Dale Grimshaw on West Papua: ‘It’s heartbreaking that nobody will listen’

Dale Grimshaw's Free West Papua mural in Camden

Dale Grimshaw's Free West Papua mural in Camden - Credit: Archant

Artist Dale Grimshaw talks to Zoe Paskett about his exhibition raising awareness for the situation in West Papua

Dale Grimshaw in his Green Lanes studio

Dale Grimshaw in his Green Lanes studio - Credit: Archant

In September of 2015, a graffitied mural appeared on a wall in Camden. A portrait depicting a face painted in the Morning Star flag accompanied by the slogan “Free West Papua” grabbed attention from halfway around the world.

“I became aware of the issue of brutality and the murder and the torture, so I thought maybe I could do something to help and that’s when I did the mural,” says artist Dale Grimshaw.

“Certainly in Papua New Guinea I got a bit of a fan base because they’re sympathetic to what’s going on. They were very aware of the genocide in the west of the island, so they’re in support even though they obviously can’t do a lot.

“I was hoping to be really famous in Hollywood but I ended up being a celeb in Papua New Guinea!”

According to the Free West Papua campaign website, around half a million civilians have been killed and thousands more tortured and imprisoned since the start of Indonesian occupation.

The current situation is largely unreported in UK media because of a ban on foreign journalists in the area, so it’s unsurprising that Grimshaw didn’t know much about the campaign previously, despite being “quite politicised” in his life.

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The campaign was launched in 2004 in Oxford and is headed up by West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda. He was forced to flee to the UK after he was arrested, tortured and threatened with death.

Dale Grimshaw's Village Underground mural

Dale Grimshaw's Village Underground mural - Credit: Archant

“It’s bizarre sat in a suburban house in Oxford talking about people trying to kill you in prison and how you managed to escape,” says Grimshaw of meeting Wenda. “He’s such a gentle, smiley person and his wife Maria is so welcoming. I’d crumble. It’s hard to imagine what people go through in other places in the world.

“He’s a very strong person; he seems to have managed to retain a smiley, positive outlook even though he must have seen some horrendous things. But he’s managed to remain strong and he’s got out and he’s using the opportunity to fight for his people back home.”

Grimshaw has painted a vibrant portrait of Wenda to appear in his exhibition, Pride & Prejudice, which opens at Well Hung gallery this evening. He is hoping to contribute to the effort to increase the campaign’s influence.

“It seems after talking to Benny that it needs the media to take interest,” he says. “It’s quite sad really, going on the national demos because living in London people will turn out for anything – you can guarantee whatever your political persuasion there’s a lot of people. But what really struck me going to the events for Free West Papua is that the turn out is tiny, it’s a handful of people and it’s heartbreaking that nobody will listen to them and I find that quite upsetting really. So I’ve been trying to help them in an artistic kind of way.”

Grimshaw has this week painted a fresh mural on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane.

“It’s a crazy experience when you paint down there because you’ve got the street art tours, so it’s this very surreal situation where you turn round and two minutes earlier there was some guy lighting a fag and then there’s a crowd of 40 people.”

As a figurative artist, his work stands out as very different to much of the conceptual street art that pops up around London.

Benny Wenda by Dale Grimshaw

Benny Wenda by Dale Grimshaw - Credit: Archant

“People who know my work do recognise it. Stylistically it should be the same but I try not to keep covering old ground.

“I work them out digitally first. I don’t just turn up and make it up on the spot – I’m far too anal for that. I tend to roller first and I block in, it looks a bit awful at the beginning. Grannies always go: ‘what is that? Is it a dog or an elephant?’ and I say ‘just bear with me, love!’”

His larger murals can take up to six days to complete, working as many hours as the light and weather will allow. When he isn’t painting on walls, he works in his Green Lanes studio, where he also lives. His paintings have a very similar feel to his wall art, focusing on a strong “emotional narrative” and imagery, “whether that’s indigenous people or the anthropomorphic animal-human crossover” of his show, Semi-Detached.

“It was a very personal show,” he says. “It was based on lots of things from my childhood – it focuses on some of the more negative aspects.

“My dad was quite a violent alcoholic. There were some of those darker memories from my childhood.” But he says that, despite the heavy subject matter, “a lot of people could relate to a lot of the work, even if they didn’t want it on their wall!”

Grimshaw’s Pride & Prejudice continues his commitment to a powerful emotional narrative, a tool that he hopes can garner empathy from viewers to help raise awareness for the Free West Papua campaign.

Pride & Prejudice runs at Well Hung gallery in Hoxton until April 29, 239 Hoxton Street, N1 5LG, wellhung.co.uk

Dale Grimshaw in Manchester

Dale Grimshaw in Manchester - Credit: Archant

Find out about the campaign at freewestpapua.org / support swimforwestpapua.com.

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