Peace Billboards is a project of Seeing Peace: Artists Collaborate with the United Nations, an innovative public art installation project orchestrated by artist Richard Kamler. Seeing Peace is a visionary international initiative that seeks to bring the imagination of the artist to bear on the most pressing global issue of our time, peace.
Peace Billboards brings the imagination of 10 visual artists, one each from a member state of the United Nations to engage in a dialogue of international peace through the creation of culturally construed images as to what peace looks like on full size outdoor advertising spaces, billboards, in San Francisco. The images of peace created by the participating multinational artists are intended to engage the publics' imagination by being showcased on 10 different highly visible billboards in San Francisco.
When Richard Kamler first invited me to participate in Seeing Peace, I was excited at the prospect.
I understood the task to somehow incorporate my perspective having been born and raised in South Africa during the height of Apartheid.
In order to grasp what peace looks like, I had to contemplate the obstacles to its attainment first.
The obstacles were pretty obvious. Racism and religion shot to the surface. Apartheid was a system that regarded one race as superior to others. The discord, violence and hatred it instilled and perpetuated colored my reality growing up, despite being on the receiving end of the unfair benefits and privileges it bestowed.
I was raised Jewish as well. Once again, I was schooled in a religion designed to instill superiority. Chosen by God, no less, above everyone else.
Yet as early (or as late) as my teens, my consciousness shifted. Despite Apartheid’s ingenious censorship framework, I began to question the truths ingrained in my worldview only to find the foundations governing my thinking tenuous at best.
In spite of the superiority instilled into me at every turn growing up in South Africa, I also experienced what it felt like on the receiving end – racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia. Multi-layered, complex variations of the same fear and hatred.
As I engaged in the exercise in preparation for the Seeing Peace project, I imagined men and women, sexually ambiguous, intimate, naked and multiracial using, literally, religious iconography as censorship devices. And although anyone who knows my work knows that I don’t shy away from it, to place this on a billboard in the context of a peace initiative, would have been too manufactured a controversy coming from me. This project is not about me.
Yet something else gnawed at me. I found it too easy to “see peace.” Yes, I grew up in South Africa, surrounded by violence, but in reality, I was shielded from it. The high walls, the good schools. Moving to the United States, I’ve lived in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, each with their share of violence and discord, but again, in reality, I was shielded.
My subsequent ideas of what peace looked like seemed increasingly trite and inauthentic to me. As an African, I imagined an AIDS ravished child being given free pharmaceuticals, or a malnourished mother food and fresh water. I imagined gay teens being rescued from the gallows in Iran, or sex slaves smiling whilst being freed from bondage in my own backyard in San Francisco. All worthy subject matter, but not reflective of my unique perspective or experience.
I labored over what was more threatening to peace -- deliberate violence or indifference and complacency. The more obvious images of holocaust victims or the remains of someone “necklaced” or gay-bashed were either predictable or reflected more what peace didn’t look like.
And then it finally came to me. The torture images I had worked on for over a year. The Abu Ghraib simulations I had restaged and reenacted. The places it took my mind and the horror they instill in me to this day. I recalled one of the models, a claustrophobe over whose head I placed a sandbag, telling me afterwards that the blackness, even with the uncertainty of what would happen to him next, gave him a brief element of relief. It shut out the horror surrounding him.
Torture. The deafening silence on the matter of our presidential candidates, and the media covering their empty rhetoric. The death of the dialogue around our approach to torture. Our collective lack of accountability. Our laser beam focus on missing flags on suit lapels or the use of the word “bitter.” Bitter indeed.
The image I chose ultimately is titled “Basic Restraining.” An innocent man handcuffed to a bed, panties yanked over his head to insult and humiliate him. Somebody’s brother, somebody’s father, somebody’s son. How did he see peace?
The more I thought about it, the closer I came to the conclusion.
You can’t see peace. For at the end of the day, peace is a state of mind. True peace exists only in the absence of consciousness. A survival mechanism to escape the horror and ugliness of what is. To see peace is to see nothing at all. You might, if you’re really lucky, experience it for very brief moments in time. Perhaps when you need to most. In the dark triumph of fear and hatred over love and kindness. In the face of humanity at its most evil, cruel and violent. When you're being tortured. Or when you’re dead.
Peace. There’s a reason they tell you to rest in it. We sure as hell don't live in it.
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