There is something reminiscent of William Blake's artwork and poetry in Peter Kennard's latest book, Peter Kennard: Visual dissent, a retrospective of his artistic output over the past 50 years. Kennard, like Blake over two centuries earlier, combines images and words to turn the status quo on its head in a revolutionary manner, and applies a visual sledgehammer to the glossy layers of lies and deception that the world's most powerful governments and their autocratic allies feed the public to maintain their control over billions of lives.
Visual dissent is testament to Kennard's remarkable indefatigability and steadfastness to stand up for the oppressed at home in the UK and abroad. The book chronicles Kennard's decades of photomontage work championing human rights, economic justice, peace, freedom and environmentalism. His work has inspired and been praised by a long list of acclaimed artists, including Banksy, with whom Kennard has collaborated on several occasions.
How he became a political artist
Western imperial wars, apartheid in South Africa and Israel, rapacious capitalism, fossil fuels, nuclear weapons, cover ups by police and governments, the displacement of people through man-made wars, famine and climate change – these are bulk of issues that Kennard's work has sought to expose for what they are. His text provides the context, a mix of insightful anecdotes that often combine humour with jaw-droppingly gloomy statistics.
But he did not start out as a political artist, Kennard says.
"I began making art very young, turning the coal cellar in my parents' flat into a studio. I went to art school in 1965 and I painted figurative work. My earliest influences were people like Bacon and Giacometti, which is very much about the existential, alone individual," he tells The National.
“Then I socialised through politics to thinking we’re not just individuals, we’re part of a society and a political reality. I think it was Vietnam that set me off, going on the big demonstrations and gradually getting politicised through the horrors that were going on there, and the protests that were happening here and in the States. I wasn’t very politically aware before that.”
Spanish artists Goya and Picasso had a significant influence on him artistically.
"Goya's Disasters of War – I had a little paperback, I've still got it though it's all crumbled – the sheer intensity of it, the horror of it burnt into the etching plate, had an enormous effect on me. It was a big, anti-imperial work depicting the terrible atrocities at the time. And Picasso – [the fact] that something like Guernica could become a symbol to the Basque people, and could exist beyond a gallery picture, that inspired me," he says.
Showcasing his work to a wider audience
Kennard felt the traditional art space of the gallery was too limiting to adequately address the injustices he was witnessing and that to challenge these, he needed to produce art that visually and readily juxtaposed opposed narratives.
The book, laid out chronologically, shows this artistic development. What follows is an artistic tangent seemingly making up for lost time and stretching decades, which has evolved but never changed focus.
Photomontage has often been used as a form of political dissent over the past century, from the Dadaists protesting against the First World War, to the German artist, John Heartfield, opposing the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s.
There is an immediacy in much of Kennard's work – a nuclear missile broken into two by a peace symbol or caught mid-air by a human fist, or planet Earth wearing a gas mask (Union Mask), the eyes of which are the US and UK flags, with the mouth piece jammed with missiles. Kennard has made a career out of capturing iconic images and revealing the horrors and costs behind them, rendering them unacceptable. Political art needs to convey its message quickly to be effective, so simplicity is imperative, though this has been used to belittle Kennard's work. It's a criticism that he welcomes.
"I've been accused of making images that are 'bleeding obvious'. I know this isn't meant as a compliment but, in fact, one of my main goals is to make images that do make the bleeding that comes from our wars and profiteering obvious. I see my role as the opposite of the corporate media. They apply the plasters, I let the blood flow across the page. Their job is to dam the tide, my job is to damn well create a river."
What stands out in such a retrospective is history repeating itself. From the US's war in Vietnam to its ongoing "war on terrorism"; from Nixon to Trump and Thatcher to Blair, and most recently Theresa May; and from the financial crisis to present austerity.
In the background, the threat of environmental catastrophe grows larger. Does he feel that his work has had any real impact and, as a grandfather now to four young grandchildren, what does he predict for their futures?
“You can’t measure the effect of making art,” he says. “It’s not like selling baked beans, putting an advert out and seeing how many more cans you’ve sold. But I do get emails from people who tell me they saw my work and because of it they joined Amnesty International or started supporting the Palestinian cause or something like that. People outside the art world see it, which is very important to me: it’s a general audience, not just an art audience.”
Can a new generation bring upon change?
He concedes that it is very challenging in our present dark times and quotes Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci: "It's 'the pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will'.
“It feels like it’s much more urgent now, more direct, and climate change is a big part of that. Trump, and some of the things Boris Johnson says, they don’t dress it up so much now and it’s very frightening. It’s more extreme now and the mainstream media kowtows to the establishment completely.”
Despite this, Kennard is inspired by the creative determination of the younger generation that he has witnessed over the past two decades, as an artist and as a professor of political art at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, where he has taught for the past 40 years.
Citing the massive anti-war demonstrations in Britain in the run up to the US and UK-led invasions of Iraq, the Occupy movement, the Extinction Rebellion movement, and the Labour Party's grassroots Momentum movement, which has made strides to create the foundations of the first truly socialist government in the UK in generations, Kennard says: "Talking to young people, there's a wonderful desire to see something different. Capitalism is collapsing, there's climate change, and they're living with all this: it's affecting them now and shaping this new consciousness out there. It wasn't there in the '90s, where arts and cultural ideas were seen to be different to social ideas. But now, because things are so urgent, there is much more consciousness around these issues in people in their teens, and they don't take the crap that easily or unquestioningly."
Shocking statistics from 'Visual Dissent'
- The $682 billion (Dh2,504bn) spent on the military by the United States in 2012 is more than the combined military spending of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil. Together, these countries spend $652bn.
- The US military is the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world. The figures published vary between 100 million and 144 million barrels a year, approximately 90 per cent of all the oil consumed by the US annually.
- World military expenditure in 2015 is estimated to be $1.7 trillion, representing 2.3 per cent of global gross domestic product or $228 per person.
- Nine countries – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea possess approximately 15,395 nuclear weapons, of which 4,120 are deployed with operational forces. Roughly 1,800 of these weapons are kept in a state of high operational alert.
- More than a billion people in the world live on less than $1 a day. Another 2.7 billion struggle to survive on less than $2 a day.
- The United Nations refugee agency in 2016 announced a record 65.6 million people worldwide are either refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced. The 2018 figure is 68.5 million people.
- Oxfam in 2018 reported that the world's 26 richest people own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity, or 3.8 billion people.
- The estimated cost of the modernisation for the current US arsenal, including 'life extension' programmes for nuclear weapons and procurement of new delivery systems is $1tn (or $1,000,000,000,000).