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Review: Poetry Despite/Music Despite with Aaron Hughes

“I totally believe that this work of creating meaning is a way to resist destruction,” says Chicago-based artist and anti-war activist Aaron Hughes at the Weave by Abertay Platform speaker’s event on 21 February.

The Iraq War veteran gave a moving talk on the HMS Unicorn in Dundee about his new project ‘Poetry Despite/Music Despite’ involving a collaboration with former conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony and renowned cellist Karim Wasfi.

Wasfi is known for his performances at sites of destruction in Iraq, and has produced new work for the collaboration—recently performing alongside Hughes’ current exhibition at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.

The exhibition, as part of the BALTIC Artists’ Award 2019, runs until 16 June and features woodcut relief prints by Hughes inspired by the work of artists such as Käthe Kollwitz—who lost her son in World War One—as well as the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Hughes, who served in the Illinois National Guard from 2000 to 2006, talked about how Sassoon famously threw his Military Cross into the river Mersey in 1917 as a protest against the senselessness of war. Hughes reflected on this, saying; “He took this thing that represented all that he had already seen and threw it into the sea.”

He went on to explain how Vietnam veterans, and more recently veterans of the War on Terror have symbolically returned their medals in protest—most recently at the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, a protest Hughes helped to organise. He was joined by the singer-songwriter and veteran Jacob George, who committed suicide in 2014.

In response Hughes played a song by George and, speaking about those who had been lost, said, “We can’t just hold these actions and not remember them and share their work…writing poetry just like those other veterans in other generations, poetry despite, music despite.

“It’s easy to look at it as a project focused specifically about reparations or reconciliations or these ideas and forget about this need for resistance and I want to make sure that that’s in this space as I go forth.”

However, he was also keen to emphasise that veterans are not the primary victims of war, that the Iraqi people are the ones who need to be listened to as well as anti-war activists like himself. For this reason he donated his artist’s fee for the BALTIC exhibition to Wasfi and now encourages others to donate at

The first 250 people who make contributions of $45 (roughly £35) or more, will receive a copy of the ‘Poetry Despite/Music Despite (Eternal War Requiem)’ LP record recorded live at the BALTIC gallery.

As Hughes said to end the event, “Creativity is a privilege, so what is the responsibility?”

Donate if you can. And for more information on the project visit:

By Ana Hine

Image Credit: ‘Judgement Day Futility’ by Aaron Hughes