helping people in front of shooting my film or taking my photographs or drawing’. Gittoes’ assertion is supported by Paul Jordan, a former SAS soldier who first encountered the artist in Rwanda in 1995. Jordan and Gittoes were both present at the Kibeho massacre, one of the bloodiest episodes of the genocide, where at least 4000 ethnic Hutus were brutally slaughtered by the Rwandan Patriotic Army. Jordan states, ‘He knew when to take photographs and when to help save a life – and he didn’t flinch. The horror of seeing women and children hacked to pieces didn’t stop him; seeing decapitated babies still strapped to their mothers’ backs didn’t stop him.’ Art critic Joanna Mendelssohn argues that this quality sets Gittoes apart as a war artist. She contends, ‘The trick with Gittoes’ art, and why it rises way above that of those artists officially commissioned to record the Australian army at work, is that he draws what he feels as well as elements of what he sees’. Fascinated with human stories and individual faces, Gittoes has developed a multi-media approach to figurative art that works towards providing insight into the complex, often tortured and sometimes inspiring nature of humanity in conflict-ravaged settings.

Gittoes’ art practice reflects his conviction about the integrity of imagined representations of trauma. ‘All the frontline war journalists I know who have really been there, insist that artists see things very differently and that emotion and imagination can be as truthful as facts and film.’ Elaborating on this statement, Gittoes turns to a painting created during his visit to a drought and civil war-stricken Somalia in 1993. Rather than providing a strictly accurate depiction of soldiers in action, Night Vision Baidoa’s aesthetic captures the emotive sensibility of Gittoes’ experience of accompanying a local Somali night patrol.

In the painting, soldiers stalk through an inverted nightscape rendered in thickly jagged blue, green and yellow strokes. With cone-shaped night vision goggles protruding from their eyes at improbable angles, the troops bare their teeth and grasp their machine guns, while pushing aside the small children dancing at their feet. Looking closely, the viewer realises that each of these diminutive figures also holds a weapon of their own. At once powerful and strangely vulnerable, Gittoes’ soldiers emerge from his canvas as stumbling, nightmarish caricatures – more monsters than men. Gittoes recalls, ‘I created Night Vision at the time when the Terminator movies had just come out. The local children thought the soldiers were half robot, half men in their night vision goggles. When I got back, I drew that. I thought the soldiers won’t like this – it was all done in an expressionistic style, like Terminators – but when they saw it they said, “Oh wow, that’s what it feels like.”’

Gittoes firmly believes that journalistic methodologies are inadequate for representing the horrific nature of war. Although he continuously documents his experience through photography, he also travels with a sketchbook constantly by his side, filling its pages while crouching at the side of tanks or sitting in the juddering seats of helicopters and aeroplanes. While working in Rwanda, Gittoes quickly realised that ‘no one medium was adequate. Photography was inadequate because it was detached – but I needed the photography because that’s verification of what really happened. Drawing became more important because I could have an intimate relationship with the sitter, even though they could be dying.’ Gittoes’ sketches of victims of the Kibeho massacre eventually formed the basis for confronting large-scale paintings, including his famous 1995 oil on canvas, Eyewitness for Kassel.

Gittoes grows quiet when reflecting on sketching the subject of Eyewitness – a young woman torn apart by a vicious machete attack. ‘It was a deeply personal experience. It takes a long while to do a drawing.’ In his final oil painting, the young woman crouches on the canvas, gazing at the viewer with resolute calm. Her expression belies the trauma wreaked upon her body; a thick red gash splits her cheek and blood sprays violently from the wounds inflicted by a spear still protruding from her side. A ghostly replication of her eyes and nose hover over her elongated forehead; with her body rendered permeable, her being seems intent on abandoning her once-bound form. In the background, thick, jarring brushstrokes in a mottled array of colours create the impression of confused and violent movement. Despite the violence of the painting, there is a strange gentleness to Gittoes’ subject; her direct gaze creates a sense of intimacy that borders on tenderness.

For Gittoes, it is not enough to cultivate an empathetic viewer response to his subjects through painting alone. Rather, the artist’s understanding of the interplay between visual representation and narrative in war art leads him to frequently integrate text into his creative practice. In his ever-present notebook, Gittoes will write his subjects’ stories next to his sketches. In 1995, Gittoes’ adoption of this hybrid journalist-art practice resulted in The Preacher, a monumental portrait of a Tutsi faith leader based on sketches made in the field during the Kibeho massacre.

Gittoes encountered the preacher as Hutu forces marched closer to the Kibeho camp. Next to his original notebook sketch, he scrawled his recollections of this remarkable figure: ‘Two days ago there were thousands of people standing and pleading for help. Now everything is flattened – bodies crumpled amidst rubbish – their few discarded possessions. This afternoon, as if walking through an invisible door, I came into a group who were calm. Though bursts of machine gun fire surrounded them – continually getting closer with terrifying inevitability – they remained a solid congregation – bound together not by walls, but by prayer. A solitary preacher read to them from a ragged bible. He was a tall man in a yellowish coat sitting high on a sack of grain. He spoke in French with a thick dialect – his voice hoarse and broken – but I could recognise the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the pure in heaven, for they shall see God.”’

In his final painting, Gittoes depicts the preacher with hands raised, his skeletal frame draped in torn clothing. Clutching a tattered Bible in one hand, his expression appears almost tranquil. As with Eyewitness for Kassel, the figure stands before a violent mess of jagged purple and black brushstrokes, making the serenity of his expression all the more striking. As a monumental painting derived from narrative and illustrative origins, The Preacher supports Gittoes’ assertion that, in his work, ‘the limits of photography are very clear, and the limits of a drawing without text is very clear. And, therefore, the need for a painting is very clear.’ When exhibiting work like The Preacher, Gittoes ensures that an extensive text panel accompanies the painting. He believes that presenting written stories alongside his artworks facilitates an immersive viewing experience: ‘Someone might be impressed by the drawing or painting, but they really absorb it because there’s a story attached.’

Gittoes’ understanding of the value of storytelling in art also comes to the fore in Mirow and Awliya, a brightly coloured oil painting of an old Somali woman carrying an emaciated child through a barren landscape: ‘Mirow and Awliya tells the story of an old lady in Somalia. All the men had left the village because of the famine. Her daughter had died, so she was left with her daughter’s little grandchildren. One little girl was sick, and she knew it was a long way to get to an aid station. She carried both of her grandchildren to the aid station – she would put one down, walk a distance with the other, put her down, then return for the child she’d left behind. She’d get dew off the leaves of plants for water, and feed the children the roots of plants. I was at the aid station when she arrived. My drawings and paintings of her could easily have been interpreted as just another representation of a victim of the famine in Somalia. But when you read her story, you realise she’s a grandmother of great courage. The story and the image are as important as each other.’

In 2013, Gittoes drove his multi-media art practice to new heights during a residency at Light Work in New York. During this period, he digitally added details from original photographs to drawings, producing a series of images that integrated written stories, photographic imagery and expressionist representation. Re-imagined using this new methodology, Eyewitness for Kassel was transformed into a collage of war photography, illustration and prose, nightmarish and emotive in equal measure. The work resists categorisation; it is a representation of trauma that is disconcerting, unstable and brutal.

These days, Gittoes spends much of his time at the Yellow House in Jalalabad, where he and his partner Hellen Rose train local men and women in music, art, performance and film. Gittoes’ interest in film stems from his appreciation of the medium as a storytelling tool. He states, ‘While it’s very expensive to tour an exhibition, my films can be seen by millions of people, and they condense down to the size of a USB. It’s non-material.’ Gittoes has produced a number of documentaries while based at the Yellow House, including Love City Jalalabad – an insightful exploration of the ways in which film is being claimed as an alternative means of bringing peace and social opportunity to Afghans – and Snow Monkey, nominated for an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Award. Snow Monkey focuses on three gangs of street kids wandering the streets of Jalalabad: the Snow Monkeys, who sell ice cream from handcarts; the Ghostbusters, who exorcise spirits; and a group of adolescent thugs led by a formidable razor-wielding ten year-old named Steel. Through their exploits, Gittoes exposes the complex culture and politics underpinning Afghan society. Asked why he decided to examine this particular subject matter, Gittoes explains, ‘Basically, I’m an advocate. A huge amount of my work is about children. The biggest theme in my life’s work is not so much war and the soldiers, but the innocent children who are influenced by adults deciding to engage in the insanity of war.’

Gittoes’ autobiography, Blood Mystic, launched at the National Portrait Gallery in October 2016, presents his written memories alongside drawings, photographs and paintings. The final product is a reflection of the fact that, above all else, Gittoes is a storyteller who presents diverse mediums in complex tension to create an immersive aesthetic. Gittoes has created – and continues to create – a body of work that reveals the power of the human imagination in extreme circumstances. His career is a testament to his endurance, bravery and – some might argue – altruistic insanity. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘I’m sixty-six and I’ve worked in all these countries from Somalia to South Africa, and I’ll be in Brazil next month working in the favelas, and I’m the happiest, most fulfilled person you could meet. I don’t want to be doing anything else. I’ve had both my knees replaced, I’ve had prostate cancer, but I’m heading off to Brazil, and heading back to the ghettos of Miami to film the sequel to Rampage – called White Light – and I’m constantly heading back to Afghanistan. I know the work that I’m doing is helping lives, and that’s better than having money in the bank. As long as my body holds together, I’ll keep doing it.’

George Gittoes - last sitting before Peshawar, 2007 George Fetting. © George Fetting/Copyright Agency, 2023.

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