Thursday, 13 February 2020

Captive Artists the unseen art of British Far East prisoners of war

This beautifully researched and curated book documents the art produced by Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) whilst imprisoned during the Second World War. Their life in the tropics, and how they coped with captivity is captured. It highlights the importance of art in documenting war. It arose out of work done with FEPOWS who were looked after by for their tropical diseases by the medical team at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine after the war. The team developed an oral history project contacting families of FEWPOWS and documenting their lives post captivity.  These pieces were produced secretly because their captors forbade doing art.

Meg Parkes, daughter of a FEPOW, has researched FEPOW art and wrote the first section. Eight well known artists including Ronald Searle documented the experience  of captivity, her father was in Japan and nearly died of starvation there. The young men were beautiful and hopeful before they went to war. They returned on repatriation boats to Liverpool and Southampton. Photocopies of artwork by the prisoner AKKI was given to Dion Bell in the 1960’s.  She tracked him down, a Basil Akhurst who trained as a draughtsman before the war and post war worked as a cartoonist in Blackpool and identified his work in the Changi museum in Singapore.  She found 69 more artists who contributed pieces. The beauty of Far East is captured in small pictures and maps and   the tropical flora and fauna. Each artist has a half plate with their art, military rank, birthplace, camps and photos.  The oral histories from families are moving, often their fathers did not talk much about the war. 

Geoff Gill is a physician who looked after the FEPOWS and their tropical diseases with Dr Dion Bell in Liverpool STM. Later their psychological problems were recognised.  The range of medical problems experienced by the FEPOWS included malaria, dysentery and tropical ulcers which are illustrated here. An early aspect of camp life is captured with the cartoon of a VD clinic in Changi in 1942.  One needed humor to cope with the captivity. The prisoners created solutions to the camp problems and created a citizens army that prepared yeasts and had distillation going. This resulted from having men with different skills such as biology and metal working together. The picture of Captain Mackintosh at his microscope is beautiful capturing an expert looking for diseases.
Religion helped people survive. The padres kept services going and supervised many burials. The cemetery picture by padre has a quiet stillness . 
One family have kept a wooden carving of St George their father carved for the chapel, it was used by Japanese as dart board

Jenny Wood is an archivist at the Imperial War Museum, in her chapters she describes how art was used to keep morale up.  It created by men who could easily die. Searle had dreadful experiences especially working on the Thai –Burma railway and was fortunate to be survive. She contributed the oral history project and the final appendices have comments from the families.

The art work has been kept by the children. Many parents did not talk about their experience until they were v old.  They realized that they used art to survive imprisonment.

This book has a resonance for me because my mother and aunt and grandparents were FEPOWS in Java. My grandfather was a colonial water engineer. I wonder how they survived?  She was with her mother and twin sister which must have helped hugely.  My grandfather was in another camp which created anxieties. They passed the time playing games.  It is very boring being a prisoner especially for a teenager.  She spoke little about the experience. She mentioned the chaos in Java after the war.  She described being given English fried breakfast on the boat back to Holland that they could not eat and the boats were followed by hungry seagulls eating the scraps. Her experience made her a survivor, when things went wrong her survival instinct kicked back when experiencing fractures in her late eighties. She was the fastest elderly lady to mobilise after her hip fracture surgery in 2014. She occasionally mentioned the viciousness of the guards.  Mostly she coped by not discussing it.

The absence of women artists is because the British FEPOWS were all male and in the British Army. However as my family history shows women were imprisoned.  Australian women have written about their ordeal. The enquiry would be strengthened by having some female voices or a discussion of how to capture those voices.

This beautiful book is a testament to the human spirit. These men could die at any time but they created pieces of art as a survival strategy.  This book captures their survival then and through the oral history project gives one a link to their post war lives. 

Palatine books 2019

Meg Parkes, Geoff Gill, Jenny Wood

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