George Gittoes

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George Gittoes
George Gittoes 2.jpg
George Gittoes
Born 7 December 1949
Sydney, Australia
Occupation Film director, producer, writer and artist
Years active 1970–present

George Noel Gittoes (7 December 1949 – present) is a major Australian artist and filmmaker. In 1970 he was a founder of the Yellow House Artist Collective in Sydney. After the Yellow House finished, he established himself in Bundeena and since then has produced a large and varied output of drawings, paintings, films, and writings. Gittoes’ work has consistently expressed his social, political and humanitarian concern at the effects of injustice and conflict. Until the mid-1980s, this work was chiefly done in Australia. But in 1986 he travelled to Nicaragua, and since then the focus of Gittoes’ work has been largely international. He has travelled to and worked in many regions of conflict, including the Philippines, Somalia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Bougainville, and South Africa. In recent years his work has especially centred on the Middle East, with repeated visits to Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2011, he established a new Yellow House, a multidisciplinary arts centre in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Among many prizes, Gittoes has twice been awarded the Blake Prize for Religious Art.

Early life[edit]

Gittoes was born 1949 in Brighton-le-Sands, New South Wales and grew up in nearby Rockdale, New South Wales, both southern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. His family, though not rich, was comfortably middle class. Gittoes’ maternal grandfather, who lived in the area, was a semi-professional racehorse trainer, and was a significant influence in Gittoes’ childhood. Gittoes' father, Claude, was a public servant, who rose to be Secretary of the Department of Main Roads. His mother, Joyce, was an artist and potter. Both parents encouraged George and his sister, Pamela, 7 years his elder, as artists. Gittoes completed his schooling at Kingsgrove North High School, and began an Arts degree at Sydney University. However, an encounter with the visiting American art critic Clement Greenberg led to Gittoes' abandoning his studies in order to spend time in America. In New York Gittoes came under the influence of the social realist artist, Joe Delaney, whose work was influenced by his involvement in the civil rights movement. Gittoes’ art similarly veered towards the political, and in the US he began the Hotel Kennedy Suite, inspired by opposition to the Vietnam War.

Work in Australia, 1970–1985[edit]

Returning to Australia in late 1969, a meeting with Martin Sharp led to the establishment of the Yellow House Artist Collective near Kings Cross, New South Wales. Gittoes worked with another friend, Bruce Goold, to transform a two-storey building in Macleay Street, Potts Point, into a space in which artists, film-makers and performers could both live and exhibit their work. In an Australia whose culture had been seen by many as stifled and colonial, the Yellow House was a revelation. Gittoes’ own particular contribution was a psychedelic Puppet Theatre, in which he and assistants performed to enthusiastic audiences, using glove puppets Gittoes himself made. In 1971 Gittoes, who regarded his work as fine art and was not completely in sympathy with the counter-cultural communalism of others in the Yellow House, broke away from the group. He had also been very deeply affected by the suicide of his girlfriend, Marie Briebauer. He had met Briebauer in San Francisco, and eventually she followed him to Sydney. But she was facing up to difficult issues with her family, and was not completely accepted by the Yellow House community. Her death was the first great crisis in Gittoes’ life.

A keen surfer, Gittoes travelled for a while in a caravan up and down the south coast of NSW. Eventually he settled in Bundeena, a village between sea and bush south of Sydney. For a time abandoning the politically driven art inspired by Joe Delaney, Gittoes produced a large series of photographs, drawings and paintings, eventually leading to a film, The Rainbow Way.. These images were abstract, using ideas drawn from both Islamic and Aboriginal art (in the latter case, espcially the myth of the Rainbow Serpent), but also created out of direct observation of the effects of light underwater. He also experimented for a time with holograms and with computer-generated images. His interest in Aboriginal art and performance, which began with meeting dancers from Mornington Island in 1972, led in 1977 to a trip to the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Gittoes was keen to bring art and performance to a wide audience. In 1979 he formed the environmental theatre group, Theatre Reaching Environments Everywhere (TREE), with Gabrielle Dalton (whom he married in 1980), Ronaldo Cameron, and Martin Wesley-Smith. Between 1979 and 1984 TREE presented a number of huge theatrical events, mostly on beaches around Sydney, involving hundreds of local people. Gavin Fry has described these as “some of the most complete and spectacular art performances Australia has seen”.[1]

In partnership with Dalton, Gittoes now turned especially to documentary film-making, first with Tracks of the Rainbow (1984), a film about Aboriginal children visiting sites of importance to the story of the Rainbow Serpent. Then there were a series of films about life, cultural confrontation, and art in the Northern Territory: Warriors and lawmen (1985), Frontier women (1985), Unbroken spirit (1985), and Visions in the making.

Australia and overseas, 1986–1992[edit]

In 1986, the success of the Northern Territory films led Gittoes overseas, to make Bullets of the poets (1987), a film about a group of Sandinista women poets who had fought in the Nicaraguan revolution. This was a turning point for Gittoes. He was influenced by Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardinale, whose philosophy of Externalism he later described as follows: “The Externalist poets believed in using real life events and physical experiences in their poetry, instead of the imagery of the imagination. For them reality was more incredible than fantasy.”[2] Gittoes’ key work from this period was the drawing, “The captured gun”, of a half-crippled Sandinista fighter who carried a captured American rifle adapted to use Russian ammunition, which he felt “symbolised that particular phase in the conflict ... and became a major breakthrough in my artistic career.”[3]

In 1989 Gittoes travelled to the Philippines, intending to make a film about women political prisoners. Funding problems prevented the film’s being made, but again he was brought face to face with victims of conflict, especially between government forces and the dissident New People’s Army. The resulting works included the Salvage series, documenting the discovery of the body of a torture victim. He also began a long friendship and collaboration with Filipino artist Nune Alvarado. As much as Nicaragua, the Philippines helped shape Gittoes’ future work: “Through my art I can be an advocate for so many people silenced by poverty and the conflicts around them.”[4]

After this, Gittoes worked for a time mainly in Australia, in particular on the series of paintings and drawings, Heavy Industry. Initially in 1989 he was invited by the Wollongong Regional Gallery to be artist in residence at the Port Kembla Steelworks in NSW. Between then and 1992 he worked in steelworks, mines, chemical plants, and a Bass Strait oil rig, in Wollongong, Newcastle, Broken Hill, Whyalla, and elsewhere, depicting the men working in these environments sympathetically against a background of industrial decline and difficult and dangerous working conditions. In doing this, he felt he was not only holding true to the Externalist idea of art, but also returning to Joe Delaney’s view of art “about a historic social struggle exuding pathos and humanity”.[5]

In this period, Gittoes was deeply affected by the death of his friend Ronaldo Cameron, a dancer who had been part of the TREE productions. Gittoes had painted Cameron in the advanced stages of motor neurone disease, and after his death expressed his grief with the painting, Ancient Prayer, which in 1992 won the prestigious Blake Prize for Religious Art. In 1993 he won the Wynne Prize for landscape, for Open Cut, from the Heavy Industry series.

Peacekeeping and war, 1993–2002[edit]

From 1993, Gittoes’ career took a distinct new direction. Building on his work in Nicaragua and the Philippines, he made a long series of visits to war zones, initially those in which Australian military personnel were serving in multinational peacekeeping operations. Although since World War I Australia had a long tradition of employing official war artists, Gittoes was never a designated Official Artist. Rather, he travelled under the auspices of and generally with the assistance of the Australian army, but remained free to express himself as he wished. On these trips he produced a large body of photographs, drawings and paintings. True to the Externalist tradition, many of the drawings incorporate written texts describing the situations which had inspired them. Many of these works are held by the Australian War Memorial, which had helped facilitate the initial contact with the army. One aspect of Gittoes’ work in this period which differentiates him from most Australian official artists is an enduring interest in and concern for the ways in which the conflict which led to the arrival of the peacekeepers had affected the local people. Gittoes did document the activities of the military personnel he was accompanying, but his vision was also consistently much broader.

The first stop, in March 1993, was Somalia, where Australia had provided a battalion to the American-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF), which was trying on behalf of the United Nations (UN) to restore order to a country devastated by civil war, collapse of government, drought, and famine. Gittoes worked in Mogadishu and in and around Baidoa, the town in south-central Somalia which was the main base of operations for the Australians. Rather than remaining on base, he often accompanied the troops on patrol and when protecting the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Soon afterwards, in May and June 1993, Gittoes visited Australia’s other major peacekeeping operation at the time, in Cambodia. Cambodia had suffered from American bombing in the Vietnam War, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of 1975–1979. and long years of civil war between the Vietnam-sponsored government which had ousted the Khmer Rouge and various other factional groupings. Australian diplomatic leadership in achieving a settlement to the conflict under the auspices of the UN meant that the resulting UN operation, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), was led by an Australian, Lieutenant General John Sanderson. Gittoes documented activities of Australian signallers with UNTAC and painted Sanderson’s portrait, but was also moved in particular by the stoic endurance of the many Cambodian victims of landmines.

In 1994, with support from the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General John Grey, Gittoes was able to visit Australian peacekeepers in Western Sahara, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. In Western Sahara he worked with Australian signallers who were part of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Gittoes next went to the Middle East. In Egypt he visited Australian peacekeepers serving with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an American-led multinational operation set up in the wake of the Camp David Accords to monitor the Egyptian–Israeli border. In Israel and Lebanon he met Australian military observers serving with the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). Shortly after arriving in Israel he visited the site of the massacre of February 25, 1994 in the Palestinian town of Hebron. What he saw made him doubt the official version that the massacre was the work of a lone gunman, reinforcing his belief in the need for the artist as independent witness and as an advocate for the innocent victims of conflict.[6] In southern Lebanon, then under Israeli occupation, he visited Australian military observers with UNTSO monitoring the border with Israel, but was again moved by the plight of people spending their lives in a conflict zone.

Also in 1994, Gittoes travelled privately to South Africa, to witness the transition to black majority rule and the election on April 27 of Nelson Mandela as president. Mainly working in black townships, his sympathy for black South Africans led to run ins with members of the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging; on one occasion he was severely beaten up.

Gittoes’ visit to South Africa coincided with the outbreak of the outbreak in Rwanda of the most concentrated genocidal violence of the modern era. In three months between 500,000 and a million Rwandans died. The resulting UN operation, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), included an Australian medical contingent and associated security and support personnel. A year after the original genocide, Gittoes visited the second rotation, once again with support from the Australian Army. By this time the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had won the civil war, and the violence of 1994 had ended. Nevertheless, Gittoes was witness to a tragic epilogue to the original genocide. Huge numbers had been displaced in the 1994 fighting. The largest camp for internally displaced persons was at Kibeho, in south-west Rwanda. The camp held between 80,000 and 100,000 people, many of them no doubt members of the Hutu Interahamwe, which had been central in carrying out the original genocide. In April the Rwandan government announced that the camp would close, surrounded it with soldiers, and began causing panics by firing in the air and burning the refugees’ housing. UNAMIR had a Zambian company at Kibeho, and on 19 April they were joined by 32 Australian medical personnel and infantry, to provide medical treatment and assistance evacuating the refugees. Gittoes, in the country to record the activities of Australian peacekeepers, joined them the next day. Late on April 22 the Rwandan forces began a massacre, using rifles, machine guns, RPGs, bayonets, machetes, and possibly mortars. Next morning the Australians counted 4,000 dead, no doubt fewer than the true number. During the massacre the Australians gave medical treatment to and evacuated as many as they could, all the while witnessing terrible scenes. All were affected by what they saw, Gittoes as much as any. He split his time between helping give direct assistance to individual victims and documenting what was happening. He later flew to New York to report to the UN on what he had seen. But Kibeho also became a powerful catalyst to his art, a subject which still haunted him and which he was still reworking 20 years later.

In 1995 Gittoes won the Blake Prize for religious art a second time, for one of several versions of The Preacher, a powerful image of a preacher trying to bring calm to the people around him – and to himself – amidst the chaos and carnage of Kibeho. In 1997 he set up an installation of Rwanda works at documenta X in Kassel, Germany. It included ten large confronting 3 v 1.5 m paintings, employing what Gavin Fry describes as “a violent, gut-wrenching expressionism”, to depict the depths of violence and depravity reached at Kibeho; the floor was covered in rags, clothes, and plastic containers.[7] In 2014 he returned yet again to the Rwanda material with a series of “synthages”, combinations of photograph, drawing and painting developed in collaboration with printer John Wesley Mannion.

Gittoes continued to travel to scenes of conflict, but no longer usually with the army. In 1996 he went to Bosnia, where a NATO-led force was gradually restoring order and peace after the devastating Bosnian War which followed the collapse of Yugoslavia. His work, no longer particularly concerned with the peacekeepers, now focused on the plight of refugees and ordinary people living in the midst of devastation. The following year, 1997, he travelled to Northern Ireland at a time when the Northern Ireland peace process was just getting underway, meeting members of both the Irish Republican Army and the Protestant paramilitaries, but again focusing particularly on the lives of those caught up in the conflict. In 1998 he went to China, working with artists at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but also travelling to areas of the Yangtze River affected by construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and to Tibet. In the same year he once again worked with the Australian military, visiting members of the Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group, which was helping establish trust among Bougainvilleans in the peace process which was bringing an end to the civil war between secessionist Bougainvilleans and the Papua New Guinea government.

Later career[edit]

George Gittoes has set up mobile studios for three decades, creating works in regions of conflict and upheaval around the world. He has worked in North America, Central America, Europe, the Middle East, the Sub Continent, Far East, Asia Pacific and Africa, creating works in both traditional and digital mediums, still and moving images, within a matrix of cultural interfaces.

For years, he used his drawings to bring awareness to previously unknown landmines in the Middle East.[8]

"Why do I do it? As far as choosing the roads I have travelled, I have this instinct that if I get comfortable, the work will lose its 'sting', so I go out of the comfort zones and into the wilderness to find my art. In the past it was the natural world where predators fed on gentler creatures. In the contemporary context, I go alone into a different kind of human wilderness – Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq – not to contemplate nature, but the basics of humanity..."

—George Gittoes

A comprehensive public solo exhibition of his work, Witness to War, appeared at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston, Texas, in April 2011.[9]

Gittoes has travelled to many places for his art, including: Nicaragua, the Philippines, Somalia, Sinai, Southern Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Western Sahara, Cambodia, Laos, Mozambique, South Africa, Congo, Rwanda, Yemen, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Russia, Europe, UK, Bougainville, Philippines, China, Taiwan, Tibet, Timor, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He often travels to countries experiencing conflict and social upheaval, and uses these experiences extensively in his art.


Throughout 2011 and 2012 Gittoes produced six Pashto language Dramas; Moonlight and Starless Night in Pakistan, and Love City, Talk Show, The Tailor's Story and The Simurgh in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

In late 2011 Gittoes established the Yellow House Jalalabad in the South of Afghanistan. This is a multi disciplinary arts centre similar to the original Yellow House of 1971 in Sydney, in which he participated. It is the base for Buraq films which was established by Gittoes with Afghan filmmakers to produce high quality Pashto language films. The YHJ features a cinema, traveling tent circus, rainbow painting studios, Secret Garden Cafe and Rose Theatre outdoor stages.


Gittoes' service to Australia has been recognised by the award of Member of the 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".[10]

He was also awarded the Centenary Medal (2001) "for service as an internationally renowned artist".[11] He was given an honorary Doctorate in Letters by the University of New South Wales in 2009.


  • Tracks of the Rainbow (1982, director and cinematographer)
  • Las balas de las poetas (1987, director and producer)
  • Soundtrack to War (2005, director and cinematographer)
  • Rampage (2006, director)
  • The Miscreants of Taliwood (2009, director and writer)
  • Love City, Jalalabad (2013, director and writer)[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gavin Fry, George Gittoes (1998), p. 16.
  2. ^ George Gittoes, Heavy industry (Broken Hill City Art Gallery, 1992), pp. 12– 13.
  3. ^ Quoted at Gavin Fry, George Gittoes (1998), p. 19.
  4. ^ Quoted at Gavin Fry, George Gittoes (1998), p. 20.
  5. ^ George Gittoes, Heavy industry (Broken Hill City Art Gallery, 1992), p. 13.
  6. ^ Gavin Fry, George Gittoes (1998), p. 24.
  7. ^ Gavin Fry, George Gittoes (1998), p. 28, with an illustration of the exhibition.
  8. ^ Strauss, David Levi (July–August 2010). "George Gittoes with David Levi Strauss". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 3/7/12.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  9. ^ Dillon, Noah (Jul–Aug 2011). "George Gittoes: Witness to a War". The Brooklyn Rail. 
  10. ^ It's an Honour – Member of the Order of Australia
  11. ^ It's an Honour – Centenary Medal
  12. ^

External links[edit]