Art is a useful lens through which to introduce children and teenagers – and adults – to painful and difficult issues – to help them make sense of the images they see on screens and to help them understand global conflict. The IWM Contemporary series at IWM London is dedicated to providing a platform for cutting edge art on current conflicts and has previously featured artists such as Omer Fast, Hew Locke, Imogen Stidworthy, Rosalind Nashashibi, Nick Danziger and Edward Barber.
From Wednesday 19th October 2016, IWM London will be showing an exhibition by US-based, Pakistani artist, Mahwish Chishty, who uses the Afghan/Pakistani folk art tradition to depict US/British armed drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The exhibit will include sculpted painting on wood, painted drone models and works on paper.
It was after a visit to Pakistan in 2011 that Chishty began her drone art series to examine and raise a discussion on the cultural, psychological and physical impact of the foreign drones that hover over areas of Pakistan. In Chishty’s exhibit, the lethal drones which are used to carry out the US/British extra-judicial assassinations programme in Pakistan – with some Pakistani government collusion – become colourful, intriguing works of art. Her work has been described as “resistance through beauty.”
Chishty uses her training in traditional miniature painting, notable in her use of tea staining, to produce intricate, symbolic artwork inspired by the art used by drivers of haulage trucks to decorate their vehicles in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By reinventing the foreign drones, she is bringing attention to them and the stories we are told about them – but doing so in a symbolic way with “truck art.”
IWM London’s “Visions from Above and Below,”Gallery 2, features another artist’s depictions of drones. On display is a series of ink drawings by Alison Wilding, a British renowned for her sculptures. Whilst Chishty has mythologised drones with traditional Pakistani art, Wilding’s depicts them as sinister, bird-like entities.
The British government has sanctioned its own drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, recently, Syria. Moreover, it has been revealed that Britain works closely in the US’ wider assassination programme by providing a base in North Yorkshire, likely intelligence support and lending its own operators, thus linking itself closely to the US drone programme and strikes in Pakistan.
Drone assassinations are carried out without any judicial process. The decision-makers in the US and British government and military act as judge, jury and executioner. A litany of falsehoods have been made to disguise the programme, from initial US claims that no civilians were killed by drone strikes, that only Al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates who posed an imminent threat to the US homeland were targeted, to the US casualty figures themselves, which the US massages with its presumption that all military aged men killed in a strike zone are terrorists, unless posthumous evidence proves otherwise..
The strikes are not surgically precise as has been claimed by our governments and have killed hundreds of innocent people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the civilian death toll in Pakistan is between 424-966 since 2004. Sometimes the attacks occur on the basis of suspicious activity in so-called “signature strikes.” The identity of the target may not be known. Other times, “double tap” strikes occur which hit first responders and others going to help the victims of the first hit. The devastating effects has served to psychologically damage, as well as to radicalise populations against the US and Britain, furious at the loss of loved ones.
Unmanned drones are just one part of the arsenal of bombing campaigns. Piloted airstrikes inflict immense damage – as we are currently seeing from the Russian-backed Assad campaign in Syria and the US-backed Saudi Arabian campaign in Yemen. In December 2009, a US Tomahawk cruise missile, fired from a US Navy vessel, struck a village in South Yemen, al Majala, killing 41 civilians. That day, 22 children died and, reportedly, 5 women who were pregnant.
Remotely operated drones, however, are increasingly popular for governments because they do not directly risk the livelihoods of pilots or operators. Last year, David Cameron announced that Britain would double its fleet of armed drones to 20 so-called “Protectors”. As long as the deaths of the targets and people in the vicinity and the mental illness and terror inflicted on the target population living under their shadow remain secondary to our concerns, then drone warfare will be seen as PR friendly. Mahwish Chishty’s exhibit at IWM London is a way to open up the discussion for all of us, young and old.
– Book a place to hear Mahwish Chishty in discussion with photographic artist, Lisa Barnard and IWM researcher, Clare Carolin at IWM London on Thurs 20th October 2016.
– Analysis – “DroneART: a Product of Surveillance Criticism” by Anna C. Natale & Dolores Cristina Gomes Galindo.
“In the painting MQ-9/Predator, the sheet appears to have the same texture as homemade recycled paper, the tonal changes are visible, resembling the color of earth and sand grains, but also nullifies the track of time, there is no way to know the age of this work.”
– Interview with Islamic Arts Magazine, 24th May 2013.
“It’s something that I didn’t hear much about here in the US. Pakistani people feel bitter and angry towards the American government because of their use of drones near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as it is affecting a lot of civilian lives.”
“I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I felt like my knowledge of Islam was so limited. I learned in school that music and dance are haram (forbidden) in Islam but then I came to discover that a branch of the same religion celebrates and connects with God using music and dance. A dervish twirls and swirls with the beat of music to a point where everything around him blurs and takes him to a state of mind where he feel more connected to the One.”
– Interview with Mother Jones, 24th June 2013.
“It’s kind of a folk art. It’s a tradition, a culture. People who drive these trucks basically live on those trucks, sleep on those trucks. They kind of make that into their mobile home and they decorate it into something that’s eye pleasing. They’re extremely beautiful paintings. They spend so much time on it and they don’t get any funding. This is something that they do, just a personal interest. It has no reason whatsoever other than just an aesthetic sense. I always thought that it was not given any importance in the art world back home, and I wanted people to think maybe what would happen if these drones were friendlier looking, instead of such hard-edged, metallic war machines.”
– Preview of the exhibit at IWM London by Asian Voice online, 30th August 2016
“Mahwish Chishty is a contemporary artist combining new media and conceptual work with her traditional practice as a painter. Chishty has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at venues including Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MOCADA), Brooklyn NY; University of Technology (UTS Gallery), Sydney, Australia; University of Michigan, Maryland Art Place, Baltimore, MD; and Canvas Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan. Her works are held in both public and private collections. This will be the first time that the artist’s work is shown in the United Kingdom.”
– Mahwish Chishty’s website.