As Russian bombs fall on a besieged but defiant Ukraine, two high-profile Australian artists have just arrived in Kyiv from their peaceful home at Werri Beach, south of Sydney. George Gittoes and Hellen Rose, a married couple, plan to create a large “peace mural” in the Ukrainian capital. Having made their presence known, they will spend at least a month living in Kyiv and filming stories about the impact of war on everyday citizens.
Gittoes, 72, tells The Art Newspaper that he and Rose will follow their usual modus operandi and forge links with local artists of all kinds. “We've heard about a young woman who wants to meet us, who was the top prima ballerina in Kyiv—and she's now picked up a gun and she's fighting the Russians,” Gittoes says. “The thing that's fascinating to me about this war is we've got an artist leading the country. Volodymyr Zelensky (an actor and comedian) is an artist. He’s a communicator. We've been talking to people close to him, and we'll probably meet him when we get there. I know we’ll relate well to him.”
Gittoes is carrying five video cameras into Ukraine. Some will be given to young filmmakers on the ground. He will keep one video camera in order to make his own film. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it focuses on sensitive souls, who are creators and wordsmiths, who are being forced to take up a weapon. And that’s a horrible situation to be in,” Gittoes says.
Disseminating works and stories about the human impact of the Russian invasion is a key aim of Gittoes and Rose’s trip. They believe Zelensky’s biggest fear is that the world’s fickle attention will wander, knocking the invasion off front pages and leaving Ukraine to its fate. “That's what happened with the war in Chechnya, and certainly people didn't follow what was happening in Aleppo (in Syria),” Gittoes says. “We're going with a very warm invitation to come and bring our skills as artists and communicators to help keep people around the world aware of what's going on. I want to help a lot of young filmmakers and artists know how to make their voice heard and reach the world.”
Rose, an acclaimed singer and performer, is taking a portable recording studio into Ukraine. “The culture of Ukraine predates Russia and Hellen's going to tap into that,” Gittoes says. “I'm sure there will be wonderful recordings and collaborations.”
The pair of artists say that they are doing nothing special when compared with the heroic action of Marina Ovsyannikova who protested against the Russian invasion on a live television news programme.
Gittoes is experienced in matters of war and staying alive in dangerous situations. For decades he has worked as an independent artist in zones of strife and conflict including Nicaragua, Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan and Bosnia. He has an Order of Australia (1997) "for service to art and international relations as an artist and photographer portraying the effects on the environment of war, international disasters and heavy industry". He has also received a Centenary Medal from the Australian Government for “service as an internationally renowned artist”. One of Gittoes's films, Soundtrack to War, was screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2005.
The independent Sydney curator Reverend Rod Pattenden, who has written extensively about Gittoes, says the artist has been a leading international “artist/activist” for 30 years with an accumulated level of on-the-ground experience that allows him to survive in perilous situations.
“I don’t like describing him as a war artist because that makes him out to be an adventurer, or hungry for the heightened danger and drama,” Pattenden says. Rather, Gittoes’s has sought to find human stories of hope and redemption, he says.
Gittoes was quick to find his first portrait subject, an elderly refugee woman sitting on her bag at a Polish railway station, sobbing. “I did not need to photograph or sketch her [in the moment],” Gittoes says. “Her tears etched themselves so deeply into my mind I will draw her as soon as I arrive in Kyiv. She will be my first Ukraine portrait.”