WithDraw at IMW North: War, illustrated

Sara Jaspan, Exhibitions Editor
Illustration of a tank near building on a hill

Illustrator George Butler’s drawings of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of foreign troops make up this small but powerful new exhibition.

We have become accustomed to an on-the-go diet of snappy news headlines, 24-hour updates and a constant stream of TV footage – yet illustration reportage is lamentably sidelined. It has an important voice to add, valuable especially for its ability to capture an alternative view of events, as a new exhibition showcasing the work of award-wining artist George Butler demonstrates.

Specialising in travel and current affairs, Butler’s most recent project presents a series of pen and ink drawings showing life in Afghanistan in the weeks following the withdrawal of British and American troops last October. Called WithDraw, and due to be unveiled for the first time at the Imperial War Museum North later this month, the project was part-funded by the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.

Butler describes his experience as “a continuing diary of violence”

Butler describes his experience of travelling through the country and working in-situ as one of “a continuing diary of violence”. However, in contrast to the troublingly familiar images of open conflict or destruction this might conjure, Butler’s approach in illustrations is instead far gentler, and perhaps more poignant.

Prosthetic limbed patients locked in a game of wheelchair basketball; a checkpoint guard reclining in the top bunk of a police station; children playing amongst the remains of an abandoned tank; young women engaged in teacher training classes – these are scenes often neglected or not open to the more aggressive presence of the TV camera or photojournalist. Here, Butler captures them through a far more intimate approach.

This is somewhat typical of Butler, who describes drawing as like a handshake, a practice built upon mutual trust between drawer and subject. The time it takes to distil a scene whilst existing within it is engrained within each piece; it becomes another dimension of the drawing. All that’s left out, meanwhile – the negative, blank space – plays an equally important role in helping to highlight this as merely a version of events.

A visit to WithDraw is a strong reminder that, though the war in Afghanistan may have slipped down the agenda since the end of last year, still the conflict goes on affecting the lives of those who live there.

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