Conflict Zones: The Language of War

“There looms within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.”[1]

‘The power of memory is prodigious. It is…vast, immeasurable…Who can plumb its depths? And yet it is a faculty of my soul. Although it is part of my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then, that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part of it which it does not itself contain?’[2]


Conflict Zones: The Language of War brings together works on paper by Ryan Arenson, William Kentridge, Diane Victor and Alastair Whitton with a common theme of warfare.

For as long as we have fought with one another, we have been fascinated by our fighting, in equal proportions to the violence we inflict upon each other. However, as Julia Kristeva has so aptly pointed out, our fascination also takes the form of revolt. Because our own capacity for violence and the results of it are abject to us, our desire to be fascinated requires the sublimation of conflict into metaphor.

Image-making has a long history of being put to use for the documentation of conflict and, by extension, the same theme has served as subject matter for artists of all kinds, often decades after peace has been established. In the instance of documentary, image-makers are beholden to objectivity, as far as it is possible. Historically, the sketch was used first, then printing processes such as etching or lithography. The machine in the form of photography subsequently replaced the human hand in the act of documenting our battles. Today, photography has been joined by video and multimedia, ensuring that we are able to devour as-it-happens information from as close to the front line as possible. In the latter case, for the production of art, the devices of allegory come into play. Over centuries, war imagery has become a visual language of its own, put to use by artists to explore conflict as a metaphor for socio-political, theoretical or emotional comment. In both cases, what results is an impression that is absorbed into collective memory.

Like many artists before them, the group collected here have taken war and its imagery as a starting point for artistic exploration. Beyond this, they have all chosen to use one or other form of printmaking as their medium, creating literal impressions and residues of ink on paper, adding to the residue of memory borne from the transformation of experience into narrative.

Of all four artists, Diane Victor casts her memory back the furthest, drawing on Classical mythology for her series, The Birth of the Nation. The series grew out of Victor’s reflection on sculptures in Rome that serve as a preservation of mythology, conveying ancient stories of conflict – both of a personal and political nature – in the present. In all the works included here, a literal conflict is referenced – the slaying of the Minotaur by Theseus in Daedelus’  intricate labyrinth; the Greek ambush of Troy; the death of Adonis by a boar, sent by any number of assassins; and the fratricidal Romulus and Remus, twin founders of Rome.  Victor’s version of the myths, however, features African characters – the Minotaur’s wildebeest head is cut by a Sub-Saharan executioner, a Springbok replaces the Trojan horse, a warthog replaces the wild boar and a hyena suckles the ill-fated brothers. The ancient conflicts, re-imagined in an African context, take on post-colonial proportions.

In his L’Inesorabile Avanzata (massacre of the innocents), William Kentridge looks directly to Africa for his subject matter. In a text written about the series, Kate McCrickard has explained his use of typical pylon and sextant images, along with quotations of Picasso and Giotto’s weeping women and desolate gazing eyes to ‘draw comparisons between the atrocities committed in the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopa in 1935/1936, the inaction of the League of Nations at the time, and our own observance of…genocide’ taking place in Darfur at the time of the works’ creation and still in countries all over the world.

In Alastair Whitton’s work, imagery of World War II provides a starting point. In Patmos and the War at Sea, the idioms of documentary and fine art collide, Whitton having cited actual documentary footage and photographs taken at the time of the war for the right hand side of each work. On the left, appear passages from the Biblical Book of Revelations – another text rich in the imagery of catastrophe – that have been laser-cut into the paper, rather than embossed. Crouching within this labyrinth of tiny punctures are letters of the Roman alphabet that, upon close inspection, form a word, which is the individual title of the work. All elements of Whitton’s heavily coded works point towards acts of war and the secrecy involved in wartime communication. Whitton himself, although trained for combat, has never had direct experience of war, and so his insight is stitched together from his training and from memories passed down by forbears or friends unfortunate enough to have suffered and survived the ordeal of conflict. Similarly, Whitton’s images are not simply representations of found images, but painstakingly re-shot and re-composed versions of the original documentation, worked through a process Whitton describes as ‘an attempt to make sense of what has been seen and recorded,’ This re-imagining and re-imaging through the piecing together of fragments is not dissimilar to the operations of the memory and references here to ideas of the archive and memory—or of memory as archive, or archive as a repository of memory—are significant.

Ryan Arenson’s  Engraved engages in a similar process of re-presentation. The print – a combination of linocut and etching – is based on the 1511 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, Cain Killing Abel. Although Arenson was inspired to quote the image because of Dürer’s use of line, rather than the meanings he wished to convey[3], in the context of this exhibition, an interpretation of the original work is noteworthy:

For viewers who know that the principal figure must be an alter ego of the artist, the placement of the artist’s monogram behind the blade of his weapon is crucial. It suggests that the blade is significant to the print’s meaning, which it is. This, after all, is not just any weapon but the axe of a woodcutter, the tree added as supporting evidence. Thus, what we are seeing, is the creative struggle in Dürer’s mind as he imagines the engraving of his own woodcut, the actual work-in-process symbolised by the screaming victim.[4]

Hence, the theme of conflict contained within the originals, the quotations and the works collected in this exhibition has a literal translation – which is most often a parable of good vs. evil – but also a metaphorical significance to the process of making art. As an extension of this, every act of image-making serves to inspire further images in the continual struggle to articulate through allegory our very capacity to fight.

– Jacqueline Nurse, September 2011

[1] Julia Kristeva, Approaching Abjection in Amelia Jones, The feminism and visual culture reader, Routledge, 2003, p.389[2] Cited in Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude. 1982. London: Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. 88–89

[3] Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, Ryan Arenson, The Book of Ruth: Notes on the Exhibition, 4 October 2008;

[4] Simon Abrahams, Dürer’s Cain Killing Abel, 20 April 2010;

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