Talk to Leo Baeck Centre . 22nd September 2019.
I would like to thank everyone for attending my exhibition opening. My sincere thanks go to Rabi Johnathon Keren Black and the Leo Baeck Arts Committee for allowing me to exhibit my work in what is a very special place. I feel very honoured. Also, thank you to Val Silberberg and her family for the wonderful hospitality they bestowed upon me over this weekend.
The collection of paintings on exhibition here is very different to anything that I have ever produced, or exhibited in the past. It is different because it is very personal. There are paintings in this collection that reveal my most difficult existential struggles as well as my moments of joy and gratitude.
When it comes to art, people generally look for meaning. I regard meaning as being very subjective. Every person will find their own interpretation in the task of viewing my work. My art then, is not about meaning, it is about purpose.
My purpose has always been about healing. In order to explain this, I need to tell you something about my journey through art.
I grew up East of London in the aftermath of the Second World War amidst a lot of uncertainty, fears and confusion. What followed was the Cold War, with more fears and much uncertainty and confusion.
By the time the Cold War struck I was old enough to have an opinion on wars and their consequences for people and the environment. I joined the Peace Movement while I was still in High School and this probably kick started my career as an artist. I spent much of my time in the school art room helping my teacher to create posters for the anti-nuclear campaigns. Needless to say, I was recruited into the Peace Movement before I left school.
When I left school at the age of fifteen, I went to work for a famous Hollywood film producer by the name of Sam Spiegel. Mr Spiegel had a fabulous art collection of original paintings, which drew my attention. He was a very rich man. I wanted to be an artist.
I recall how I drew a portrait of my boss to try and impress him, but it did not please him at all. The receptionist put the drawing over the mantle piece in the waiting area and my boss took it down again. I had no bad feelings over the rejection of my art, I was still learning. It was not a good drawing, but I believe he kept it.
Mr Spiegel gave me a job and he paid me enough money to live in a nice flat just off Grosvenor Square and this enabled me to finish my education at night school and I enrolled in the Kokoschka School of Painting. (The original Kokoschka school had closed and another had started up by one of the master’s best students).
I enjoyed a salubrious lifestyle for three years, travelling around London delivering documents and exchanging conversations with interesting people. I made some good friends and I had some extraordinary mentors.
Sometimes I would travel by taxi to offices and homes and at other times I would save the money and take the tube train. Over time I began to feel stuck and I wanted to do something more meaningful.
When I took the underground train, I used to sit and look at the pictures that ran along the carriages above the windows. Two advertisements attraction my attention, one was on vivisection and the other was of starving children in Africa.
The pictures disturbed me, they made me feel selfish and I knew that that my good fortune was not fulfilling my true purpose. I wanted to make the world a better place. I knew nothing about vivisection so I opted for the starving children in Africa.
After three years of being in the film business. I travelled to South Africa, where I worked in a commercial art studio and exhibited my paintings in a commercial gallery.
I was very ignorant of South Africa’s politics and I had not anticipated the violence that that comes with extreme oppression.
I arrived in South Africa well after the Sharpville massacre, but the memories and tensions were still raw and escalating.
I lived in Johannesburg with my friend Ann Sherman who was a popular singer and I often went with her to work at night so she did not have to drive herself home alone. Night time in Johannesburg was particularly unsafe and despite a curfew and it was not unusual to come across violence. I was very affected by what I saw and with activism already in my blood I rebelled and I broke a few laws.
In South Africa there were rules that compelled one to have black servants and workers. We had neither so we were immediately under suspicion from neighbours. I remember being in the front garden one day weeding the flower beds when a police patrol car stopped outside the house. The officers approached me and asked “what are you doing?”
“Gardening,” I replied.
“What are you gardening for, where is your boy?”, one officer asked.
“I like gardening,” I answered.
The fact was, no one did work that could be done by a native for next to nothing, this was the nature of the apartheid system.
The following day the police arrived with a African man who was told by the officers to work in my garden.
We tried to share the work, we tried to treat the man well, but to associate or assimilate with Africans was a crime. We had to be careful.
Despite the political climate in South Africa my career as an artist flourished then something unthinkable happened.
I was walking to work one day; it was Summer and the air was already warm. My studio was in the far end of town among other industries and a collection of buildings that were used to house African mine workers. It was never a safe area and most people would drive through it as quickly as possible. I did not drive. The pavements were generally splattered with blood and there was graffiti on the walls of buildings. Johannesburg was rather a clean city, there was barely a trace of trouble in the main centre of town, but the outlying areas were considered quite dangerous.
As I walked I could see an women lying in a doorway. She was very large and slumped over with her head resting to one side of her chest. I thought she was dead at first and I was about to cross the road, which is what one did upon encountering a diseased person. I stopped, because I thought I saw the big woman move. I went over to her and she groaned. She had multiple stab wounds along her arms and she could not speak. She had a large stab wound in the chest, the area was soaked in blood and looked awful. Beside the woman there was a line of bottles containing blood. I was told the African Bantu were very superstitious about the loss of blood. The woman had tried to catch the blood from her wounds in the bottles.
On the other side of the road, there was Police Station. I crossed the road to get help. The police must have spotted me from the window before I reached the building because two of them stood on the pavements as I approached. “The women in the doorway is alive,” I said, “can you get help?”
They told me to move on. They said it was none of my business and it was not wise to hang around. I pleaded with the men to help the woman, but they became more assertive with one officer stepped forward and putting his hand on his gun in a threatening manner. “Move on,” he said.
I had no choice. I moved on and continued my journey to work.
I did very little work that day, I could not get this injured woman out of my mind. The sun was beating down and I wondered if someone had managed to help her and whether she had survived.
Come five o’clock, it was time to go home. I left the studio and walked the same route as I always took and as I approached the area near the police station, I noticed the woman was still there in the doorway. She had passed away!
Over the course of the day the street had seen a lot of activity. The day’s garbage had been put out on the pavement ready for the morning collection and it had piled up around the body of the African woman. As the acrid smell and the flies hung in the air, I stopped for a moment to take in the horrific scene. Here was a human being, a woman immersed in the rank and rotting garbage as if she too was just part of the garbage. I was shocked, dismayed, traumatized and suddenly very fearful of the country I had called home.
When I got to our house, I told Ann what had happened, but she was not so shocked. She was out at night and witnessed many similar scenarios. “This was Africa,” she said “a black life is worth only what can be exploited and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.”
I did not agree, there had to be some way to make changes, at least to tell the story of what was happening. I took to my studio and began painting. I painted various scenes of life in Africa under apartheid. None should have been provoking, however, when they were exhibited the gallery was asked to remove them. Shortly after our home was raided by police. We though we had got away with a warning, but later a journalist friend suggested I leave the country because the police were going to prosecute me. Whether this was true or not I could not be sure, but after what I had witnessed, nothing would be the same. I could not sit back and ignore what was happening. Sooner or later I would be arrested.
A few days afterwards another friend named Melvyn arrived at the house. I had a plane ticket, but I was not sure whether to use it or not. Melvyn looked at me and said, “I am driving you to the airport before you get arrested.” I went without protest.
I made a split-second decision, there seemed no choice, but to go with my friend that night to the airport. I left everything behind and I would never see Ann, my friends or my dog again.
When I landed in Rome I had nowhere to go, no money, my papers were not in order and I did not speak a word of Italian. I was apprehended and driven to a building in the city where I had to undergo a medical examination. The doctors cleared me of any contagious diseases and then let me go.
I walked for a while and found the Trevi Fountain. I sat looking at the coins in the water. People threw coins in the fountain for good luck. An American man came and sat next to me. We talked. I told him my story. He had come to Rome to reconcile with his wife and they were both leaving Rome that same evening, so he gave me the key to his apartment for three weeks before the lease expired. There was food in the apartment and I was starving. A few days later, a letter arrived with a ticket to London’s Heathrow airport and a little English money.
I could not settle in England and three years later I arrived in Australia, which in some ways reminded me of South Africa because one of the first things I saw was a bus shelter with graffiti reading “Asians Out”. Was this just another racist country? I hoped not, but all was not well.
My instincts once again drove me to act. I joined the Womens’ Movement, the Prison Reform Movement, the Council of Civil Liberties, the Human Rights Association and the newly formed Friends of the Earth and I threw myself into protest art.
Eight years later I moved to Victoria and along with my partner and started a political graphics production company, working mostly on posters, advertising and copy-writing. Some of that work is now housed in government archives.
My art had a purpose. I still has a purpose. through my art I can heal myself of the daily trials and tribulations. I can speak out and contribute to healing the world (Tikkun Olam).
Trying to bring about social and political justice to the world might seem like an impossible task, but one has to keep trying, we cannot give up.