Art helps make the world a better place

10 November 2015
The Sydney Peace Prize has gone to an artist who is changing lives in some of the world's grimmest places

Since 1998 the Sydney Peace Prize has been recognising peace builders in both Australia and overseas. Now, an artist is joining the winners circle, reflects David Hirsch. 

George Gittoes, winner of the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize

George Gittoes, winner of the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize

In September 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations signed up to a set of international development principles and targets known as the sustainable development goals. These were the product of three years of consultations with individuals, community organisations, businesses, scientists, academics and governments.  The result is nothing less than a universal, integrated and transformative vision for a better world.

It is not surprising that the 17 sustainable development goals include such things as ending poverty, promoting education and combating climate change. Perhaps less obvious is number 16 which recognises the need for peace and justice in any sustainable future.

Since 1998 the Sydney Peace Prize has been recognising peace builders in both Australia and overseas. The first ever winner, Professor Muhammad Yunus, was recognised for setting up the Grameen Bank, which provided microfinance to the very poor – mostly women – to enable them to start their own businesses. Eight years later, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Past winners of the Sydney Peace Prize have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, writer and activist Arundhati Roy, political commentator Noam Chomsky and lawyer and refugee advocate Julian Burnside, QC.

Until now artists have been out of the winner's circle, with recognition going to advocates of particular causes, peoples or principles. Artists, on the other hand, operate on a different level and in a different space. Their cause, it could be said, is effect. Their subject is us. Their object is transformation.

Australian artist George Gittoes has been awarded the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize for, as the jury's citation boldly put it, exposing injustice for more than 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 was a founder of the Yellow House Artist Collective together with others in Sydney's 1970s arts scene including Martin Sharp and Brett Whitely. 

Experiences in Nicaragua and the Philippines during the late 1980s led Gittoes to become more politically active and international in his outlook.  Since then he has worked alongside, but independently of, the Australian Defence Forces as an artist and photo journalist chronicling conflicts in Somalia, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Mozambique, Sinai and the Middle East.  He has also taken his paint brushes and camera to Bosnia, Papua New Guinea, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Tibet. 

In 1995, Gittoes was a witness to the massacre of thousands of Rwandans at a displaced persons camp where they had sought protection from UN peacekeeping forces.  This inspired his painting The Preacher which won the 1995 Blake Prize for religious art.

Gittoes says: "I see my work as compassion and feel all of it can be described in that word".

In recent years Gittoes' has centred on the conflicts in the Middle East.  He has worked in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, and also Afghanistan where he spent time with Medecins sans Frontieres, visiting refugee camps established after the US-led invasion. 

Gittoes sees the role of the artist as independent witness and advocate for the innocent victims of conflict.

Asked why he gravitates to the world's trouble spots, Gittoes will say he does it for art.  He needs to be out of his comfort zone and in the wilderness.  "I go alone into a different kind of human wilderness – Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq – not to contemplate nature, but the basics of humanity...".

Despite having seen so much inhumanity, Gittoes remains optimistic about the possibility of achieving peace – through art.

Gittoes is currently based in Jalalabad, Afghanistan – one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Against all odds he has established a new Yellow House as a safe haven for Afghan artists, musicians and filmmakers.  It also provides a community space (behind high walls) where men and women, boys and girls can meet and learn.

Gittoes documentary film Love City Jalalabad, in which the Yellow House features large, won awards for Best Documentary and Most Socially Relevant Film at the New York Winter Indie Film Festival in February this year.  The plan is to reproduce the Yellow House model in other conflict zones to use art to help build communities and promote peace.

His latest film Snow Monkey follows the transformational journey of a gang of street kids as they are given the chance, through the Yellow House, to escape their dangerous lives on the street.  Art opens up a world of creativity for them and they also receive basic tutoring to enable them to go to school.  In short, they are given their childhood back.  And remarkably, Gittoes and the Yellow House do all of this with the knowledge and protection of the Taliban. 

There is a lot to be said for thinking different. So much is clear when the results of our habitual approaches to problem solving have produced the demonstrable fiasco we now see in Afghanistan. Promoting art is probably a better approach to rebuilding a broken country than using military force. Cheaper, too. Gittoes says it costs about $100,000 a year to run the Yellow House; according to the Lowy Institute, Australia spent about $7.5 billion on its operations in Afghanistan over the 13 years of the war.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that to achieve those transformational objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals – including peace and justice – "we can no longer afford to think and work in silos".  We need to take a broader, more creative, more compassionate approach.  We should recognise the role that art and artists can play in this new global agenda.  Artists like Gittoes dare us to think different.

David Hirsch is a barrister and Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald