In January 2009 Jane Lawson, along with thousands of others, was reading the blog her friend Sharyn Lock was writing from Gaza, at the time under attack from Israeli forces by land, sea and air. Lock had travelled to the besieged territory on board the last of the blockade-breaking Free Gaza Movement ships to land before the Israeli navy started using military force against them. As well as writing deeply moving and often horrific accounts of the effects of the December 2008-January 2009 invasion, Lock was volunteering with the Red Crescent ambulance service.
Lawson, a Manchester-based artist who at the time was experimenting with new techniques after nearly twenty years of working in textile art and design, responded to the images and stories of death and destruction by creating a series of unique prints of some of Gaza’s children.
“All of the children are kids whose photos I saw on Sharyn’s blog,” says Lawson. “I found I wanted to do a piece based on the images of some of the children who had died in Gaza, but I also wanted to do something pointing out that there are many children who are still alive and who will stay alive and we need to think about them too.”
One of the children depicted in the prints Lawson eventually produced is Mona Samouni, who lost dozens of her relatives over four days in which Israeli forces trapped her and her family in two homes, which were then sporadically shelled. Another, Farah al Helou, aged one, slowly bled to death from a stomach wound during the 14 hours her family spent in a ditch by the side of a road, while Israeli soldiers stopped ambulances from reaching them. Her mother breastfed Farah in an effort to comfort her as she died.
Picking which children to feature in the artworks was, Lawson admits, a difficult and sometimes contradictory task. On one hand she wanted to highlight the conditions under which Gaza’s children are forced to grow up. As well as invasions and airstrikes, many face malnutrition because of Israeli restrictions on supplies entering Gaza. Education and healthcare have also been hit by the blockade. “But partly it had to be about which images were suitable visually, the actual quality of the images themselves,” she admits.
The actual prints were produced using a simple technique of reproducing images from Lock’s blog on an ordinary computer printer, then wetting them and transferring the images onto different types of paper, including cartridge paper, sugar paper and layout card. “Every time you do this it’s different,” says Lawson, “and it’s hard to control what the finished result will be like.”
Even during this process, contradictions emerged between the act of creating a piece of art and the horrific stories which lie behind the pictures. “With the one child who had died, I reversed the colours of the photograph, like an old film negative. It meant that the images underwent two transformations, one when the photo was printed and one when the wetted image was made. The result was a bit of a double-edged thing, because the colours are all blue and turquoise and mauve and they’re quite beautiful. I’m still not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, because they’re showing something hideous and really upsetting and I’m not sure how good it is to make that beautiful… but they’re very ghostly, very cold colours, so maybe that’s right.”
“I got quite excited by the technique I was using,” Lawson continues, “but then every so often I would come back and remember what I was doing. Reading Sharyn’s blog in the comfort of my own home, it’s ridiculous to say I felt like I had no right to get upset, because it’s upsetting and anyone who reads it should get upset because such terrible things happen. But I think most creative people will be aware that there are times when you just get caught up and do your work creatively and that can feel quite strange. To me it felt quite strange and morally questionable at times…”
Lawson is no stranger to treading the fine line between art and politics. She was one of the founders of Ultimate Holding Company (UHC), the radical art collective which in 2003 built a functioning replica of Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray – complete with prisoners and guards – in Hulme, and in 2009 tattooed a hundred volunteers with endangered British plant and animal species as part of its ExtInked exhibition.
Even during ten years as a knitwear designer for labels like Paul Smith and Duffer of St George, Lawson was interested in sustainability issues. “I tried to develop low impact knitwear using hemp, yarn made from recycled yarn, organic cotton and linen,” she says. But she admits that her efforts met with limited success, “mainly because it was hard to get decent colours at the time, and also because of the cost.”
But, says Lawson, politics remain at the heart of the art she creates. “It needs to come from the heart if you’re going to do anything creative,” she says. “Because of my preoccupations over the last 12 or 15 years of activism that’s always going to be a part of what I do.” And of the series of images of the children of Gaza, which will be sold to raise funds for equipment for Gaza’s paramedics, she says, “I always hoped that some part of this project would be useful for Palestine. I’m very happy for these images to go out into the world.”
Ten framed original prints from Jane Lawson’s series of images of Gazan children will be auctioned in aid of Defend the Rescuers, which raises funds to buy essential protective equipment for paramedics and ambulance crews in Gaza. The sale will take place at the launch of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, the book based on Sharyn Lock’s writings from Gaza, 29 January at the Green Room.