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Contemporary War Artists: John Keane: The Gulf War

'Death Squad' by John Keane
During the summer of 1990 John Keane was commissioned as the Museum's 'official recorder' in the Gulf. (The use of the term 'war artist' was discouraged as at that time, August 1990, Britain and America were not 'at war' with Iraq, although the build-up of United Nations forces in Saudi Arabia had begun.) The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was condemned by the United Nations Security Council which gave Saddam Hussein's forces a deadline for withdrawal. There was a tense six-month delay between Keane's acceptance of the commission and his departure to Saudi Arabia after the U.N. deadline had expired.

He arrived in Bahrain in early February 1991 and spent a month with British troops in the desert prior to the start of the Ground Offensive. After a brief sojourn on board a Royal Navy vessel patrolling the Persian Gulf, he spent five days in Kuwait City after liberation and saw the burning oil-wells and the desolation of the Basra Road.

Keane used a camera and a video recorder rather than a sketchbook. He was given the same support and access to events as members of the press pool although once he arrived in Kuwait he was able to dictate his own schedule using a member of the Kuwaiti Resistance to guide him. On his return he began to make paintings based on his experiences and 35 works were exhibited the following year at the Imperial War Museum (26 March - 31 May 1992). The exhibition later toured other UK venues.

Keane had additional support from The Guardian newspaper when he travelled to the Gulf; the Guardian also sponsored the exhibition catalogue. He had almost a year to produce the work for the show and as the opening date drew near press interest in what he was doing became intense. A double-page spread in The Evening Standard let the cat out of the bag and caused an uproar in the media. Mickey Mouse at the Front was mis-interpreted as Mickey Mouse sitting on a lavatory. It was thought to be a trivialisation of the conflict and a criticism of the American rôle in the Gulf War. Concern was also expressed over the 'censorship' of one work in the show which had pages of the Koran (which Keane had found in the desert) pasted around the edge. The work was withdrawn from show in London as it was thought to be potentially offensive to Muslims.

The Museum selected two oil paintings and two drawings from the exhibition as completion of Keane's commission. In addition, he deposited his photographs and video recordings in the Photograph and Film and Video Archives of the Imperial War Museum.

Further Reading John Keane - Gulf, Imperial War Museum exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Press Cuttings Archive, Department of Art, IWM
John Keane: Conflicts of Interest by Mark Lawson, Mainstream Publishing Company, Edinburgh, 1995
Other Collections The IWM Sound Archive has a recorded interview with the artist.
The IWM Photograph Archive holds a collection of photographs taken by the artist.
Flowers East, 82 Kingsland Road London (telephone +44 (0)20 7920 7777 website: deal with John Keane's work.
Photographic Reference All the works were photographed in black and white and the photographic record, including those works now in the Museum's collection, can be consulted in the Print Room. Black and white reference photographs of IWM works may be ordered (allow 4 weeks).