After Afghanistan

On Friday this week, I went with a friend to the opening of the exhibition After Afghanistan by Ben Quilty,  now showing at the Tweed River Art Gallery until September.CaptainS

I take the liberty here of copying the story on the Australian War Memorial’s website about this suite of portraits.

Portraiture for Ben Quilty is about the emotional relationship he develops with his subjects, and the creation of an intimate bond which allows them to place their trust in him to tell their stories. As a result, the portraits of these Australian servicemen and women are imbued with their experience of war. They express the dangers the soldiers encountered in Afghanistan, and the complex emotions they felt on returning home.

Back in his studio in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Quilty began making portraits based on the photographs he had taken in Afghanistan. But this approach lacked the sense of immediacy he had enjoyed while sitting with the soldiers and making drawings of them. He wanted to create portraits from live sittings, so he asked some of the soldiers to come to his studio. Throughout the studio sittings, they spoke openly about memories that they would otherwise have found difficult to share.

Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan, 2012, oil on linen, 180 x 170 cm, collection of the artist, OL00628.017Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan
2012, oil on linen, 180 x 170 cm
collection of the artist

Keen to capture their sheer physicality, Quilty asked the soldiers to sit for their portraits naked. He was not interested in creating a traditional heroic male nude. Rather, he needed to see the body after its protective layers of uniform and body armour had been stripped away. For him, their nakedness expressed both the strength and the frailty of the human condition in time of war. Each soldier was asked to select a pose that reflected an aspect of his or her experience. Some of them drew on an actual event from their deployment, others on the tiredness or the emotions they felt after their return to Australia.

I can’t add mich to this, except to say that I found the experience moving, disturbing, almost overpowering. So did my friend. He told me afterwards that he went to bed for a couple of hours when he got home, feeling drained emotionally and physically. The experience was intensified for us by the rich and deep floor talk given by Laura Webster, curator of the War Memorial. This young woman had entered deeply into the process Ben went through in his painting, and the stories of the soldiers. She retold it to us in a voice that was shaken by emotion at times, and it went straight to my heart centre. When I looked around at the large group of visitors, I saw my own emotions reflected on many faces.

She told us that Quilty is now working with Bali 9 survivors. I am awed by his humanity, passion, compassion and creative gift, and I hope he continues to tell, in paint, the stories that the official discourse prefers to keep silent and unseen.

May there be an end to war in this century. Surely we have grown up, after all the terrible conflicts of the past and the ones that are still happening. Surely we can find another way of settling our differences.



Filed under war art

4 responses to “After Afghanistan

  1. Christina, thank you for this post. I was sorry not to be able to attend this talk. Ben Quilty’s work is so important in confronting us with truths that can too easily be put aside. Even though it may be overpowering, I look forward to seeing this show.

  2. Thanks, Marian
    I went back to see it again yesterday. I still found it moving, but the accompaniment of the curator’s narrative brought it home more forcefully. Which reminds me I am a wordy woman. I need words as well as pictures. Re the pictures, like his portrait of Margaret Olley, I found that if you stand or sit far back from the painting, it has more unity (he uses such bold brush strokes and thick paint) and more impact.

  3. I agree in that I would like to hear something about the stories, too, to give more context. His paintings here do show emotions well through brush strokes and coloring – I can feel the troubled exhaustion of the man lying down. I’m putting together a Korean War memoir for someone and agree with its author that everyone needs to read these war stories to fully understand why we need to avoid wars. It would help if there weren’t so many cruel leaders who don’t care much about their people, though.

    • Indeed, and corrupt ones! Like the South African president who has invested millions of dollars of state money in his private mansion in an exclusive ghetto. Such actions create resentment and ultimately revolution, and make countries weak and vulnerable to cruelty from within and without. But a South African friend was telling me this morning that the present state of Africa was caused by colonialism. As for Afghanistan, it has a tortured history and it’s difficult to think about what will become of the people.

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