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Putting on the warpaint with Ben Quilty

Max Chalmers went to look at Ben Quilty paintings, but just looked at Ben Quilty instead.

Ben Quilty stands in a sunlit room at the National Art School (NAS), attended by a small gallery of old women. Seated on wooden stools, walking sticks suspended between legs, the audience nod in understanding as he tells the stories behind his most recent exhibition, ‘After Afghanistan.’ On the walls around him and the old, jovial women, hang the young and languorous bodies of war.

Part of a tour group, the women cluster in the open space between the walls of the NAS, where 100 years earlier, prisoners slouched in Darlinghurst jail. Quilty points around the room and lavishes each canvas with anecdotes. He is young, cross-armed, and tall. His Ned Kelly beard and smart-casual dress would easily camouflage him among the café occupants of Darlinghurst.

After accepting the role of official war artist, Quilty was given a week of military training and sent to Kandahar, then Tarin Kowt (capital of Uruzgan province). During the First World War, Australia’s official war artists were embedded with a unit for three whole months while in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War ongoing, war artists were expected to form an active part of their unit and underwent extensive jungle warfare training. Though Quilty’s preparations were far less intensive, his travels were no sheltered tour. While staying at the Kandahar Air Fields, Quilty experienced a Taliban rocket strike. It was a long way from the familiar for the 2011 Archibald Prize winner.

On his return to Australia, Quilty had soldiers model for him. He asked them either to create a pose that represented their experiences serving in Afghanistan—worried faces surveying a hostile environment, clenched bodies shocked by a missile’s detonation—or close their eyes and open them directly facing the sun. The latter technique was his best effort at recreating the blinding shock of his own tour.

Quilty’s distinctively thick brushstrokes and impasto finishing turned the resulting photographs into hallowing representations. The figures have been stripped back, literally and artistically. Most subjects were painted as nudes, bereft of armour, uniform, and the disciplined non-emotion of the soldier. Their swirling nudity and lethargy make plain the vulnerability, anxiety, and trauma they suppress below the unsullied surface. These are not portraits of pride and power, the propaganda images of men at war; these are the aching, frightened bodies that return home with post-traumatic stress disorder and swerve at imagined roadside bombs.

A placard quotes Quilty describing Afghanistan as a generic mash-up of Catch-22 and Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome: “dusty, violent, surreal.” Subtly, Quilty’s patient oration mirrors this tension. He tells the women that when one of the soldiers featured in the paintings came to inspect the exhibition, Quilty’s mates took him out afterwards. “He’s a lot safer in Afghanistan than with my friends in Surry Hills,” he quips, to all-round applause from his elderly fans. And then, as if congruously, Quilty follows up with a less pleasant story. An older man came to visit the exhibition in the preceding weeks wearing what appeared to be his own military medals from long-ended conflicts. In fact, they had belonged to his son, a casualty of the Afghan conflict.

Downstairs, in a second room, a timeline of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been drawn on the walls in thick marker. It runs all the way along the three white walls.

Though not on the same scale as Picasso’s masterpiece, Quilty’s work comes to the same point, hyperfocused at the level of the individual. In an interview with the Good Weekend while working on the exhibitions, he summarised his labour thus: “I’ll end up examining the whole tragic meaning of war, my attempt at Picasso’s Guernica.”

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