Allan Harding MacKay

War Artist Assignments

Under contract with the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) the artist was assigned to two war zones.

In March 1993 the artist went to Somalia as part of CAPCAP (Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artist Program). In July 2002 the artist, by invitation, went to Afghanistan to participate in the pilot launch of CFAP (Canadian Forces Artists Program).

The Somalia Series and Afghan Series are comprised of the total works produced from these war artist experiences and assignments and is based on still and video footage shot in various locations in Somalia and the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan.

The variety of works produced include videos, paintings, works on paper, special projects, photo projects and a theatre production.

The Canadian War Museum is in possession of the largest holdings from these two assignments.

Excerpt of an interview with John Will and AHM from the exhibition publication "Observing the Observer"published by Confederation Centre Museum & Art Gallery

[JW] In 1993, you went from the secure enclave of a residency at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown to an arid and politically charged place. What possessed you to go to Somalia?

[AHM] The residence studio was adjacent to the Charlottetown Cenotaph, which dedicated in 1925, commemorated veterans of WWI, and later WWII and the Korean War. The shadow of the cenotaph suggested to me that the world had to contain more possibilities than my suffocating subjectivity, and it occurred to me that artists were historically part of military operations. When I returned to my studio in Toronto,I made an application to the Canadian military who were contracting artists for foreign and domestic assignments. My application was successful and I headed for Somalia from Canadian Forces Base Trenton in March 1993.

[JW] What exactly did you do there, and what resulted from the images and ideas you came away with?

[AHM] My activities were in large measure circumscribed by the agenda that the military had established for my movements and those of the other civilians on the trip who included print and photojournalists from Canada. Having said that, and embedded as we were, the six days were packed with experiences of an assortment of locations,from the military compound in the village of Belet Huen and an extraordinary dawn visit to the village abattoir, an armed personnel carrier driving along the green line in devastated Mogadishu, and an overnight patrol and meeting up in the desert with French legionnaires who treated us to delectable croissants. At that moment in 1993, I was the only one of the journalist entourage who carried a video camera and as a result,collected an amazing bank of moving and still images. The result of this foresight in bringing the video camera, as wisely suggested by Ted Zuber, a Canadian war artist during the Gulf War, led to a number of projects after my return. I also came away with the idea that military force used for humanitarian ends was a goal to be desired and worth fighting for. The Somalia Yellow series resulted in exhibitions of drawings, paintings, videos, book works, prints, magazine projects, a TV documentary aired on CBC national television and a theatre production with the One Yellow Rabbit Ensemble that opened in Calgary and travelled to Prague and Glasgow.

[JW] I think one of the least discussed of the resulting projects was the theatrical piece you mentioned, Somalia Yellow, produced by One Yellow Rabbit Ensemble. Your performance in that play was stunning, especially in view of the fact that pretty much all you did was just sit there. Many people thought you stole the show. Calgary artist Chris Cran, told me that the professional actors were somewhat miffed at your upstaging. Didn't they realize that you were dipping deep into earlier experiments with your previously mentioned private performance pieces and your numerous audio art tapes?

[AHM] If the truth be known, the Rabbits made me look good. The risk of taking a non-professional actor (whose only experience with thespian life was the solitary characters developed in his audio works and quirky spontaneous performances), placing him center stage and constructing an entire performance around his storyand images was certainly an artistic challenge for director Blake Brooker, Denise Clark and the ensemble.

Their professional savvy was demonstrated in taking stage advantage of the "non-actor" persona and placing the script at hand on stage for my reference and creating a mix of documentary fact and poetic fiction. It was pure fate that I would be working with the theatre group whose approach to professional theatre and performance I most admired. To be involved with this creative team on stage, off stage and in travel, was no doubt a highlight of my career and quite a leap from my usual solitary studio activity to a method of collaboration and the stage of real time public scrutiny.

[JW] In 2002, again at the invitation of the Canadian military, you travelled to Afghanistan as an embedded observer. How was the work different from your various Somalia projects and, generally, after having served two "tours of duty," what is your perception of your role as a combat artist?

[AHM] The brief time I spent in Afghanistan was dramatically different in experience, as were the art projects in comparison to the Somalia experience in 1993. I was invited to Afghanistan as part of a pilot project that was test-driving the establishment of the newly minted Canadian Forces Artists Program. My window of time was four days on the ground at Kandahar airfield and its immediate environs.

My movements were restricted to this site and, except for a short trip to the Tarnac Farm area where friendly fire by American air crews killed and wounded Canadian troops on the ground, my days were spent observing and capturing on video—approximately four hours of tape—the activities of the airfield and environs, as well as flying in and out of Camp Mirage in the United Arab Emirates.

Although I produced a number of works on paper, some of which became part of the Department of Defence holdings, it took me at least five years to digest what the experience meant and what artistic claim I could exercise over the source images that resulted from the video shot during the assignment.- The exhibition Double Bind, was shown at the Sir Wilfrid Laurier University Gallery in 2007 and helped position the images in a broader context, drawing on historic poetry and language to convey my unease with the social forces that rattle on with an ever-repeating rationale for wars and conflict.

I am truly at a loss to speak with any confidence about what role an artist has in witnessing conflicts. I can, however, make a distinction between my perception of the mainstream journalist role and that of the artist. In Somalia, I was part of a small entourage of photo and print journalists. We all had cameras, so in effect our method of recording was similar. Their concern for production values was driven by an agenda of capturing newsworthy visual moments, even if constructed and predetermined, reflecting their role as members of a news/image industry. I, on the other hand, was wandering and randomly photographing and filming, confident that whatever its qualities or content, what I captured could be utilized to make something of artistic interest. The stand-alone images of the journalists may historically survive the test of time. Yet, I continue to rework my images while the journalists have moved on to other assignments. These observations clarified for me that the relationship and sense of ownership of material and content is significantly different for an independent artist and a news journalist (notwithstanding there are independent journalists who operate much as artists do, such as Rita Leister). It comes down to issues of subjectivity, observational stance, ownership and devotion to the content and its transformative possibilities over time. How the images of the journalist and the artist operate in dynamic social circumstances, and how they will be received through the changing lens of the years, is beyond my ability to judge at this point.

Sun. Jan. 11, 2004

A year ago, to reflect the changing role of the Canadian Forces, Canada's war art program was revived. Three artists joined military personnel who were deployed to Operation Apollo.

One artist was sent on a frigate that patrolled the Arabian Sea; another went with the air force. And Allan MacKay joined group troops in Afghanistan, to capture the conflict on canvas.

The artists weren't paid for their work; instead they were given army rations for the time they spent on their assignments on this pilot project.

MacKay had done this before, producing drawings during his time with troops in Somalia in 1993.

This time, his technique went hi-tech. He took along a digital camera to the Kandahar region. Then he doctored the digital photos with charcoal and then wax ... a method creating a moment, a mood.

In one canvas, Canadian soldiers meet up with the Northern Alliance, a rag tag army in a bombed out guard post. Unlike American soldiers nearby, crouched and in hiding, the Canadians try a different approach: They engage the Afghanis in a moment of play.

MacKay says the piece captures the abilities of the Canadians "to find a middle ground … to identify allies and not feel that everyone is an enemy."

The tradition of artists following Canada's soldiers into the trenches began in the First World War. Nova Scotia artist Alex Colville is one of Canada's most recognized war artists. But by the end of the Second World War Canada was left with no military art program.

This revival has attracted a great deal of interest. Another 21 artists are set to join the program which is open to painters, sculptors and poets.

Dr. John MacFarlane, who runs the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP), says it's important to capture war from the artist's eye.

"When I look at a photograph I see what was there in detail," he says. "When I look at a painting I see what that person saw and felt."


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Signals in the Dark Symposium - Allan Harding MacKay: Double Bind from Blackwood Gallery on Vimeo.

Symposium Signals in the Dark: Art in the Shadow of War

Organized by Séamus Kealy, Blackwood Gallery and John Paul Ricco, Professor at the Centre for Visual and Media Culture, Univeristy of Toronto Mississauga. Recorded January 25th 2008 at the MiST Theatre, University of Toronto Mississauaga

Allan Harding MacKay is a visual artist working in Canada.

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