Sunday, September 19, 2021


Freedom? Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2021

'End' of US war in Afghanistan August 2021
As US and allied forces left Afghanistan, the Taliban swiftly took over the country's leadership. A short window of time in August saw thousands of people fleeing or attempting to flee Afghanistan. Kabul airport became the epicentre for evacuations of foreigners, and Afghanis fearful for their lives under Taliban rule. 

Like I imagine many readers, I watched the news with mixed heavy feelings - despair, frustration, sadness, hope. One of many images that stuck in my head, was the photograph of the Chinook helicopter flying over the US embassy. Apparently helicopters landed at the embassy site to assist evacuation of US officials out of the embassy building to Kabul airport. 

Chinook Helicopter - Short History
The Chinook helicopter's history is interesting. Early versions were developed in the late 1950s, further developed by Boeing in the early 1960s. The helicopter was first used in combat situations in Vietnam in 1965. This large multi purpose aircraft has been 'hovering' in our visual fields for decades, via livestreamed and photographed war, conflict and humanitarian-aid reporting.. Whether the Chinook is spilling armed soldiers out of its cavernous fuselage, assisting people to flee dangerous situations, carrying equipment in its huge hold or tethered under its massive body, this helicopter is emblematic of contemporary war and conflict.

August 26 Terrorist Attack, Kabul Airport
On August 26 an ISIS-K perpetrated  terrorist attack occurred at the HKIA's Abbey gate at Kabul airport. Sixty people were killed including locals, Taliban members and 13 US service men and women. On August 29 a US retaliatory drone attack killed 10 people. On September 18 US officials confirm [unusually] that these people were all civilians and included 7 children. This signature strike [no identity, but based on patterns of behaviour] represents another horrific failure of intelligence, in a line of fatal flaws. The 2015 Brave New Films documentary Unmanned: America's Drone Wars  provides an informed, critical and horrifying historical context for the August 29 attack. 

Freedom? is my reaction to the recent and quick cascade of events - US and allies' retreat from Afghanistan, swift Taliban leadership take-over, scenes of mayhem at Kabul airport, terrorist attack at the airport, and 3 days later another US drone strike! 

In Freedom? I have painted a hovering Chinook helicopter. It can be 'read' as a helicopter in Afghanistan specifically, or it can be read more generally as a contemporary signifier of war, conflict and disaster. I have painted airborne weaponised drones to represent twenty years of armed drone deployments, and the proliferation of drones used by state and non-state actors around the world. The disastrous drone attack on August 29 is a dreadful indictment on retaliation disguised as a legitimate tactic. Clearly swift retribution was more important than deliberated strategy. Jean Baudrillard made many comments in his 2002 reflection on 9/11, The Spirit of Terrorism, that still reverberate today. Here's two of them to ponder "The repression of terrorism spirals around as unpredictably as the terrorist act itself" and "Another aspect of the terrorists' victory is that all other forms of violence and the destabilisation of order work in its favour."

A line of trees can be read in a multiple of ways. They can act as an horizon or a border, real or metaphoric. As many readers know I often reference the tree-of-life as a way to symbolise human life, and universal life. In Freedom? the trees can be viewed as individual people or groups of people, lives lost, lives under threat, or life as resistance. The cosmic perspective, evident in the painting, opens a critical distance where anomalies, inequalities, lethality and violence demand our attention. 

The trees on the left of the gate appear to be on fire. The trees on the right of the gate are more diversely coloured. I was thinking about people fleeing disaster, some successfully, some not successfully - often a life or death situation. I was thinking about the freedom afforded to westerners with access to things like Chinook helicopters, visas and diplomatic status. I was also thinking about freedom, hoped for and fought for by Afghanis, and others in war and conflict zones around the world. 

The gate could be the Abbey gate at Kabul airport, but that would be too simplistic. I was not there, so it is not my specific story to tell. However, the gate as a symbol is highly charged - the gate between life and death, Heaven and Hell, freedom or subjugation, justice and injustice... The gate in Freedom? is closed, but is it locked? 

Is it guarded?  

Note the question mark in the title of the painting Freedom?

There's more to say - obviously 


* Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (London: Verso, 2002) 31, 33.


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