Tue 01 Nov, 2016

What comes first- your cause or your art?

Thoughts from Peter Kennard's 'Off Message' exhibition

Jemma Mellor / #exhibition, #photography, #politics

Photomontage is one of the lesser known skills and disciplines of the artist, within the public eye at least, however it is a skill and discipline that has inspired and influenced me personally far beyond any other specific genre of art as a whole.

The use of images holding multiple meanings, a cut in that chosen place, the position of one image against the other has always brought an instantly accessible depth to the art form that has a force to bring powerful comment and narrative to the audience.

Peter Kennard’s exhibition ‘Off Message’ is to me a bold reminder of this and a nudge to artists with driving force and passion for a cause far greater than themselves.

Kennard is a London based artist whose practice as a political artist and photomontager has spanned nearly 50 years. His work has been published extensively in newspapers and magazines and has been used by activist groups such as CND and Amnesty.

Within a moment of entering the current exhibition at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham you’re looking up at ‘Crushed Missile’ (see above) one of Kennard’s most famous images. Even the most inexperienced of art appreciator couldn’t fail to get the gist! The work is not subtle, and Kennard never intended it to be:

‘It’s important to me as an artist to be like the canary down the mine. Sniffing out danger and coming back up with images that act as a warning. My images are deeply critical of all the status quos that condemn billions to live in poverty while making billions off their backs. It’s art as an ‘early warning system’ or a ‘late early warning system’… we’ve got to hurry.’ 

Art critic John Berger describes Kennard’s ‘terrain as that of the human conscience’ and his themes ‘as nuclear weapons and poverty’ and the underlying arguments behind his work do seem compelling. However, as a great appreciator of Kennard’s work I left the exhibition with another appreciation and in fact a commission.

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I went to the exhibition with my family and we chatted through the works on display and as with any good exhibition it caused discussion and debate. My oldest son announced (soon after seeing Kennard’s piece where a soldier is kicking the globe on a football pitch) that he has now decided that when he becomes a famous footballer he will in fact use his huge salary for good and stop to give every homeless person he sees at least 40 pounds! My other half on the other hand felt that the work, although visually arresting, was at times too basic and repetitive in its investigation of the themes.

I however was struck by the sense of a whole life lived for a cause.

Kennard’s cause and not his art comes first. His passions influence all he does and the decisions he makes in his work, from his choice to pursue montage, his production and distribution of his work for free or his lack of change of course or evolution within his work. These are all because he sees his cause as greater than himself as an artist.

As a follower of Jesus, I have a cause that is greater than me as an artist and as a person. I am a way off it yet (which is good because I think I have a bit of catching up to do) but when I get there, will the 50 years retrospective of my life work show such a passion for my cause?

How about you?

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Jemma is an artist and photographer from Birmingham, England. Despite anything that her husband Jonny may say, she is the brains behind Sputnik.

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