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20 Years of Stop the War
kennardphillipps, Photo Op (2005)Courtesy of kennardphillipps

Marking 20 years of Stop the War with Banksy, Vivienne Westwood, and more

Previously-unreleased music by Brian Eno also features in a new anniversary show, alongside artwork by Ben Eine, kennardphillipps, David Gentleman, and more

This weekend, a series of events and exhibitions have taken place across New York City to commemorate the almost 3,000 lives lost during the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. At the same time, however, the 20th anniversary – which falls shortly after the controversial withdrawal of US and UK troops from Afghanistan – places a spotlight on the invasion launched by George Bush in retaliation, and the long shadow cast by the so-called War on Terror.

Between the joint US and UK assault in October 2001, and the recent withdrawal of their military presence – which has seen the Taliban seize power over Kabul two decades later – an estimated 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan warzone. According to Brown University’s “Costs of War” study, more than 71,000 of these deaths have been labelled civilian casualties: the result of crossfire, bombings, ground raids, and airstrikes.

Founded in the weeks following 9/11, the Stop the War Coalition has dedicated itself to ending conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, and elsewhere, putting pressure on the British establishment. The organisation has helped lead some of the largest protests ever held in Britain, including the 2003 demonstrations against the Iraq War and the 2013 protests against David Cameron’s bid for military strikes in Syria.

A new exhibition at East London’s Nunnery Gallery, 20 Years of Stop the War: A Visual Retrospective, highlights these mass acts of anti-war opposition. Importantly, it also traces the role that artists have played in the movement since 2001, including work from a diverse mix of street artists, musicians, fashion designers, and photographers that have “been on the front line from the beginning”.

“These are major works of art,” says Zayna Al-Saleh, activist and 20 Years of Stop the War curator, pointing to kennardphillipps’ iconic image of Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of a blazing oil field in Iraq, which formed part of a series of anti-war posters printed on newsprint in 2005. Previously-unreleased music by Brian Eno provides a bleak soundtrack, listing the broken promises of wartime politicians over a dystopian soundscape.

The show also features a caricature of Boris Johnson – wearing a suit that incorporates elements of the star spangled banner and Union Jack – painted by Vivienne Westwood as a placard for London’s anti-Trump protests in 2019, and reproduced as a charitable print titled Trumpette. “War and its production is a suicide economy. We survive on perpetual war,” Westwood says of the artwork, echoing the anti-war sentiments expressed at her caged canary protest outside London’s Old Bailey last year.

Elsewhere, a poster from David Gentleman’s 2008 installation of blood splats in Parliament Square hangs alongside original Banksy placards: images of a child hugging a bomb, a smiley-faced Grim Reaper, and an attack helicopter with a Disney-style bow on its blades, labelled “Wrong War”. Al-Saleh notes the significance of “Britain’s best-loved artist” showing solidarity with Stop the War’s messaging. “He has a relatability,” she says. “He talks about issues that affect all of us, that other artists might not touch on.” 

“The protest movement and street artists both occupy the same space, which is the streets,” continues Al-Saleh. “They have a similar type of connection to landmarks and to making a statement unapologetically, in front of everybody.”

Embodying this shared belief in direct statements at the Nunnery Gallery show is a film by Palestinian street artist Taqi Spateen and filmmaker Bilal Alkhatib. The film references a quote by the former Stop the War president and late Labour MP Tony Benn – “If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people” – and occupies a space on the Israeli separation wall close to Banksy’s satirical Walled Off Hotel.

“It’s not only a tribute to the anti-war movement and Tony Benn,” Al-Saleh explains, “but also to the British artists that we’re exhibiting that have spoken out against injustice, war, apartheid, and really everything that Stop the War is about.”

Of course, a 20 year anniversary of the Stop the War movement also draws attention to the fact that war hasn’t stopped, despite artists’ and activists’ best efforts. However, Lindsey German, a founding member and convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, says that they have made a difference, raising public awareness that contributed to David Cameron’s defeat in Parliament in 2013, as well as the election of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“I think the movement will go on as long as these wars keep going on,” German says. “Unfortunately there’s not a lot of sign that they’ll be ending anytime soon. We don’t see (the exhibition) as a celebration. We see it as a commemoration. It’s something that it’s important to mark.”

20 Years of Stop the War: A Visual Retrospective runs at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery until September 19. Wach Taqi Spateen and Bilal Alkhatib’s short film below.