As I have travelled through Australia and Asia I have come across many inspiring artworks, statues, monuments, sculptures and every once in a while I have had the pleasure of stumbling upon and becoming exposed to artists, that if it wasn’t for the likes of the internet and magazines I would probably never have heard of. So I would like to share with you on this blog post an extremely talented and highly admired artist whose story of late is not only compelling but brave, respected and in my humble opinion highly commendable.
The name of this artist is Ben Quilty and his latest line of artworks have been inspired by his time in Afghanistan standing shoulder to shoulder with his countrymen serving as an official war artist in the current relentless war out in the Middle East. After achieving recognition in Australia by winning the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Margaret Olley Quilty was informed by art officials (The Australian War Memorial) that he has three days to decide whether he thought he had what it takes to become a war artist willing to witness the string of emotions and atrocities uncoiled by his countrymen out in Afghanistan.
I grabbed it were the words of Ben Quilty as he talked about the honourable opportunity which was presented to him. He also stated it would be a life-altering experience. For an artist who takes his work seriously, that’s what you seek. You would not believe these comments if you realised that 20 years prior to this opportunity Quilty was, in fact, paranoid about the prospect of being conscripted in the war like Vietnam. At 18 years old this thought alone horrified Ben and his fear of being drafted as a soldier was a very real possibility and an extremely terrifying prospect.
One day whilst in Afghanistan Quilty watched an unnerving game of hockey between Canadian troops on a central sports field surrounded, itself surrounded by all the usual suspects like KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. While strolling around with his backpack loaded with paints, paintbrushes, sketchbooks and pencils he conversed with American soldiers armed with a slightly different set of tools like shoulder slung assault rifles as they tucked into their fast food delights. Quilty mentioned the slogans plastered on T-shirts found in the nearby stalls chanting Afghan Fighter and I’m Doing This For My God apparently very popular among American troops. Gyms offering spin classes and Afghan rug stalls are another couple of examples of what you might also find surrounding this central field to keep the soldiers’ minds occupied enough to take the edge off the fact that there was a very real war going on just outside the compound. Although there is entertainment Quilty says 24/7 you’re on alert to take cover when enemy rockets land inside the base or a fanatic suicide bomber breaches the walls. With his own interpretation as an artist, Quilty dealt with this strange scenario in his own way to ease the comfort, and states, the war against the Taliban relentlessly continues, and to me, it seemed like some macabre contemporary dance.
INTERLUDE: Good Morning. Sydney Morning Herald 2011 was a fantastic year for Ben Quilty. Already the art worlds heavily courted wonder boy after winning the 2002 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, then the 2009 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize with his portrait of rock singer Jimmy Barnes, he was anointed Australias most promising painter by art elder John Olsen. And then there were the Archibald Prize accolades and a sell-out exhibition at the Korean International Art Fair. Quilty is an interesting mix: a tall, strong, blokey artist who outgrew his wild teenage years as a member of a gang who referred to themselves as the Maggots to gain two university degrees, including a unit in women’s studies and an extra course in Aboriginal studies. Now 38, a passionately thoughtful man, hes also fit and resourceful enough to keep up with the soldiers in the field. We’ve been watching Quiltys’ work mature greatly over seven years, since his early Torana paintings, and he was top of our wish list when the Australian Defence Force offered a war-artist posting to Afghanistan, explains Laura Webster, Australian War Memorial curator of art.
That aggressively masculine Torana series, like much of Quiltys’ earlier work, delved into the rights of passage of young men. Specifically, during the perilous decade from 16 to 26 when he and his Maggot gangmates flirted with death by driving hotted up Toranas and wiping themselves out on alcohol, drugs, debauchery. Quilty would photograph his mates, and himself, totally inebriated, then later make luscious paintings of the collapsed faces. He’s gone on to look more broadly at Australian identity and history. Webster adds, Afghanistan is a highly confronting war zone, and we considered Ben feel an affinity with the young men and women of the ADF, understand their concerns and interests, and paint something meaningful about the Australian war experience. A selection of Ben Quiltys’ Afghanistan paintings will be added to the Australian War Memorial permanent collection, to join the long tradition of war artists that began in World War 1 with Arthur Streeton, George Lambert and Frederick McCubbin.