Social commentary

Painting My Protest – by Susan White

‘Stop’ by Susan White

The Defence Security Equipment International (DSEI) is the world’s largest arms fair. Over 30,000 people attend from over 50 countries, including representatives from some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

It takes place in the docklands, in the East End of London. This area was the most heavily bombed part of the UK in World War Two. I find it deeply offensive that a place which suffered carnage through warfare, is now the place where our modern tools of destruction are being promoted.

I am a Quaker and we work for peace. On the opening day of the arms fair, about 700 Quakers gathered for a meeting for worship on the road that the lorries were using for bringing in the exhibits.

I chose not to go, but to paint my protest.

Chaos and energy

Some years ago I had created the image of a man’s eyes.  Now was the time to use it.

This summer I had begun to explore a new style of working, creating sketchbooks with selected images from the places I was visiting, using collage papers, inks, watercolours and drawing pens. I felt that this style of working could suit the piece I was planning in my head.

I built up the background using that same technique to suggest chaos, energy and a dark mood. I spent a pretty depressing afternoon seeking images of war and made drawings of soldiers, guns, tanks, and a helicopter.

But I found myself drawn to the images that portrayed the horrific consequences for those caught up in the violence.  Sometimes these people’s suffering is described as “collateral damage”.  I dislike this phrase intensely as it deliberately distances the perpetrator from those affected.

His memories

Having started with the eyes, I began to work intuitively deciding what image to draw, and then the next and the next until I had filled the canvas. It slowly began to shape itself into ‘his’ memories, and can be read as his story.

The single figure of the soldier I could have made stronger as an image but I decided that I liked the shadowy nature of it, the sense that through his nonchalantly dominant stance he was instrumental in the destruction around him but he stays in the shadows, almost invisible.

When all the different images were in place I wondered if it was too busy. The observer’s eyes are constantly moving around the canvas. But I decided that conflict and war is busy, is chaotic and is messy.

I also decided that everyone except for the man would be faceless. The victims of war are made faceless, their identity stripped away.

The word STOP I chose to leave faint. Fighting for your survival takes all your strength – but we must also do all we can to work for peace. This is why and how I painted my protest against the Arms Fair.

Stop the Arms Fair

Susan White is a Quaker who lives in Brighton, UK

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