Thinking aloud about Guernica

Guernica 1937, Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Peter Horree / Alamy
Guernica 1937, Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Peter Horree / Alamy

The week of the installation of the Guernica Remakings exhibition the journalist Edwin Gilson got in touch. The questions he posed addressed the timing of the exhibition and what it means in the contemporary political climate – post Brexit, with Trump “leading” the USA 140 characters at a time through his Twitter stream. A fraction of this exchange was published in The Argus in Gilson’s article: “Picasso and political protest” (Friday 28th July 2017). Below is the transcript of this whole conversation, the first of a number of discussions the exhibition has led too:

Edwin Gilson: You said that Picasso’s mural is “particularly poignant” at a time when the UK is withdrawing from Europe. Was the Brexit vote – and subsequent societal divisions – in any way a part of your decision to stage this exhibition, or did it make you all the more determined to do so?

Nicola Ashmore: Absolutely the Brexit vote result has further motivated me in 2017 – the 80th year from the bombing of the town of Guernica (Gernika), to put this exhibition on. I think it is really important in this Brexit period to reflect upon the European Union’s creation, for it grew out of a desire to create a stable and peaceful Europe following the Second World War. The Second World War can be directly linked to the rise of Fascist forces in Germany, Spain and Italy that coordinated their military forces to crush the democratically elected party in Spain in the 1930s, the bombing of Guernica (Gernika) is an example of one such coordinated attack on a civilian population, honing aerial military tactics we now know were used in the bombing of London in the Blitz.

Edwin: What is it about Guernica that continues to resonate with people and particularly activists? What does the image say to you, beyond the sheer tragedy and brutality of the scene it depicts?

Nicola: Picasso’s Guernica is an iconic image – even if people can’t remember it’s name or the exact historical moment it relates to, they know it’s a Picasso and they can read it’s anti war message. The imagery expresses emotions that we all experience at some time in life: loss, grief, pain, suffering and seeing those very human emotions in others in the image in Picasso’s Guernica reminds us of our humanity.

Edwin: When you were researching the various protest parties that have reworked the mural, what was the biggest common reason for people using the mural for their own political agenda? (If there was one standout factor).

Nicola: The remakings of Picasso’s Guernica featured in this exhibition are from across the globe and resonate with the original intention of Picasso’s Guernica – to push back at those in power who choose to act to the detriment of civilians.

Edwin: In general, do you believe that art as a means of protest is effective? Is the enduring impact of Guernica proof that great art can influence the way society thinks about atrocities like the one it depicts, or at least make sure it is forever remembered?

Nicola: Art is a powerful force and within protest it communicates to many simultaneously – out on the street this is often through the form of the protest banner. Guernica at the time of its creation was simultaneously a call to action, to stand up to fascism and a protest against the atrocities being committed. Now I think it endures because of its power to motivate people to act to stand up against those in a position of power who seek to harm civilians. In my mind it also simultaneously functions as a warning as well a memorial to those civilians and innocent animals that were and still are so often targeted in conflicts.

Edwin: You toured England and India with a public sewing event a few years back. Was your motivation to spread the idea of art as activism?

Nicola: As a collective we have reflected upon the public sewings and one of the dominate characteristics of sewing in public we found is the opportunity for connecting with people. Sitting and sewing, sharing memories, associations and concerns with Guernica, around conflict, with sewing itself – this developed an important platform for sharing and solidarity through art making.

Edwin: It might be a bit general, but what drew you to the study of the link between art and activism in the first place? Can you pinpoint anything in your past that acted as a catalyst for your interest in the area?

Nicola: We can talk about this over the phone if you like…bit of a longer conversation.

Edwin: Have you seen a new wave of art activism in the wake of the Trump administration?

Nicola: Perhaps one of the few good things that has come out of the Trump administration is the art activism it has triggered. For example his disgusting and degrading references to women prompted a wave of protests internationally after his inaugeration in which women reclaimed the word pussy through craftivism – using craft as a form of activism, knitting hats with cat ears  – ‘pussy hats’ linking the word to our four legged furry friends.