Guo Jian and Ah Xian

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Guo Jian. A picture I took at White Rabbit gallery earlier in 2016.

An extraordinary thing happened at the Casula Powerhouse last Friday night.

It was the opening night of the new Refugees exhibition, which includes the now Sydney-based Chinese artists Ah Xian and Guo Jian.

Cast your mind back to 1989 and the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters by government armed forces.

Ah Xian and Guo Jian were both there, both witnesses to the slaughter.

Guo Jian was a student protester and hunger striker inside the square. Ah Xian, a commercial artist at the time, had cycled to the perimeter of the square every day to see what was going on.

Ah Xian had told me a few weeks ago about his memories of Tiananmen Square. He had seen many bodies stacked on top of one another in a bicycle shed at Fuxing Hospital. He presumed that the hospital was overflowing with the dead and dying, and that the shed was a makeshift morgue. I asked Ah Xian who would have put the bodies in the shed, but he wasn’t sure.

Fast forward to last Friday night at Casula. I’m chatting with Guo Jian, telling him about my interview with Ah Xian. When I tell him about the bicycle shed with bodies in it, Guo Jian says: “Yes, I was one of the people putting them there”.


Ah Xian in a photograph I took of him in July 2016.

Guo Jian recalled slipping on blood an inch deep on the ground, and seeing people die before his eyes.

So here were these two men, 27 years after they had both been at Tiananmen Square. Somehow, to me, it seemed quite remarkable.

Ah Xian did his first piece of performance art on opening night of Refugees. For three hours he sat completely still in a purpose-made box. Only his head and chest were visible through a perspex display case at the top of the box.

Those who know Ah Xian’s porcelain painted busts will immediately recognise the similarity between them and the performance.

Guo Jian’s work in the Casula Powerhouse exhibition included a picture that he made especially for the show.


Picturesque Scenery No. 27, by Guo Jian. Hanging in Refugees exhibition at Casula Powerhouse.

Titled Picturesque Scenery No. 27, the work is a pigment print on photo paper in 26 panels. It exactly mimics a famous, Song-dynasty painting of fish swimming in a pond.

However, get up close to Guo Jian’s version, and you can see the picture is made up of literally millions of tiny photographs of people’s faces.

These came from Guo Jian’s home town, which is noted for its beauty.

But Guo Jian was appalled to return there after many years to find enormous amounts of rubbish in the river whose pure water he often drank as a child. He photographed the celebrity faces on wrappers discarded in the river, and now uses them as elements in giant collages. It is only up close that the viewer can see these tiny faces, not much larger than a match head.

Elizabeth Fortescue, August 1, 2016












Snow Monkey: a review of George Gittoes’ new film at its Sydney premiere

Shazia, from George Gittoes' documentary film, Snow Monkey. Picture supplied by George Gittoes.

Shazia, from George Gittoes’ documentary film, Snow Monkey. Picture supplied by George Gittoes.

I’ve just been getting to know some of the street kids in the roughest parts of Jalalabad. This is Afghanistan’s second largest city, and reportedly the most dangerous city on earth.

I met wide-eyed, gorgeous little Gul Mina, aged about five, who collects discarded cans in hessian bags and sells them for a few rupees to support her large family.

I met Irfan, a delightful nine-year-old boy whose father does little but smoke hashish. Irfan sells ice creams from a  rickety little cart filled with ice, as do many of the street kids of Jalalabad. This is how they help families survive.

I met Saludin, another ice cream boy. His dad is a polio victim who endures taunts of “dog” and “donkey” when he walks the streets begging on all fours.

There was Zabi, a lad with Hollywood looks who is certainly destined to become a filmmaker.

I met Steel, a boy of only nine or 10, whose hard and life-damaged face strikes fear into young and old. Steel heads a notorious Jalalabad gang and wields a razor, a knife or a syringe in order to extort money.

I met little Shazia, aged 11. Pretty as a princess, though dressed in rags, she is the devoted girlfriend of Steel. Shazia and Steel have vowed to marry. But only, says Shazia, if Steel gives up his gang and leads a better life. She doesn’t want to be married to a gangster – even one who declares he would die to protect her.

Steel, gang leader. From the documentary film Snow Monkey, by George Gittoes. Picture supplied by Gittoes.

Steel, gang leader. From the documentary film Snow Monkey, by George Gittoes. Picture supplied by Gittoes.

So I didn’t actually meet these kids in Jalalabad. I’ve never even been to Jalalabad. But after watching George Gittoes’ new documentary film, Snow Monkey, at its Sydney premiere tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, I feel as though I’d been right there with them.

In Snow Monkey, Gittoes tells the story of how he invited the kids into the Yellow House that he and partner Hellen Rose set up in Jalalabad in 2011 as a safe house of creativity for men, women and children. The Yellow House is full of music and art, and local people come here to learn acting and filmmaking.

In Snow Monkey, the daily survival struggle of the Jalalabad street kids is carved in high relief against the seething, crazy, dog-eat-dog life of Jalalabad. But humour is never far from Gittoes’ filmmaking, leavening those scenes which are truly grisly. The most challenging scenes in Snow Monkey, shot by Zabi who learned to use a cinecamera from Gittoes at the Yellow House, are of the sickening carnage caused by a suicide bomber who self-detonated outside the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad in April.

Snow Monkey is a tour de force by Gittoes, who received the Sydney Peace Prize last night (November 10, 2015). Receiving the prize from Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Gittoes spoke about his many decades as a witness to the atrocities inflicted by people against people. He also spoke about the resilient spirit which propels many war victims to rise above the truly shocking horrors visited on them by conflict.

Jalalabad ice cream boys (left to right) Irfan, Saludin and Zabi. Picture supplied by George Gittoes.

Jalalabad ice cream boys (left to right) Irfan, Saludin and Zabi. Picture supplied by George Gittoes.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia is hosting free screenings of Snow Monkey, as well as some of Gittoes’ other documentary films. You would be doing yourself a favour if you, too, spend time and get to know the street kids of Jalalabad.

Elizabeth Fortescue, November 11, 2015, Sydney.