Oxford yesterday, London today, Cambridge tomorrow. Greetings from the UK where I am doing some research on WWI and its aftermath for my how-wars-end project. I am chasing historians who are not just good scholars but gifted speakers and writers as well. They are the ones who make great radio.
Today I paid my first visit to the Imperial War Museum. If you’re in London go see it (and not just for the Ian Fleming show). I don’t know why I’ve never been before. I spent so much time in the WWI exhibits I didn’t see much else. But I did have a quick peek at The Children’s War exhibition. It’s about my parents’ generation of Brits who grew up during WWI and what it was like to be a kid then. I found it very evocative; many of the household items and children’s toys of that era were things I’ve seen in my parents’ tiny old black and white photos or at my grandparents homes when I was small myself. I forget how much my parents’ lives (both born in England in 1929 and 1936) were shaped by war.
Just before I left the museum I dashed up to the galleries on the top floor to see the giant John Singer Sargent painting “Gassed.” Sargent actually witnessed the western front in 1918. I’m glad I took the time, not only because the Sargent is so impressive and affecting but because in the same room (which I had all to myself) was a small exhibition “Disappeared” by a Kurdish artist called Osman Ahmed. He fled Iraq during the Anfal campaign in 1988 and his drawings reflect that displacement. Here’s what the catalogue says: “In these images, crowds of people migrate endlessly through a deserted landscape towards an unknown destination.” Some of the crowds are drawn with long squiggly continuous lines so you can see individuals but they’re all linked together, and even in drawings where the individuals are more defined and realistic, there’s an amoeba-like clumping fluid nature to the mass of bodies moving toward an ill-defined exit. The drawings are titled things like “Halabja Chemical Bombing,” “Martyr,” “Memories.” Not surprisingly perhaps, Osman Ahmed cites Goya’s Disasters of Wars and Picasso’s Guernica and Kathe Kollwitz’s lithographs as influences. Also a white South African artist I don’t know called William Kentridge.
Anyway, I was stopped in my tracks by these works this afternoon and had to tear myself away to make my next appointment. Later at an Internet Cafe I had time to do a quick search and found a little bit of coverage of Osman Ahmed. Given the power of what I had just seen I was surprised not to find more. On the other hand I think I may have slipped in before the show was officially open. It looks like the opening is this weekend. If I’d known about this show in time I would have tried to find Osman Ahmed (he apparently lives in London) to do an interview while I was here in the U.K. According to the catalogue, he’s doing a doctorate on artists’ responses to crimes against humanity and the role of drawing in documenting the Anfal campaign.