War frames: prisoners depict their experiences in Iraq at the Venice Biennale

An exhibition in Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion by jailed ex-soldiers explores social injustice through the prism of the Iraq conflict

The theme of social justice – and injustice – looms large in Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most important contemporary art event. The artworks inside the imposing white building in the Giardini include a mural of the Victorian social reformer William Morris hurling the vast yacht of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich into the waves.

A less publicised aspect of Deller’s exploration of social injustice is a room of drawings in the exhibition by imprisoned ex-servicemen that examines the Iraq war. The pictures by inmates of Shotts, Everthorpe and Parc prisons include portraits of those embroiled in the scandal over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Alongside them are displayed disturbing images of scenes remembered by those who fought in the conflict, such as a sniper’s view of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hiding under his bed, Iraqi civilians executed by al-Qaida on suspicion of being British informants, and two soldiers smoking crack in Wellington barracks, London, before deployment.

Struck by the fact that one in 10 ex-servicemen are prisoners, a year ago the artist turned to the Koestler Trust, a charity that has been promoting arts in the British criminal justice system for more than 50 years, to find former soldiers to participate in the pavilion. He initiated the collaboration by bringing the prisoners photographs of some of the public figures caught up in the invasion of Iraq, and their discussion about them led to the men also recounting their personal experiences of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

Deller says: “The reason I used prisoners is because this work is about the nature of criminality. I thought it was a good idea to have [the likes of Blair, Campbell and the former head of MI6 John Scarlett] drawn by people who’d been on the receiving end of their decisions. It was about inverting the power process. If you are in prison you have no power. And most of those characters still are very powerful.

“So, on the one hand, you have a very traditional portrait gallery of men who have been involved in [pursuing] the war, or victims of the war like Reg Keys, whose son [Lance Corporal Tom Keys] was killed in Iraq – people on the receiving end, like some of the soldiers were. Then you have very personal images that give you a little insight into daily life in the army. They all had strange little stories or vignettes. They just drew those and I encouraged that.”

Chris, 37, a former member of the Royal Highland Fusiliers who served in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, now imprisoned in HMP Shotts, Scotland, had not done any drawing before getting involved in the British pavilion project. But he was keen to participate because he “wanted to show people that military life is not all …read more