Written by Dani Abulhawa

Kris Canavan’s The Leveller operated through several layers of symbolism that could be accessed through different levels of engagement. His action was situated at the back of St. Ann’s Church, in the small area between the church and the passageway through to King Street. This area of St. Ann’s Square receives a steady stream of people passing through, but it also feels sequestered from the rest of the square. The piece began with Canavan stood squarely in front of the church wall, dressed in a suit. His face was obscured entirely by a gas mask stuffed with rosemary. At his feet were two books, bound together with twine: one, A History of Modern Israel by Colin Schindler (generally regarded as a balanced account of the Middle East conflict), and the other, To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.


The reference to these two books, bound together as they were in this piece, made a connection between the European persecutions of Jewish people throughout the 20th Century, the current and ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the racial inequality and injustice presented in Lee’s novel. The precise political intention of the piece wasn’t explicit, which was an important aspect of the piece. This was not a shouting condemnation of one side over another, but a question mark or a site for contemplation of what bringing these things together means from a personal perspective.

The gas mask – an object designed to prevent the wearer from inhaling airborne toxins – worn in this context, suggested that the propaganda that fuels hatred towards different groups, and which infects culture, might also be understood as toxic and something that people are vulnerable to. The stuffing of the gas mask with rosemary – a herb that is known to symbolise remembrance – acts like a second filter inside the gas mask. Remembering past injustice allows us to see it more clearly when it arises again.

Rosemary is also strongly connected with the Levellers political movement, established during the English civil war. The Levellers’ manifesto, Agreement of the People, was firmly rooted in equality, rights and safety for all. They expounded the importance of the level playing field throughout society, and members identified each other by the sprig of rosemary worn in their hats.


Image credits: Hazard / Kris Canavan

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