Reading Time: 5 a few minutes
For over five decades, the activist, photographer and artist has been creating photomontages that respond to the politics of the time. We visit their dynamic Hackney studio to find out more about his life’s work
“Art in itself doesn’t change something, ” says Peter Kennard. “But when it’s lined up to a political movement, it becomes its visual arm. ” We are sitting in his eastern London studio, surrounded by posters and clippings of his political photomontages, produced over almost five decades. From war and worldwide poverty, to Thatcherism, austerity and the climate crisis, the particular 72-year-old artist has been activities on injustices since their early twenties. “An image can get to people immediately, ” he says. “Rather than keeping my work in the art world, it becomes part of the protest movement. And that movement needs visual work to get ideas across. ”
Kennard’s recording studio is located in London Fields, Hackney. When he’s not looking after his grandchildren or attending a protest, most days begin with a 30-minute stroll from his home of 35 years in Stoke Newington, followed by two cups of black coffee on entrance. Photographs, posters and incomplete works are taped hastily across the studio walls, plus pens and tools fill mugs lining the window sills. His collection of textbooks and miscellaneous items – hats, loose wires, a typewriter – decorate the particular shelves. Kennard’s archive can be housed in green boxes stacked from floor in order to ceiling. Here, he stores most of his original art work; reproductions of his work in magazines, newspapers, posters plus books, and documents concerning the causes he champions. “It’s not just an archive, in this sense, it’s social background, ” he says.
“When I found out about the atrocities that were taking place in Vietnam, I wanted to find a way to create work that related to that. That’s why I started using photographs. I wanted to get away from work that had to be in the gallery, and I noticed the leftist magazines plus newspapers of that time as being a good way to get my workout there. ”
As well as being an artist, Kennard is professor of political artwork at Royal College of Art, where he has taught for 25 years. The facilities plays an important role both in his practice and function life – especially when the pandemic forced education on-line. “It’s important to keep a working space, ” says Kennard. “Even if I’m not really coming up with a lot of ideas, it’s good to be around the materials, because suddenly something will click… You start thinking visually rather than intellectually. Everything is similar to a visual dictionary associated with ideas. ”
A long term Londoner, born-and-raised in Paddington, Kennard studied fine art in Byam Shaw School of Art then the Slade School of Fine Art. A turning point came during the anti-Vietnam War protests in 1968. “That’s when I became politicised, ” he says. “When I found out about the atrocities that were taking place in Vietnam, I wanted to locate a way to make work that related to that. That’s exactly why I started using photos. ” Kennard freelanced for your left-leaning newspaper Workers Press, while living out of a Camden squat and working night shifts as a telephonist for the Post Office. “I desired to get away from work that needed to be in the gallery, and I noticed the leftist magazines and newspapers of that time like a good way to get my work out there, ” he says.
“Getting the message out to the people who are engaged in the problems that I’m addressing is definitely important. Photomontage is a public medium. It deals with pictures everyone’s seeing every day, yet you’re putting them jointly in a way that shows what’s behind them. ”
In the early-70s, there is no digital printing, copying and certainly no Photoshop. “I spent many hours in the darkroom, making different sized images and cutting things up, ” says Kennard. “A lot of these images are quite crude… I like the fact that you can see the particular breaks because they’re buildings and are not meant to seem like reality. ” Kennard procured images from picture your local library, or magazines like The Sunday Moments Magazine and Der Spiegel. “I observe these photos as words and phrases that you form into sentences, ” he says, gesturing towards the images around him. “You put them all together, and it is like creating a chapter in the book. ”
Although the process is important, for Kennard the achievements of a final image is in its distribution. “The way each goes out into the world is as important as the original, ” says the artist, whose pictures have been used in The Guardian, New Statesman, NME, The Sunday Occasions and more. Their photomontages have appeared on placards for global politics movements, and illustrated the particular covers of books about the economy, welfare state and nuclear arms race. Among his most disseminated images are the iconic Broken Missile (1980), made for CND, and the series Stop the Battle (2003), created for protests contrary to the invasion of Iraq. The success of this work hinges on presence, but also accessibility. “Getting the message out to the people who are involved in the struggles that I am addressing has always been important, ” he says. “Photomontage is an open public medium. It deals with images everyone’s seeing every day, but you’re putting them jointly in a way that shows what’s to their rear. ” Many of Kennard’s pieces – particularly the anti-nuclear types, and more recently his environment work – continue to be utilized by activist groups. For non-commercial use by NGOs and charities, or for presentations, all of Kennard’s works are free to use. But the achievement of such images is a “double-edged sword, ” he admits that. “It means we’re still dealing with the issues that we had been campaigning about 40 years back. ”
As he plans his retirement from teaching at RCA, Kennard is definitely devoting his practice towards the climate emergency. It has been almost 25 years since he produced his first collage addressing global warming. Depicting a dystopic, barren land, it had been a response to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which 192 nations signed an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, Kennard has continued to produce work that visualises the risks to our planet and has campaigned with the climate activist group, Extinction Rebellion.
“My generation had all these great hopes that we were going to change things, ” he laments, “but it’s in fact worse across the world now than it was back then. ” Is he hopeful for the future? “Some days, ” he says. “But one can’t live one’s life thinking nothing’s likely to change. You have to keep going. ” Kennard quotes the Italian language philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism from the will. ” In other words, we have to see the world for what, but have the courage plus persistence to believe that we may overcome its challenges.