CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM–19950091-001
Gertrude Kearns has attracted a lot of press as a war artist over the last few years. Much of it centred on her painting Somalia #2, Without Conscience, which is one of five of her works on display in the Canadian War Museum. This graphic piece depicts Canadian soldier Clayton Matchee, who in 1993 was serving in Somalia with the now-disbanded Airborne Regiment, holding a metal bar against the neck of Somali teenager Shidane Arone. The painting became the focal point of much heated discussion and controversy in the months following the museum’s opening last May (Painting Stirs Controversy, September/October 2005).
Born in Canada in 1950, Kearns is a self-taught artist who has been exhibiting her work, primarily in the Toronto area, since 1983. In 1991, the Persian Gulf War got her thinking about the need for the use of power, and she began working on war-related themes.
In the mid-90s, she created six large portraits of Roméo Dallaire in another dramatic series titled UNdone: Dallaire/ Rwanda. In these works Kearns buries an image of the general’s face in a camouflage pattern, and in doing so depicts a man overwhelmed and unable to reverse the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. At the time, Dallaire commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda. With this simple pattern, Kearns layers her work with meaning. Two of these canvases, titled Dallaire #3 and Dallaire #6, are on display in the museum.
The artist clearly needs to get inside each theme she paints. “I suppose one can run the risk of exhausting ones creative drive in the effort to live a situation,” she wrote in 2001. “It sometimes feels bizarre to be trying to experience something through the imagination which others, many, many others, might give anything to forget…. Maybe it’s a desire to live vicariously…to reflect on heroism and morality–hopefully into some art that suggests a play of conscience.”
She didn’t know what her future would hold when she wrote those words, but she would soon witness the military from the inside. From Dec. 28, 2005, until Jan. 27, 2006, she was embedded with Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, and she has been tasked to create five paintings from that experience. Once these works are completed, they will be displayed at the Canadian military’s headquarters in Afghanistan.
Kearns is political and controversial. She works to present a truth that is not always comfortable. Indeed, it is often jarring. But perhaps in these times, Kearns is needed. Her portraits of Dallaire certainly show that good guys don’t always win.
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