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Waiting for the ghost bus
Personality of the Month
AN UNOFFICIAL WAR ARTIST
The idea that art can make a political point has been accepted for a long time. Picasso's 'Guernica', depicting the bombing of civilians in a small town by the German allies of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War is one of the world's most famous paintings.
The war that artist Peter Kennard describes is not one of military slaughter but the economic war waged by global capitalism against the poor and powerless. There is no soft focus in his work; the images are stark and, appropriately, many of them are in black and white. He is recognised as Britains leading political artist.
Peter and his partner, Judy Barker, live in Stoke Newington. Their sons Matthew, 17 and Daniel, 21 are studying at college. Born in 1949 in Maida Vale, the young Kennard went to Marylebone Grammar School and later to the Byam School of Art, moving on to the Slade in 1965. Like many students at the time, he became politicised by the Vietnam War. As he points out, the Labour government of that day, led by Harold Wilson, backed American military adventures uncritically as does Tony Blair over 30 years later. A man of the left, he is not a great fan of Labour leaders.
He gave up painting to concentrate on photomontage, the art form for which he is probably best known. This he describes as the merging of one picture with another so as to create a third and critical image. It cannot be termed propaganda as Peters work allows people to draw their own conclusions from what they see.
Not one for half measures, Peter joined the Socialist Labour League, the forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party. He freelanced for their paper the Workers Press and says he learnt a lot about production processes as, after the editorial meeting in the morning, he would have to produce an illustration for publication the same evening.
Comrade Kennard found that the Party was not really his thing - he has a keen sense of humour despite his serious objectives (hes also an Arsenal supporter) - and left after about two years. His commitment to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has remained firm over the years and much of his work has been used by CND in their publications.
He met Judy in 1969 when she was a student nurse and they moved to Stoke Newington in 1978. She now works in the health service in Hackney as a child protection adviser. After some time on the dole, he took a job as a telephonist on the night shift in the Finchley Road exchange after working during the day at a studio in Chalk Farm. He describes his work colleagues as a rich collection of failed actors, ex-BBC alcoholics and aspiring young workers.
One of his best-known photomontages is Germany Shakes, commissioned by The Guardian at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (see illustration). The bricks in the foreground are from Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington.
Over a period of time, Peter has moved from photomontage into installations which depict a theme through physical objects, not all of them immediately identifiable. People can move among them in order to see the whole from different perspectives.
One of these was Welcome to Britain, held at the Royal Festival Hall in 1994. It included a star performer, Ken Livingstone, who Peter describes, standing on pallets in the middle of placards, an apparent shipwreck of debris, he appeared to be arguing with the materials around him. He was lit by a portable traffic-light set on red. Some might say that not much has changed since, but Ken and Peter became good friends.
Peter certainly repaid the compliment in 2000 when he organised London Calling, an auction of works by well-known artists to raise money for Kens campaign for London Mayor. Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and others contributed. Over £105,000 was raised in three weeks.
He would hate to be described as having become almost respectable but after many years of part-time teaching, he is now a senior lecturer in photography at the Royal College of Art.
To understand what motivates Peter Kennard, its necessary to read his most recent illustrated book, Dispatches from an Unofficial War Artist. Described as a thematic rather than a chronological journey through his artistic, political and personal development it is also very honest, funny and self-revealing. It was not easy to write and he admits to a disturbing feeling of emptiness afterwards.
In the book he says: The peoples of the world are here now in London. In Stoke Newington, where I live, I hear fragments of countless languages when I wander the streets. What is most important to me about London is that its population is composed of a mix of people from across the world. It is a multi-racial and multi-cultural city. This is the key to the spirit of London, and it is this world culture that is at the root of my work.
Peter Kennard was talking to Tin Webb
Web site: www.peterkennard.com