You may recognise kennardphillips’ Photo Op. It is a photomontage of Tony Blair taking a photo of himself with his mobile phone, in front of a huge explosion, with a seemingly demonic smile spreading across his face. You may recognise it because the image went viral pretty much as soon as it was released in 2005. This subversion of media imagery is typical of the work of Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps, who have been working together producing work in response to the Iraq invasion of 2003.
The photomontages stand alongside vast collages such as Presidential Seal, which was created from hundreds of newspapers on which the artists painted and drew, then smashed with hammers so that the surface is cracked and splintered. This work symbolises not only the devastation caused during the conflict, but the carefully manipulated and stage-managed way the conflict was reported through the media’s propaganda machine. Their work is unrelentingly direct in its anger about the injustice of the Iraq invasion, and uses the techniques of the media itself to critique the media through their own profound manipulation, thus demanding the viewer to become more discriminating and critical in what they accept from such sources.
In the current exhibition at The Mosaic Rooms in west London, kennardphillips’ work is shown alongside that of Hanaa Malallah, one of Iraq’s leading contemporary artists. Malallah lived in Baghdad until 2006, when it became impossible for her to stay any longer. She described to me how, when going to work at the University near the end of her time in Iraq, she was stepping over dead bodies to get to class. An NGO helped her escape, first to Paris and then to London, where she has lived ever since. Her work has developed over a thirty-five year period, and despite her classical art school training, her work now occupies a space somewhere between figurative and abstract. The horror of living through not just the invasion and resulting occupation of 2003, but also the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War has shaped Malallah’s work irrevocably.
In Happened in the Dawn, the brutality of war is portrayed on a two-and-a-half meter long canvas worked over with what Malallah calls her “ruins technique”; layers of burnt canvas, scorched cloth, wire, charcoal, oil, acrylic and found objects are fused together to create a torturous vision of the war-torn Baghdad landscape. She tells me how this burning and scorching approach becomes a sort of textural language, a way of existing: “I work with destruction because this has been my life. Work is my balance, it keeps me sane. Without this work I would fall apart; it is my reason to be here.”
In other pieces, I see the repeated image of a pair of simple white pumps and ask their significance. “They are a symbol of my survival down the many paths I’ve had to walk, they’ve become my companion and friend, and,” she laughs, “I like them!” When they supplant the fifty stars on the American flag, the meaning is clear; an unguarded reference to the incident in which an Iraqi journalist flung his shoe at President Bush in 2008, signifying an insult against the occupation. Here, in the hands of Malallah, the insult becomes a simple, understated-yet-bold comment in a serene, beautifully executed piece of art.
Malallah’s and kennardphillips’ works were first shown together in the Gemak Museum in Holland in 2008. Malallah couldn’t attend because of her refugee status, but kennardphillips were impressed enough to get in touch with her and arrange a meeting. Despite their work coming from very different backgrounds and circumstances, together they create a rich resonance which is only possible when such diverse views are contrasted. Malallah’s experience of war, united with kennardphillips’ observational critique of representational media, makes their overtly political work stronger for its radical difference.