The Preacher by George Gittoes

George Gittoes

The Preacher, 1995, Oil on canvas, 181 x 250 cm, The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, NGA 2016.52, © George Gittoes

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Neither Jew nor Gentile

Commentary by
Read by Jennifer Sliwka

In 1995 Australian artist and film maker George Gittoes was in Rwanda, documenting the work of UN peace keeping forces. This coincided with the one year anniversary of the horrendous civil war which had left over a million people dead. Inspired by revenge, local Rwandan soldiers began to attack the crowds who had gathered hoping for the protection of the UN forces. Many thousands lost their lives that day and Gittoes worked tirelessly alongside the 24 medical personnel to save lives and treat the injured. He also took photographs of the perpetrators which were later used at a war crimes tribunal.

Amongst the frightened crowd he came across a man in a yellow coat who was reading words from the Bible out loud:

This afternoon … I came into a group who were calm. Though bursts of machine gun fire surrounded them—continually getting closer with terrifying inevitability—they remained a solid congregation—bound together not by walls, but by prayer. A solitary preacher read to them from a ragged bible. He spoke in French with a thick dialect—his voice hoarse and broken—but I could recognize the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. [Matthew 5:8] (Sydney Morning Herald 1995: 14)

The figure in Gittoes’s painting directly addresses the eyes of the viewer. His gesture has the appearance of an appeal to be witnessed and remembered. The work makes reference to other works that have focused on history’s victims, such as Francisco Goya’s Third of May 1808, and countless depictions of Christ who—in the face of betrayal and violence—responded with compassion.

This preacher is a Christ figure. He testifies in a dire situation. He asks us to witness the power of love in the face of a hatred based on racial difference.

Gittoes said at the time: ‘[t]he Preacher, represents what I think religion should be, raise people up, make people feel human and spiritually alive and give them courage and faith. When I returned home I was carrying this terrible imagery in my head. I have a wife and two children. I didn’t want to go straight into the studio and start painting dead children. The one powerful positive image I had was the preacher. I could see him in his yellow coat and I could feel his courage’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1995: 14).



1995. ‘Preacher takes Prize, 15th December 1995’, Sydney Morning Herald, p.14

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