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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Ben Quilty - After Afghanistan

Last Thursday I managed to get in to see Ben Quilty's exhibition After Afghanistan. Housed in Sydney's old Darlinghurst gaol, (operational from 1841 - 1921 and at one stage home to Australian poet Henry Lawson), the exhibition is a result of Quilty's experience as the official war artist, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial and attached to the Australian Defence Force. In October 2011, Quilty spent a month with Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. His task was to record and interpret the experiences of Australians deployed as part of Operation Slipper in Kabul, Kandahar, and Tarin Kot in Afghanistan and at Al Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates.
For his official war artist commission, Quilty has created large-scale portraits that focus on the intense physicality of these soldiers and on the emotional and psychological consequences of their service. Part of the exhibition includes a looping video of the episode of Australian Story that covered Quilty's trip to Afghanistan. The episode includes interviews with many of the subjects of Quilty's portraits. Seeing these men and women speak about their experiences in Afghanistan and about the process of visiting Quilty's art studio to pose for paintings increases the sense of both connection and familiarity that one feels with the portraits when you go through the exhibition.

As the name of the exhibition suggests, Quilty's portraits focus on the human consequences of Australia's military engagement in Afghanistan. In doing so, he does not shy away from suggesting that the major consequence is one of confusion, doubt, loss and brokenness. There is no glorification of the modern soldier, or even any concessionary nod to the necessity of war. The major theme I found myself looking at was one of 'damage'. And upon reflection, the fact that the Australian Government or Defence Force has not sought to bury these images is refreshing - and should be applauded. (In the exhibition, Quilty himself reveals his concern that, in showing these soldiers as he sees them, he might be putting the 'official war artist' position at risk). Far from being buried however, Quilty's paintings are on public display, and are free of charge. What's more, they will travel around the country as part of a national tour. One wonders whether such honest depictions of men returning from Lone Pine would have been so readily (and officially) championed.

- [If the suspense generated by that last rhetorical statement is just too much for you to handle, a quick scan of the work of the official war artists for the First World War on the Australian War Memorial's website reveals that the answer is most probably 'no'.  In contrast to Quilty's work, there is a distinct focus on 'duty' and 'sacrifice' rather than 'damage' and 'futility'.] -

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