A few months ago we received a call from the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, about a planned exhibition called Witness: Women War Artists. They were looking for a “strong woman” to be associated with the exhibition. Would we be willing to co-sponsor the exhibition with Manchester Airport?
We went to meet Jim Forrester, the Northern Director of IWM and his staff. Over lunch at the Water Shard Café, the team’s enthusiasm for the project was contagious. We were thrilled by the opportunity and accepted immediately.
The Imperial War Museum building, created by the world-renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, was conceived as stark reminder of the conflict of war. It is designed to unsettle and almost disorientate the visitor, with cleverly designed walkways and sloping floor. It is a stunning building.
Yesterday evening a number of lawyers from Stowe Family Law LLP and our guests attended the launch of the exhibition, which focuses upon the experiences and works of female war artists, stretching from the First World War to the Kosovo conflict. It was opened by Christina Lamb, the Sunday Times’ roving foreign correspondent.
Curated by the modest but talented Kathleen Palmer, the exhibition presents women in war not as victims, but as participants, eye witnesses, commentators and officially commissioned observers. These artworks are usually housed in London and are not often on display to the public. Highlights include internationally renowned works such as The Nuremberg Trial 1946 and Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (above), both by Dame Laura Knight RA and A Shell Forge by Anna Airy.
I was intrigued by the artists’ chosen subjects.
Some of the works were undoubtedly propaganda, created to send out brave messages during dark days. Children were popular subjects. In one painting a child is depicted lying in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages but smiling bravely. I was told that apparently the subject does not recall this at all! Given the willingness of our media to pump out similar propaganda in modern times, it was fascinating to see earlier examples.
I asked Christina Lamb about this after she had opened the exhibition. When she is given conflicting statistics, such as numbers of casualties, which figures does she accept? She replied that there was often a choice of numbers. I still wonder though: why do the media sometimes scoop up the most shocking statistics without probing a little more deeply, even when truly independent observers report that the numbers don’t add up? Worse still, why do they sometimes report “horrific events” to an equally trusting public, when these events did not take place? I make the point because readers of my blog will know of my soft spot for Israel. It isn’t the demon it is painted in the very well funded propaganda war waged worldwide against it.
A few weeks ago for example, reports that Israel had bombed a UN school in Gaza were circulated around the world. Israel was reported also to have confirmed it had been done, to world wide condemnation. However the United Nations has now confirmed that the school was not targeted or bombed at all. Just like the worldwide footage of the Palestinian father and son apparently being shot to death in front of an Israeli police station, that too was proved a fake but the damage had been done.
The public has no choice but to rely on journalists’ impartiality and powers of judgement, but when propaganda is proven to play such an important role in fashioning public opinion in the modern day, in the face of conflicting and untrue accounts and or selective reporting, whether through art, photography, television or in the press -it all begs the question what can you believe?
Attractive, modest and unassuming, Christina looked like any other young mum standing outside the school gates. She talked with great integrity about her experiences reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan and how, on one memorable occasion, she had spent some weeks in Iraq living in a car and covering the conflict with some male reporters. After a fortnight living in hellish conditions, she had eventually used some of their precious, much needed mineral water – to wash her hair.
What she didn’t mention in her speech were her near misses with death. She didn’t mention for example, she survived an assassination attempt upon the life of Benazir Bhutto, on the opposition leader’s bus when it was ambushed. She didn’t mention her near misses in the battle field, when she narrowly escaped the bullets of the Taliban in Afghanistan and made front page news. Instead she spoke about her “normal life” as a wife and mother, a life like any other mum, put on hold when she is sent off to cover a conflict literally risking her life for her story. She was without doubt one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.
So it was quite an evening for me. It was topped off with a cracking dinner at Abode, Michael Caines’ restaurant in Manchester, attended by Diane Lees: another unassuming high achiever, who is the Imperial War Museum’s Director General.
Today it’s back to the grindstone!
To Diane, Jim, Kathleen and Christina: many thanks.