By Dr Nicola Ashmore
Inspired by the experience of collectively remaking Pablo Picasso’s anti-fascist painting Guernica (1937) as a protest banner, I began researching other collaborative remakings of Picasso’s Guernica. For more information on the creation of the banner see: remakingpicassosguernica.wordpress.com.
Pablo Picasso was moved into action to create Guernica (1937) after reading in the press about the devastating aerial attack by the fascist forces of Europe on the civilian population of Guernica. This attack was ordered by General Francisco Franco; through the course of the Spanish Civil War Franco became the fascist dictator of Spain.
Since Picasso’s creation of Guernica, the painting has been reproduced and recreated in many forms traversing the confines of fine art and moving into the world of design. Picasso himself insured that Guernica would circulate far and wide in hand held form as a postcard. In February 2015, I was awarded funding from the University of Brighton to further develop my research into collective remakings of Picasso’s Guernica. This research connects activity in: America, Canada, France, India, Spain, South Africa and the UK. It incorporates four remakings of Guernica, including three large-scale textiles pieces, an archive and a theatrical production. The textiles pieces include the Remaking of Picasso’s Guernica (2013) as a protest banner created in the UK and India; the Rockefeller Tapestry After Guernica (1955) made in France on long-term loan to the United Nations headquarters in New York and the Keiskamma Guernica (2010) created in Hamburg in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The Rockefeller Tapestry After Guernica (1955) was used in Goshka Macuga’s exhibition The Nature of the Beast (2009-2010) at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, UK. This exhibition forms a remaking of Guernica as an archive of socio-political activity in the East End of London. This archive was developed throughout the one-year duration of the exhibition, through the documentation of meetings held in the gallery space. Also included in this research is a remaking of Guernica as a touring theatrical production, written by Canadian writer Erika Luckert.
In July 2015, I travelled to South Africa, to the coastal village of Hamburg where the Keiskamma River meets the Indian Ocean. The Eastern Cape in South Africa is the poorest region in the country; to reach Hamburg you have to travel for over an hour by car along an unsurfaced road with giant potholes, there is no public transport. Shopping for many of the residents of Hamburg takes a whole day, involving hitching a lift or sharing a taxi to get to the nearest town. I visited Hamburg for two weeks, the first of which I spent talking to people, gaining an insight into the workings of the Keiskamma Trust and its different areas of activity, which include Art, Health, Education, and Music. For more information on the Trust see: keiskamma.com. Spending time with people involved with the Trust in this way was a very powerful and moving experience; I was made to feel very welcome. The area has been greatly effected by HIV and AIDS related illnesses, many, many people have died; being witness to those that you love suffering and experiencing suffering has unfortunately become a part of the fabric of life in this area. The Keiskamma Guernica (2010) made by people from the villages of Hamburg and Bodium in the Eastern Cape of South Africa documents this suffering and through its creation has challenged the South African government’s refusal to comprehensively respond to the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
In the second week of my stay I began to film interviews with some of those involved in the workshops that surrounded the making of the large scale Keiskamma Guernica (2010). I interviewed people who participated in its design and making and in the creation of the three smaller-scale Keiskamma Guernica’s that have since been created. I took the Remaking Picasso’s Guernica protest banner with me on this trip. I had participated in its collective creation and this process had inspired this international research so it seemed important to take the banner when meeting other makers. The presence of the banner created an opportunity to compare our remaking of Guernica with the Keiskamma Guernica to reflect upon our differing approaches, interpretations and adaptations of Picasso’s Guernica. In the Keiskamma Guernica piece shapes and symbols had been altered reflecting local experience and narratives. For example the horse in death throws in the centre of Picasso’s Guernica had been turned into a cow, an important symbol within the stories of the Xhosa people living in the area.
From South Africa I travelled home for August. Then on the 31st August 2015 with the Remaking Picasso’s Guernica protest banner safely packed in my hand luggage I set off to America and Canada. Continuing the international research into collective remakings of Picasso’s Guernica I went to New York, Montreal and Edmonton.
In New York Joe Hague (co-cameraman) and I visited the UN headquarters to see the Rockefeller Tapestry After Guernica (1955) with Cynthia Altman, curator at Kykuit: the Rockefeller Estate. The tapestry was featured in Goshka Macuga’s exhibition The Nature of the Beast (2009-2010) as a backdrop to the bookable and free public meeting space in the gallery. The exhibition contests the 2003 US led Iraq invasion. Macuga’s display notably drew attention to the literal cover up of the tapestry whilst it hung in the UN headquarters in 2003 in advance of Colin Powell’s speech on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that signalled the invasion. When a diplomat was asked why the Tapestry After Guernica had been covered up he was quoted as saying in The Washington Times (3 Feb. 2003):
“It would not be an appropriate background if the ambassador of the United States at the U.N., John Negroponte, or Colin Powell, talk about war surrounded with women, children and animals shouting with horror and showing the suffering of the bombings.”
This literal cover up of the tapestry in 2003, 66 years after Picasso’s original creation, conveys Guernica’s ongoing power and extraordinary capacity to signify the suffering of many civilian populations: from the Spanish Civil War to the Second Iraq invasion and beyond.
In New York I also met with, and interviewed, the Canadian writer Erika Luckert, who wrote Guernica the play. The play is set in Picasso’s studio where he receives a series of visitations from people who were in the market when the aerial bombardment of Guernica occurred. The play in part explores the relationship between creation and destruction through the characters – each one developed from the human figures in Picasso’s painting. Pablo Picasso once said, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction” the remakings of Guernica attended to here embody this phenomenon and reveal an important and on going dialogue through the numerous remakings of Guernica that challenges the atrocities of the present to make way for a better future. Travelling overland by train from New York, Joe and I continued on to Montreal to interview the Director of Guernica the play, Jon Lachlan-Stewart.
Edmonton in Canada was the final destination of this research trip into collective remakings of Picasso’s Guernica. I visited the play write Erika Luckert’s family home to look through the materials she had kept from the production of the play. Whilst in Edmonton I interviewed the plays Stage Manager of the Guernica Canadian tour, Gillian Bird and the Designer of the play, Kevin Boyer. I also met with Anne Fanning to see the small scale Keiskamma Guernica that hangs in the University of Alberta in Edmonton created by the Keiskamma Art Project, whom I visited in July 2015 in South Africa.
I took the Remaking Picasso’s Guernica protest banner with me when I travelled to share our experience of collectively remaking Picasso’s Guernica. This really helped connect us as makers, enabling a sharing of motivations, practices and interpretations.
The interviews carried out on this trip are going to be released online available from 26 April 2016 through the research projects website: guernicaremakings.com. A series of four radio programmes will also be released in April 2016 to be aired on Radio Resonance 104.4fm. For more information on this series please go to: theartsandcultureunit.com/portfolio/guernica-remade/ An exhibition of the four remakings in this research will be on display in July/ August 2017 in Brighton, UK, timed to mark the 80th year from the bombing of the town of Guernica.