Stuff Happens: Art in the face of barbarism
This was written as the forward to "Wars of Aggression", the catalogue for May Ayres' current exhibition at the Belfry, St.Jon on Bethnal Green, London.
I first encountered May Ayres and her work when I visited her studio in
East London in 2007. I was
struck instantly by the power of her art – and, equally instantly, formed a
warm regard for her as a person.
The main theme of her sculpture was war and the pity of war and in particular the Iraq War of 2003-4. At that time the Iraq War was fresh in all our minds as was the mass people’s movement that had tried in vain to prevent it. What I especially recall from that period are two large and stunning statues which so effectively expressed everything that was wrong with that horrible war. The first, entitled Pro-Consul, was a devastating portrayal of John Negroponte who, having previously overseen death squads for Ronald Reagan in Central America, became US Ambassador to
Iraq in 2004.
What this work conveyed with exceptional clarity and force was Ayres’ vision of
this man as deeply corrupt – the embodiment of evil. The second, Fallujah, depicted a gun toting US
soldier manhandling an Iraqi .So strong was this work, so powerfully did it express
the brutality and horror that was inflicted on Fallujah in the infamous
Operation Phantom Fury, that it completely dominated the ‘Left in Vision’ show
of which it was a part.
Now, eight or so years later, May Ayres is still making sculptures about war and the pity of war and still responding to the Iraq War and its aftermath. It might be suggested that she should ‘move on’. But in response it should be said that the history of art yields many examples of artists who produced great work while and through focussing, seemingly obsessively, on a certain theme: Cezanne on Mont St.Victoire, Mondrian on grids with primary colours, Rembrandt on himself and so on. And in political terms we owe a considerable debt to people who refuse to “move on”. Without them would there ever have been justice for the victims of Bloody Sunday, for the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six or the Hillsborough Families and so many others?
Moreover, the disastrous legacy of the Iraq War is still with us in the most immediate sense. Before the invasion of 2003 the
Middle East was already a dangerous cocktail of conflict,
tensions, bitterness, war and repression. This was due to a century or more of
imperialist interventions and rivalries designed to maintain control of the
world’s major oil supplies and sustain Western hegemony in this economically
and strategically vital region. These ranged from the Balfour Agreement of
1917, the Sykes-Picot division of Arabia, the role of oil companies (especially
BP), the establishment of the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians,
the overthrow in a US engineered coup of the Mossadegh Government in Iran, the
Suez adventure, the various Arab-Israeli wars, the support for Saddam Hussein
in the Iraq-Iran War, the Gulf War of 1991, the support for Saudi Arabia,
Mubarak in Egypt, Bahrein and many other
repressive regimes in the area, through to the invasion of Afghanistan.
But after the Iraq War all of these conflicts and tensions were raised to a new pitch of intensity. In addition to directly killing 100,000 people or more (estimates vary greatly) and destroying Iraqi society and infrastructure the War, which even in official US terms lasted until 2011, had the effect of stirring up and fuelling a wave of sectarian conflict that threatens to engulf the Middle East. Like any imperialist power occupying a subject nation the
feared a united national resistance and resorted to the age-old tactic of
divide and rule. In Iraq
this meant backing a corrupt and viciously sectarian Shia government. This, in
turn, produced an equally sectarian Sunni backlash and out of this was born the
horror of ISIL/Daesh and more war and killing that continues to this day in a
vicious cycle of imperialist intervention, terrorist atrocity and Islamophobic
Moreover, although it is both abundantly clear and very widely recognised, that Britain was taken into the Iraq War (against the wishes of the people) on the basis of deliberate and calculated lying about ‘weapons of destruction’ by our government and its Prime Minister, Tony Blair, there has still not yet – at the time of writing – been any official recognition of this or restitution for it. As it happens between the writing of this Forward and the opening of this exhibition we will see the publication of the long awaited Chilcot Report. Is it too much to hope, therefore, that May’s exhibition will coincide with a) an acknowledgement of some of the truth of this shameful episode; b) recommendations of some kind of justice for these war crimes and this deception of the British people?
So how does May Ayres’ art respond to this history and this state of affairs? With an impassioned combination of deep human sympathy for the suffering involved and rage and indignation against the hypocrisy and callous inhumanity of the perpetrators. It is work that brings together the influence and legacy of Kathe Kollwitz and Georg Grosz.
The element of sympathy and solidarity with the suffering is most clearly represented in the moving Witness to Carnage and the unbearably sad
(It is worth noting that May is close enough to this history to know the names
and stories of people few others have heard of e.g. the rape victim Abeer
Qassam al-Janabi). The element of indignation is strongest in the two awesome columns
devoted to Condoleezza Rice and Theresa May.
But these columns, while brilliantly satirising Rice and May, also
insistently make the point that these politicians stand literally on the bodies
of their victims.
May informs me that she is working on a statue called Collateral Damage depicting an Iraqi mother holding aloft her dead child.. It will, she says, be over six feet tall and will convey that although ‘the children are victims’ the Iraqi people ‘against all odds, remain defiant’. At the time of writing I have not seen this piece but knowing Ayres’ work as I do I have little doubt that it will be immensely powerful. It is also strikes me that it will recapitulate and express Ayres’ whole artistic project: a defiant woman holds up the body of a dead child to its killers and to the world.
Finally I want to say that such is the political and emotional power of Ayres’ work that one can easily lose sight of the exceptional craft and artistry involved in its making. In fact without that artistry and the arduous intense labour it entails the great political effect would not be realised. It is, in its way, an heroic endeavour and achievement.