Art Against War: Australian Artists Hellen Rose and George Gittoes in Ukraine

War has been ongoing in Ukraine for more than 2 months now. As the Australian Government sends new military aid it ‘calls on Russia to cease its unprovoked, unjust and illegal invasion of Ukraine.’ Australian artists Hellen Rose and George Gittoes echo this condemnation and have travelled to the heart of the conflict to engage with community, offer support and seed creative opportunities and art.

Rose says ‘We both believe that it is sometimes the smallest acts from the heart and from empathy from everyday people all over the world that pushes back great evils.’ Indeed, and the pair have a history of putting this belief into action offering a hand to the vulnerable through art during their time in Afghanistan.

Hellen Rose and George Gittoes, Volkzal’na St Bucha, Photograph by Kate Parunova

Rose and Gittoes are both multimedia artists, her music (check out the band Soul Crime), performance and film, and Gittoes’ documentary film, writing (see, Blood Mystic), photography, painting, graphics, and sometimes theatrical moments serve to impart stories, raise voices and highlight the wrong-doings that shouldn’t be repeated in our futures.

The Scream by George Gittoes, drawing, 2022; photography by Gittoes

Their interactions with the world combine bearing witness and creating a portal for empathy, catharsis and change. Congruous to their position as artists of multifarious approaches and a mystic air, they have a humanist approach that is brave, special and needed. They say –

We realise the power of the arts to bolster morale and to cut through lies – culture is the cement that holds society together and the first thing that dictators want to destroy and control.

Russian Bear by George Gittoes, drawing, 2022; photography by Gittoes

Since arriving in Ukraine both artists have several projects in motion, Gittoes is out filming often and is also working on the logistics to have a peace mural installed at a destroyed building in Borodyanka that he’s calling ‘The Punisher House’. Rose was previously working on songs from the House of Bryant in Nashville and has transformed ‘Raining In My Heart’ to ‘Ukraine Is In My Heart’, which she says is being shared and appreciated on social media and by locals she meets who are experiencing such harrowing times. Of course, amongst this are also conversations and moments of connection.

George Gittoes

As the duo moved by rail from Kyiv to Odessa, we reached out to learn what was happening in real time on the ground. Hellen’s dispatch is an intriguing insight into their journey thus far. To follow along day to day, click through to their Instagram pages here; Rose and Gittoes.

Hellen Rose in Kyiv, Ukraine; Photo by George Gittoes

What are your artistic intentions while in Ukraine?
We are both doing what we always do but our strongest ‘art’ is being here and showing every person that we interact with, that Australians care about what’s happening here, enough to pack up and travel halfway around the world from the safety of our homes to stand with them physically. That has brought a smile to so many Ukrainian faces from our hotel cleaner to the soldiers who check our passports, we have received many hugs and ‘thank you’s’.

All our art works are an extension of our intention to use art, paintings, music, photography and film to break through the polished lies and camouflaged truth.

One of the most powerful works we have created here was simply the photograph of a little girl’s party dress that was hanging in the blown apart window of a home, a humble apartment in the towers burned and blown to pieces by the Russians in Borodyanka. We sent this image to our friends who have a very famous Australian band called Midnight Oil who are doing a huge international tour at the moment in front of giant arena crowds. This simple image cuts through any language and anyone’s understanding of what is right and what is wrong.

How have you been received by the people? 
The people are incredible. They are using everything they have got in this fight for their freedom from this horrendous ‘criminal gangster’. We were here when Borodyanka, Bucha and Irpin were being massacred and we were some of the first to take our cameras and document the atrocities, this was heart wrenching in any one’s language and a sickening crime, to see the swiftness and the stoicism of the regular person who rolled up their sleeves to start cleaning this up and laying those who had fallen to rest, will forever bring tears to my eyes.

We were there when a woman had to exhume her husband who had been shot trying to stop the Russians from raping her, her and her mother-in-law laid him tenderly in the only thing they had at hand which was a beautiful floral tablecloth and laid him to rest in the garden. The men who came to take him to the graveyard, everyone. I will never forget this moment of human compassion and courage as long as I live.

Photograph by George Gittoes & Hellen Rose

How, or, is it different being an artist versus a journalist in these circumstances? 
We are artists / journalists in the tradition of Francisco Goya, Otto Dix and many others but we are also part of a movement that is Art Against War, humanitarian / activist artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey where every form of media can be used to communicate our message or create art.

Many artists are focussed on light themes and live-in safe communities, some are political but never leave their own country, we are political and see the whole world as our studio, as we see that all of humanity is united and the same.

We use our art and physical presence to try to push the world to end war and use our art to fight the lie that killing in ‘war’ is justified or that destroying people’s homes in ‘war’ is justified. We do take risks and go to places where people are being attacked. George has dedicated his life to this path and when we first got together, I thought I would somehow stop George from feeling he had to keep fighting this battle like sweeping the sand or turning back the tide. However, I myself now have realised that this small persistent sacrifice is perhaps the only thing that will remind the world that War Is Over.

Photograph by George Gittoes & Hellen Rose

What do you hope the world sees through the portal you are creating? 
That war is over, that it has never worked at helping anyone. That all borders are artificial and that all people are the same, there are no enemies, we all love our children, all want a chance to succeed with our dreams, all have love in our hearts. We need to learn to rejoice in each other’s differences, learn each other’s wisdoms and try to overcome our universal lower thinking patterns of petty fears and prejudices of the unknown – EVOLUTION NOW!