BEN QUILTY: AFTER AFGHANISTAN
February 21-April 13
National Art School Gallery, Darlinghurst
Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty hopes he has helped play a part in raising awareness of the emotional trauma faced by Australian soldiers.
Despite the uncertainty of facing a month in war-torn Afghanistan, Quilty was driven to tell the story of the men and women who adapted to living a different, harrowing reality.
"On the first night in Kandahar we were rocketed three times ... there were alarms and over the speakers we were told to 'get down, take cover'," Quilty recalls from the comfort of his Robertson studio.
"The Taliban are sitting out there in the desert in the pitch black darkness and are literally using cigarettes to light the rockets.
"I got there and I could hear and smell what the place was like, and the 24-hour anxiety and the pressure. I saw it and I felt the pressure."
Quilty was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to record the experiences of Australian service personnel as part of Operation Slipper during October and November 2011. The works now form the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan.
Quilty was given three days to decide whether to take up the offer of being an official war artist, and was told deployment could be within six weeks.
A war situation is the last place an artist would think of finding themselves in, and on top of that fear Quilty recalls how he had also been terrified of possible conscription as a 12-year-old after his uncle had been conscripted to Vietnam.
But he saw it as a great opportunity to tell the soldiers' stories.
It's a cruel twist that the identities of ADF personnel are never revealed, as it often means that once these soldiers return home it's difficult for them to talk about what they experienced.
So Quilty saw this as a chance to translate the soldiers' stories into paintings, revealing the raw emotion in their bodies, while also maintaining their anonymity.
In addition to taking photos and writing while in Afghanistan, Quilty would spend about 20 minutes sketching each soldier. On his return to Robertson, Quilty then had the soldiers sit a studio session, where he transformed the sketches into paintings.
"Once I got back I started the process and I quickly realised living on the beautiful, scenic, green east coast of Australia seems so far away from the experiences of Afghanistan," Quilty says.
During the paintings, Quilty would talk to the soldiers.
"I had some young soldiers tell me what sounds soldiers made as they were dying," Quilty says.
"I had another tell me what the smell of blood was like, and others told me of the experience of being close to someone who was dying.
"I've been very emotionally raw the past 12 months. I feel I've played a part to help these people," Quilty says.