Annemi Conradie-Chetty Featured in 'Don’t look away: Local artists on the war in Gaza'

Published 22 January 2024 in News

The Mail & Guardian

'Don’t look away: Local artists on the war in Gaza'

By Charles Leonard

The Mail & Guardian - Art

Published 19 January 2024 (Pages 34 & 35)


Five creatives tell of their work on the Israeli violence and the responses they’ve had.

It was an exclusive report for 'The Times' by its South African-born special correspondent George Steer of the horrific bombing of Guernica, a town in Spain’s Basque region, on 26 April 1937 that inspired Pablo Picasso to create one of his most famous works.

The article uncovered that Nazi Germany was secretly supporting the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Steer’s eye-witness account told of how the air attack on market day killed 1 600 civilians, with “the whole town of 7 000 inhabitants, plus 3 000 refugees, slowly and systematically pounded to the ground”.

Steer observed: “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective.”

After reading Steer’s report,

Picasso responded with 'Guernica' — a 3.49m by 7.76m oil painting — which took just 35 days to complete.

“Guernica represents Picasso’s outrage over the senseless violence caused by the bombing; it has become an international symbol of wartime genocide and an exemplar of anti-war art,” according to The Artchive.

Nearly a century after Picasso’s statement, artists continue to respond to the depravity of war. With Israel’s war on Gaza being broadcast in real time, artists’ responses come faster now and are often instantaneously displayed on social media.

Among them are several South Africans who have expressed their outrage over what many term Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. Their “Guernicas” are photos, posters, graffiti, murals, paintings, T-shirts and other media. Their “George Steers” are Gazans, formal and citizen journalists who keep reporting despite Israel’s bloody onslaught.

One of them is Bisan Owda (@wizard_bisan1), who describes herself as a “filmmaker, traveller and dreamer”. She uploads reels and photographs from Gaza on Instagram, where she has 3.8 million followers.

On 11 December Bisan posted a photo of a mouldy orange with the caption: “65 days of genocide, this was my breakfast today. Finding citrus fruits has become almost impossible in this bombing, so if I find any type of food, even if it contains mold, I cut off the moldy part and eat it. I know it is not good for health, but what is the value of health in everything we face?”

Cape Town-based artist, Aquilah Sheik Ismail made a painting based on that photo and called it 'Bisan’s Orange'. It was sold on the annual Artists 4 Equity Instagram auction, where South African artists submitted works for free. The R206 000 raised from the sale, which ended on Christmas Day, was donated to aid organisations supporting Palestinians, such as Gift of the Givers.

Here are five South African artists who are responding online to Israel’s war on the Palestinians.

Annemi Conradie-Chetty was born in 1982 and in her teaching, research and art, has often focused on the afterlives of archival, colonial images in contemporary art, design and media. She mostly uses discarded materials and sewing in her projects.

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza?

Since late October, I’ve been sewing flowers in the colours of the Palestinian flag onto a keffiyeh.

Each flower represents one person killed in Gaza by the Israeli army, with parts of the keffiyeh dedicated to children, medical personnel, UN workers, journalists or artists. Green flowers represent children, red for adults and black for bombed heritage sites.

There are also smaller dedications to specific deaths: the killing of poet Refaat Alareer, individual premature babies and assassinated journalists.

What I did not anticipate when starting this was having to return to certain sections to add flowers as more people are being killed. And I realise now the one keffiyeh will never be big enough to mark every death.

The process is slow but that is the point. Combing through news and documentation of individual deaths is heart-wrenching but that is also the point — to not look away.

Why are you doing it?

Following the killing and kidnapping of civilians and soldiers in Israel by Hamas on 7 October, and the brutal retaliation by Israel, much of the Western world was quick to show empathy to only one side. The propaganda machine that has vilified Arabic and Muslim populations for centuries was put into overdrive to justify the destruction of Palestinian lives, homes and heritage.

In mainstream media, the victims of the Hamas attack were rightfully named and mourned but not the Palestinians killed and kidnapped by Israel. The embroidery was born from frustration, grief and feeling powerless in the face of these atrocities. I was looking for a way, however small, to mourn and to witness lives and stories that were not considered equally precious.

What has the response been?

Apart from the “like”, “heart” and “tearful” emojis, and sharing of my posts, I have received messages from individuals who expressed appreciation for the act of witnessing and memorialising individual lives and deaths.

Sharing the work on social media has also meant connecting with an international community of artists, which builds solidarity and opportunities for contributing to other activist initiatives.

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African artist to be making this art?

I think it is important for artists everywhere to use their work, skills and platforms to witness, record, inform, to speak against discriminatory dominant narratives. Art offers me a way of speaking to those in my community who share and oppose my views and, through social media, to and with people I’ve never met.

Can art make a difference?

It can, absolutely. Artists have the tools and power to create, participate and fortify communities who are connected by the insistence on dignity and liberty for all beings.

There are many South African creatives who are freely giving their artworks, time and skills to raise money, advocate, boycott, communicate crucial information and who are, importantly, documenting the ongoing genocide and the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

Parusha Naidoo is an artist who lives in Cape Town. She paints on canvas, creates digital illustrations and, since last month, started painting murals.

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza?

I’ve been producing paintings, protest posters (which are available for anyone to print free for protests), murals, phone screensavers and Instagram content capturing the art-making process in support of Palestine.

Why are you doing it?

To be honest, I was avoiding the political most of my life … but I guess it’s in my blood, my DNA — I am the child and grandchild of freedom fighters. I experienced the effects of apartheid on my family, on my country, on our collective psyche.

My grandfather was in jail for treason, his brother was in jail on Robben Island and in exile. My other grandfather wrote plays about forced removals of apartheid and the absurdity of the regime. My one grandmother made protest art.

Growing up, my parents were running from the police, at times in hiding, we had our homes raided, our phones tapped. Many family members were in the MK, my uncle was murdered by the Special Branch, we had family in exile, my friends’ parents and parents’ friends were assassinated, tortured, assaulted, imprisoned, terrorised.

In the period before apartheid, my ancestors were indentured labourers from India who’d been oppressed in their own country by the British, then coerced, captured and kidnapped by them to work on the sugar plantations of South Africa under a repackaged slavery.

It was inevitable that I’d be drawn to protest art. It is giving me a sense of greater purpose and perhaps healing.

Since October, I feel like there’s nothing else that is as important. I woke up. Feel like I was sleeping before. And the whole world was sleeping too.

What has the response been?

People have said the art gives them hope and brings light in these dark times. I started making a few illustrations for my own sanity. Those images resonated with people and they were able to use them to express how they felt.

My digital illustrations have been shared by people all over the world. The illustrations later became posters that people printed out and used in protests from Durban to London, Paris, Singapore, Dubai, Brussels, Berlin and Cape Town.

As a result of the art, I’ve received messages from people from Palestine and Sudan who have said they appreciate the support in the art I’ve created.

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African artist to be making this art?

For the same reason the legal team is fighting for a free Palestine and South Africa as a collective is antiapartheid and anti-genocide. I think it’s important to use the tools. I must help in dismantling the injustices in Palestine and the world, even if all that art does is spiritually fortify us or help the oppressed feel seen and supported to carry on the struggle for freedom.

Can art make a difference?

I don’t know. But without art, what would the world look like? And why are art and books banned? Art is carrying messages around the world. And it scares people in power. The painting of Palestinian flags is now seen as dangerous.