I am back in Bergen from two weeks working day and night on frescoes at Muralverkstedet in Oslo. An ancient tradition found all over the world, fresco is made by embedding pigment particles into fresh lime plaster. Lime is a strange material: liquid rock, limestone in limbo. Limestone and its sister rocks chalk and marble are calcium carbonate, the deposits of trillions of marine creatures over millennia, risen up from the sea into earth. It’s fitting for me, especially, that this rock is made from the sea: I can sit here in my floating home and think of minuscule creatures in the sea beneath me, drifting slowly to their still beds, to become the foodstuff of rocks. I grew up on a raft of chalk which stretches across the Southern part of England and over France. This chalk, the sister stone of limestone, would show up everywhere: around the faucets, in the garden soil, floating as brittle flakes on top of a cup of tea. The more I follow the lime, break it down, the more it shows up everywhere, like a kind of magic. The chalk would find its way into me, minerals absorbed by my body through water, the landscape claiming me for itself. I wonder if, after many years away from home, I still carry any of that chalk with me. In my bones. My calcium carbonate bones.

        When you make a fresco you paint into liquid rock, calcium carbonate made liquid, and in hours it solidifies, painting turned into stone. Magic.

        So to make a fresco one must embed pigment particles into fresh lime plaster, which become locked into the structure of the lime when it carbonises. This completes the cycle of lime: first a limestone rock, it has been heated, historically in a lime pit - until it decomposed into calcium oxide, known as hot lime, quicklime, caustic lime, or burnt lime - and CO₂. Then this calcium oxide, a white powder, was slaked. Water was added and a furious reaction occurred, producing liquid rock. That was mixed with sand, drawn from a river, to make plaster. The lime plaster carbonised in the air and turned back into limestone, but not before pigment was trapped inside. A painting turned to stone.

CaCO₃ + heat => CaO + CO₂ 

CaO + H₂O => Ca(OH)₂

Ca(OH)₂ + CO₂ => CaCO₃

        Fresco has a tradition of being used for large figurative images which tell a story: from Pompeii to Florence to Denmark to Mexico. It is associated with national movements, with socialist projects, with state-driven Soviet art, with the political works of the Mexican Muralists, with the American Works Progress Administration. The Muralists in particular have always inspired me personally. I cannot in the present moment ignore the tradition of fresco used to tell a political story, a struggle story, used to challenge dominant narratives and elevate the greater story of the common people. Despite the broad history of fresco and of monumental public painting, in conversation I find that there exists, still, a spectral fear of monumental painting which might bear resemblance to ‘propaganda’ art of the Soviet Union. I personally have never understood this specific neurosis of the art world (well, perhaps I have my suspicions) and have decided not to pay it any mind. For me these past movements (most of art throughout history has been tied to some political agenda by someone, and not unusually an agenda we would reject today) all have something I can learn from and use, whether Soviet, Mexican, or the church-backed frescoes of the Italian Renaissance.

        I have employed a mixture of motifs in ‘Looking Heaven in the Eye’, but the most prominent are references to the liberation struggle of Palestine. You may recognise images of children describing to journalists the brutal reality their families live under and their steadfast determination to stay on their land. Because the struggle of Palestine is a struggle for land, land which is being stolen bit by bit. This resonates for me, as I have long been interested in issues of land rights. My first solo exhibition, in 2021, was a series of paintings around the relationship to the land in England and elsewhere. My early life and my family have been shaped by the reality of unjust land ownership systems in Britain dating back many hundreds of years. There is a grassroots tradition of struggle, for ordinary people’s custodianship of the land they live on. I have woven in imagery from those paintings here. A woman from Greenham Common, a historic land rights protest in England in the 1980s, led by women for over a decade, holds a banner reading resistance. I see a commonality between imperialist, colonial domination of land which was practiced on English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soil from the middle ages onwards, against the interests of the majority, and the model of colonialism subsequently exported around the world by the British. Ordinary people have in fact a common struggle, and I see the Palestinian struggle’s resonance with the liberation struggles of the Diggers, the women of Greenham Common, and other oppressed peoples defending what are natural rights.

        Like many others I have spent the last four months glued to my phone, watching endless horrors unfold in real time in Gaza. I have seen things I could never have imagined human beings could do to other human beings, to children. I have struggled to hold normal conversations with friends and colleagues without wanting to ask if they too sit and weep at night thinking about things they’ve seen. I was aware of the injustices of the apartheid state imposed on Palestinians by Israel long before 2023. But I had not imagined that we were about to see a genocide unfold for all to witness, aided and abetted by our own European governments, against the wishes of their own citizens. As an artist, I have been questioning what I want to say through my work at this time. And I think that this is not a time to intellectualise or pontificate. To aestheticise. It is a time for artists to say loud and clear, in defiance of those who want artists to keep their mouths shut, that we are against genocide. We are against war. We are for the freedom of Palestinians and support them in their struggle, and that we are not afraid of the propaganda machines of government. We are political. Art is political. We are full humans, with voices and opinions, and you can’t have the art without the artist.

        In Germany, a bill was recently introduced which would make arts funding conditional on cultural workers agreeing not to criticise Zionism or Israel. This bill was narrowly defeated by artists and cultural workers standing up against it. It would have made the paintings I have made here ineligible for support; if I were in Germany under that bill I’d have to return the project support I received from NBK to come here. The Arts Council England have altered the terms of public funding for artists, stating that artists who make political statements may lose their funding. We are living in dangerous times and this censorship is already having effects on many artists, big and small. I recently lost a painting commission under unusual circumstances, just after I began to share posts about Occupied Palestine on social media. I sulked for a couple of days and then realised that my opinion is out there; there is really nothing to lose anymore. If we want to be free as artists to use our voices in a way that is true to ourselves, to our values and humanity, we cannot be afraid of censorship. We cannot live under the tyranny of what we feel is acceptable to say and do without rocking the boat, lest we repel the funding bodies or the galleries.

        I named this exhibition after a line in a poem by Refaat Alareer. He was a Palestinian poet, writer, academic and teacher who used his formidable voice to speak up for the essential humanity of his people, over decades. He was assassinated by Israel on the 6th December 2023 in a deliberate strike, one of a pattern of assassinations aimed at extinguishing the artistic, literary, academic, activist and journalistic voices of Gaza. He said in a last interview from Gaza, that if the IDF came for him, all he would have to fight them with would be his pen, but he would use that pen and fight them with it, to his last. The sentiment echoes the boldness of those Palestinian boys we have all seen pictures of, wielding small catapults and stones against enormous (American) Israeli tanks, righteous in their cause. We cannot expect Palestinians to lay down and die peacefully while we practice respectability politics, afraid to support any form of resistance lest we be branded extreme, abrasive, unpleasant, making people feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable! I have felt uncomfortable for months. It is fine to be uncomfortable. Resistance is the Palestinian right, under international law as defined in the Geneva Convention. With pens, with stones, with stories, with whatever means. This was Alareer’s last poem, written under the airstrikes:

    If I must die,

    you must live

    to tell my story

    to sell my things

    to buy a piece of cloth

    and some strings,

    (make it white with a long tail)

    so that a child, somewhere in Gaza

    while looking heaven in the eye

    awaiting his dad who left in a blaze —

    and bid no one farewell

    not even to his flesh

    not even to himself —

    sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above,

    and thinks for a moment an angel is there

    bringing back love.

    If I must die

    let it bring hope,

    let it be a story.