The art of peace protests

Hard-hitting: Union Mask, 2003. (Image � Peter Kennard).
Hard-hitting: Union Mask, 2003. (Image � Peter Kennard).
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A new exhibition in Sheffield showcases celebrated artist Peter Kennard’s powerful imagery for the CND movement. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Unapologetically provocative, sometimes shocking and always thought-provoking, the work of veteran artist Peter Kennard has consistently communicated a powerful anti-war message for the past fifty years.

A committed peace campaigner for most of his life, Kennard has long been associated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, creating hard-hitting imagery eloquently advocating its cause, and to coinicide with the movement’s 60th anniversary this year an exhibition of Kennard’s work opened in Sheffield last month.

Art Against War: Peter Kennard and the CND Movement, which runs at the city’s Millennium Gallery until October, is the final show in Sheffield Museums and Galleries’ season of exhibitions about protest and activism, and features over a hundred of the artist’s era-defining works across a range of media.

Kennard has been at the cutting edge of political art since first making work protesting against the Vietnam War in 1968 and in the five decades since, through photomontage, installation, vitrines and painting he has fearlessly – and wittily – confronted the pressing issues of the day. The exhibition includes material he has produced for CND as well as designs created for the Stop the War Coalition.

On display are some of his most well-known works such as his famous 1981 reworking of Constable’s The Haywain, Haywain with Cruise Missiles.

“I wanted to show all my work that was related to Nuclear Disarmament and anti-militarism and I wanted to make it very accessible,” says Kennard. “So I selected lots of posters and photomontages, as well as T-shirts, badges and book covers.” It demonstrates just how creative Kennard has been in getting his work – and his message – out into the world. It’s an exhibition that also feels very timely. Kennard’s work has certainly not lost any of its resonance or relevance. One of the pieces featured is Nuclear Clock, depicting the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock which measures the potential for man-made global catastrophe.

“Because of all the sabre rattling that’s going on among world leaders at the moment the atomic nuclear clock is now at two minutes to midnight,” says Kennard.

The last time that happened was in 1958 and it has spurred Kennard into action. “All my recent work has been about arms manufacturers, the profits they are making and how those weapons are being used,” he says.

He sees his role as an artist as finding ways to engage people. “I don’t think art can change things on its own but if it’s allied to social movements and pressure groups, then an image can have an impact,” he says. “I have had lots of emails from people saying they have joined Amnesty or CND after seeing one of my images, so I think it is really important.”

The fact that his work is on display in Sheffield is significant and meaningful. “I feel privileged to be able to show my work there,” he says. “It is a city where protest against the horrors of war and activism for social justice goes back a long way through the trade union and peace movements. We need to campaign against the proliferation of weaponry now more than ever.”

Art Against War, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, to October 7. Free entry.