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INTERVIEW: Writing Dangerously with artist Richard Lees

1create - interview richard lees writing dangerously header 2018

This interview finds out more about his most recent project and the inspiration for “Writing Dangerously.”

A follow up to Richard Lees Behind the Art article.

1create - interview richard lees writing dangerously header 2018

Play video below.

Video Transcript

How did the exhibition go?

Successful.

In terms of numbers of visitors it was outstanding we had more than I had for my previous exhibition, exhibition in Hull last year.

In terms of sales it was really surprising, we sold more posters, sold more prints than I did last year.

Kateule: And are you making the prints yourself?

yeah yeah these were Lino Prints mainly or screen prints

What did you enjoy most about your exhibition?

The thing I liked most was talking to people in the gallery and the responses because the exhibition told a story and it told the story of people coming together in really difficult circumstances and trying to defend their culture, trying to defend their land against people who would take it away from them.

What inspired your latest project?

So the 2 writers who really inspired me were Mary McCarthy, who was an American writer who was against the American war in Vietnam and she wrote for the New York Review books, several articles well quite a few actually and they were turned into a book called “The 17th Degree”.

She was there to find out what was going on and she went to Saigon in the South and then she went to North Vietnam which the Americans were bombing at the time so she was very brave.

She found out what the Americans were really doing, which was a kill anything that moves policy, bomb anything that moves policy and she tried to engage with the American public back home and tell them that story.

Kateule: and was that through her writing or was she taking photos at the time.

Well, no, she wasn’t the photographer, she took a few.

Kateule: Did she partner up with someone else?

So she was with some photo journalist and one of the other books which was inspirational was a book called “Another Vietnam” which was a book of photos taken by Vietnamese photographers, which you never see before so these images were surprising to me and inspiring because they showed what was going on; on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

They showed young people doing volunteer work in reconstruction in terms of air-raid warnings, they showed communities trying too defend their country and to defend their land.

There was a kind of connection that the jungle with the environment which came through what McCarthy saw and also came through in the photos.

Kateule: So they complemented each other quite well?

Yeah yeah yeah, so it helped me as a visual artist to pick up on that from McCarthy but also to notice that and select that from the photos that I used as a basis for my prints.

Kateule: So what prompted you to pick the photos that you did? Was it from when you read the book or was it the imagery itself?

So what I did was there are elements from McCarthy’s writing which connected with some of the photos for instance, the fact that it was very noticeable that women were coming into the struggle and she wrote about that.

I selected images where women were at the forefront of the struggle in North Vietnam.

Not necessarily combat but in terms of camouflaging bridges, in terms of air-raid volunteers to spot the bombs that were coming down.

Kateule: So would you say it draws parallels to the Second World War?

(Nods)

Kateule: and obviously when the guys went to war and they were making the you know the bomb casings and so on and so forth?

It was very much like that and there is one image which is my favourite was of women fishing in the Mekong Delta which was traditionally a man’s job before the war but because the men folk were taken for work, were in the army, women help with that struggle to feed families, to feed communities.

Kateule: so is this so much a celebration of the women movement at that time?

Well I mean yeah, in wartime women have always been asked to fill in for men and so this happening as you said in the Second World War but it also happened in the American war in Vietnam and probably around the world again.

I’ll just mention the other writer, Arundhati Roy she is most famous for winning the Booker Prize for literature, with “The God of Small Things.”

She wrote a book called “Walking with the Comrades” which is about the struggle in central India for the native tribal communities which were being forced of the land by basically global capitalism who wanted to strip-mine their homeland because it contains iron-ore

Kateule: all the raw materials

And Bauxite is the main one so there’s been a struggle going on there since about 1948 on various levels Arundhati Roy went to meet the people that were being described as India’s biggest internal security threat and what she found out was again community of people trying to defend themselves against dispossession and at the forefront of that were women. That was the connection for me.

Kateule: I know you you’ve done stuff like “Rock Against Racism

Yeah

Kateule: would you say you were almost a bit of a…I wouldn’t say political activist

Well I am.

Kateule: Okay, you are a political activist and would you say that comes through within your artwork, within your, you do writing as well right?

Yeah yeah yeah, but as a political activist and artist to find a way to do art which isn’t about campaigning is something that I have been interested in pursuing and I’ve found through McCarthy and through Roy a way of telling stories, which aren’t about campaign events but are about the history of people in struggle and that’s the way I am going.

Are you and artist, political activist or a mix of both?

Kateule: How does it work for you then are you an artist first, or are you a political activist first or are you kind of an amalgamation of both?

It’s a very interesting question. I think art drew me into politics.

The art that I liked when I was, a lot younger than I am now, had a message had a strong message and I had a message about human rights and had a message about equality.

My first inspiration was a German photomontage artist called John Heartfield.

His German name was, erm it escapes me, he’s better know as John Heartfield but he basically invented photomontage, I remember doing that when I was a student and stealing some of his ideas then and I’m a massive stealing…

Kateule: Borrowing ha ha

Yeah yeah well…

Kateule: because there is no such thing as original ideas.

Yeah yeah, Picasso didn’t copy he stole, he was happy to say he stole. So I’m not saying I’m Picasso obviously but you know like in any creative process you build up whats before and you adapt it, change it like the photographers celebrated in our HIP Fest this month.

Why did you use lino-print this project?

Kateule: You do prints right

Yeah

Kateule: now you went to lino-print?

Yeah yeah

Kateule: How did you get to doing lino print because from what I recall you are not lino printer

I was silk screen but I belong to something called Hull Print Collective and we are more formalised as a group now. Basically it’s an evening class at Hull College, you can do silk screen, you can do relief printing which is usually lino but could be wood print.

You can do intaglio printing, which is dry-point which I’m just learning to do and I’m hoping to introduce into my next project about the kite flying.

So again that’s a challenge I want to develop my own skills but finding lino, I mean everyone’s done lino at school, everyone’s cut themselves on lino, yeah I’m sure you have and it was really interesting talking to people who have tried it but I mean I’ve only been doing it for about 18 months but I’ve learned so much from my group and also from doing it.

It is time consuming, it’s a good job that I am retired I’ve got the time to do it.

Kateule: It was amazing

Thank you

Kateule: I wouldn’t have guessed that have only been doing it for what? the past year (18 months)?

Yeah, well I mean some of the earlier ones were a bit basic as I didn’t understand the medium but with the people that I work with at Hull College and the print collective, they are so knowledgeable and like, I mean I’m not a trained artist, I got a CSE Art grade 3, that’s just a fact.

What project are you working on next?

My new project is about its a more narrative project.

It’s about a Palestinian boy who want to fly a kite and it’s based on a photographic exhibition we had in the HIP Gallery by Pete Wiles sorry Rich Wiles who worked for the Palestinian refugee centre, Lajee Centre.

It’s loosely based on a photo book that he did but again I’m drawing on lots of different influences but it will be about trying to say the Palestinian cause is one worth fighting for.

How do you decide on the subject for your project?

Kateule: So how do you pick it because there is so much going on now, how do you decide on what you want to actually work on?

Well, one of the things was the, its personal, intersections of things that happen and experience so one of the inspirations was Rich Wiles exhibitions about what was going on in Palestinian/Israel and the Gaza strip last year (2017) and what I wanted to do was something a bit different and challenging from lino cut so I’ve been developing a few somewhat of an interest in other print making techniques, one called dry-point and I want to use that for making portraits of people linked into the story of kite flying in Gaza.

Kateule: Right, it has been a pleasure, I’m sure we will catch up again

I’m sure we will Kat

Kateule: Thank you very much for your time.

You’re very very welcome.

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