After Afghanistan: Australian Artist Ben Quilty on the Art of War

After Afghanistan: Australian Artist Ben Quilty on the Art of War
Captain S, after Afghanistan (detail)
(Copyright Ben Quilty)

Ben Quilty is one of Australia’s most admired and respected contemporary artists. The assuredness of his visual language and his maturity as an artist belies his relative youth, a fact confirmed by the incredible paintings he produced in response to his experience as an official war artist.

Under the auspices of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), Quilty spent three weeks in Afghanistan during October 2011 talking to Australian servicemen and women. The culmination of his tour of duty is the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan, a visual record and artistic interpretation of the experiences of Australians deployed as part of Operation Slipper.

Quilty chose to paint his subjects in the nude as a way of expressing the duality of the military persona. At once both dignifying and revealing, Quilty’s portraits celebrate the inner strength of our military personnel while at the same time explore their vulnerability. According to the Australian War Memorial, “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.”

To find out more about his time in Afghanistan and his role as an official war artist, ARTINFO Australia got in touch with Quilty who took time away from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

How do you define the role of an official war artist?

A war artist's role is to tell the story of the war, not through the prism of a media obsessed with a “breaking story” but with the truth of the action of deploying Australians into harm’s way.

How did the experience affect you as an artist and as a person?

Spending 24 days inside Afghanistan in late 2011 was a scary and confronting experience. I was very glad to come home. I was struck by the extreme difference between what we hear through the media liaisons department of the ADF and what is the real and lived experience of the people I met in the “theatre” of war in Afghanistan. It's been an even more emotionally taxing experience to follow the story of the people returning from that war over the last year. Like every war humans have been involved with before it, Afghanistan has metered out a heavy emotional toll on the men and women who our democracy sent to fight.

What do you hope to convey with the works produced during your time as Official War Artist?

My contract was to tell the story of the men and women on the front line in Afghanistan. I hope I've done that. Their story is profoundly moving and confronting and so I hope the simple act of telling their story will be a powerful exhibition.

Describe how you conveyed your experiences in Afghanistan through your paintings?

I was interested in the personal affect death has on a young man and the way the death of a young soldier affects those around him. I wanted to know what it sounds like to be with someone when they die. Death is one of the most fundamental parts of war. I wanted to ask the questions that all civilians want to ask but are never given the opportunity. What does real fear feel like? What does it feel like to be involved in the death of an enemy? What does it feel like to lose a friend? What sounds does a dying person make? Are you scared? The answers I was given are what informed the paintings.

What was the most memorable experience during your time in Afghanistan?

I flew in the cockpit of an Australian Hercules into Tarinkot, piloted by two very young, and very experienced airmen. They told me to hang on as we made a “shuttle landing” straight down onto one of the most breath-takingly beautiful desert valleys I've ever seen. Flying high over it minutes before I was struck by the powerful contradiction of the stunning, purple beauty of the landscape and the terrible darkness of the emotional weight the war had cast from one horizon to the other. Seconds later I found myself walking across that landscape.

Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is at the National Art School in Sydney until 13 April after which it will be toured around Australia. For more information visit the Australian War Memorial website here.