War Paint Exhibition - Preview and Robert Del Naja interview
Feature by Veronica Blake
IT COULD hardly be a coincidence that Robert Del Naja choose to launch his exhibition War Paint on March 20, the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
As I make my way to the gallery, the newspaper headlines feature stories from the front line as reporters brave their lives so that the Iraqi people can tell of the horror of life in Iraq five years after the invasion of their country.
Meanwhile, the creator of the Dodgy Dossier, Alistair Campbell, is remarkably silent on the day of the anniversary, as he works on an extended work of fiction while he, like his former employer, cash in on the chaos that is Iraq today.
It began with the promise of a quick victory. But after five years of bombs and bullets, of fractious political argument, and millions spent on investment, we are no closer to a stable Iraq.
The destruction of Iraq continues. It’s people killed amidst bombings and atrocities. A million or more dead, many more than two million driven from their homes, the social and economic infrastructure shattered.
In Afghanistan, the US military is spending $65,000 a minute and there are four times as many air strikes than in Iraq. The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in untold suffering for the people of these countries. Yet British troops remain in both countries.
War Paint is an exhibition of artworks inspired by the UNKLE album War Stories, with works from Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, Warren du Preez, Nick Thornton Jones, William Bankhead and Ben Drury.
When War Stories was released in 2007, James Lavelle collaborated with his long-term creative partner, Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D.
Del Naja was a young graffiti artist before becoming a vocalist. Indeed, his first ever live gig was as a DJ accompanying artwork he had produced in a gallery in Bristol.
He has produced work in various different media, and has published a book of his art. His work has featured in magazines and on record sleeves. And he took part in the largest ever British graffiti art battle alongside Wolverhampton artist, Goldie.
Robert Del Naja’s music, be it in the Wild Bunch or in Massive Attack, has always been associated with the Bristol sound and perhaps even typifies it. He has also worked with other Bristol based artists such as Tricky and Roni Size.
Of the Bristol scene Del Naja says: “We all grew up listening to punk music and funk stuff and those attitudes sort of snuck into our music. That sort of brought people from different circles together and maybe it wasn’t as ‘cultural melting pot’ as it all sounds but because Bristol is quite a small place, it becomes a lot more focused then.”
Del Naja is a key member of the wider Bristol Urban Culture scene.
“For us and other bands living in Bristol, the last 10 years were the most creative times of our lives,” say Robert as he greets friends and fellow artists and musicians who have joined him at the Lazirides Gallery to celebrate the opening of the War Paint exhibition.
Before Robert founded Massive Attack, he was one of the UK’s pioneering graffiti artists – and a member of the notorious Wild Bunch crew of the 1980s. He used painting as a visual representation of Massive Attack’s music and took on the artwork of the sleeves, posters and every tiny obsessive detail, from the stage design to the T-shirts.
James Lavelle recognised this obsession and they later formed a creative friendship, collaborating on two UNKLE album projects.
Used for the album artwork but never before seen on canvas in a gallery space, 3D’s paintings have been used on numerous other record covers as well as his own.
Massive Attack sell millions of albums, and Robert has written many film scores. He also find time to paint and has been an outspoken campaigner for Stop the War.
He supports Reprieve, the human rights organisation, and his friend, Clive Stafford Smith, will feature in the forthcoming Meltdown at the South Bank Centre which he is curating.
He feels strongly about the injustice of the war and those who have been locked up for years without trial, and feels that America is desperately in need of change of administration.
“I’m a big supporter of Barack Obama, I feel he is the man to bring that change,” he told me. “He never supported the war in Iraq, and he is not in the pockets of the arms trade, or the oil or pharmecutical companies. He is clean and he has the vision and policies to get America back on track – to get America working again.
“I’m shocked when I visit the States to see how many factories are closed down, the level of unemployment, the weak dollar. Bush is a disgrace; the worst president in the history of American poltitics, and they are spending trillions of dollars on Iraq and still keeping people in prison for years without trial. It is disgusting and a crime against humanity,” he continued.
“If you were locked up in an American Secret Prison like Guantanamo Bay for six years or more, would music be high on the list of things you’d miss in your solitary confinement?
“There would be plenty of other thing you wouldn’t have. You’d never see your family. Perhaps rarely read a book. But for the most part you’d never be allowed to listen to your tunes. There’s one exception of course… they torture you with their own favourite music!”
Binyam Mohammed spent several months in the Dark Prison in Kabul with the US blasting Eminem at him 24-hours a day. Binyajm said this psychological torture was worse than the razor blade taken to his penis in a Moroccan torture chamber.
“Physical pain is terrible but predictable, but when you feel your sanity slipping away, that’s exponentialy worse. It made me think about it, and I know I’d rather lose my hearing, my voice or my sight before I’d want to lose my mind,” said Del Naja.
“It’s the 21st Century, not the Middle Ages. It’s time to pull the plug on torture, including torture by music.”
The paintings show looming, faceless figures staring out, their internal organs just apparent through the flimsy flesh. Skeletal figures stand amidst war zones reminiscent of terrorist attacks. Half-people, negatives of themselves, lumber lawless, broken and raging.
James Lavelle, who collaborated in the exhibition, set up his label Mo Wax in 1993, and formed the music outfit UNKLE a year later. In 2007, he released War Stories on his new label, Surrender All.
The packaging featured paintings specially commissioned by Del Naja that form the basis of this exhibition.
All the artists in the show have been working together under the UNKLE umbrella for years. Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones are two of the photographic industry’s leading artists, and recently worked with Alexander McQueen on the creative direction for his S/S 2008 show in Paris, creating a lightform installation as a centrepiece.
They have also collaborated extensively with Björk and Massive Attack in the past, and have provided artwork for the last two UNKLE albums.
Ben Drury has worked with Dizzee Rascal and designed for UNKLE for the last 16 years, as has William Bankhead, who has worked for The Good, The Bad & The Queen.
As part of the War Paint exhibition, there will also be a limited edition poster available from the gallery to accompany the show.
War Paint runs at the Lazirides Gallery, in Greek Street, Soho, London, until April 25.