Quilty bares truth in conflict
Ben Quilty with one of his After Afghanistan works. Picture: Ben Rushton

Like many other Australians who returned from a war in a foreign land, Ben Quilty came home a profoundly changed person.

Unlike the rest, Quilty was armed with pencils, pens, brushes and paper and the other instruments of art, not the weapons of battle and the tools of reconstruction wielded by those he joined in Afghanistan in 2011.

Continuing a tradition that stems back to 1917, when artist and political cartoonist Will Dyson was Australia's first Official War Artist, Quilty spent a month with service personnel at Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan's Uruzgan Province.

Speaking from London, where he is the first Australian to have a solo show at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery, Quilty says his time in Afghanistan had a profound effect on him.

"It is a great honour, an important honour and without doubt the most important thing I've been given the opportunity to do through the Australian War Memorial," he says.

The extremes of reflecting on the experience in Afghanistan while in London as a flag-bearer for Australian art is not lost on Quilty, who won the 2011 Archibald Prize for his portrait of the late, great painter Margaret Olley.

The recent opening of his self-titled exhibition at Saatchi - the gallery which has promoted artists such as Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst - was nothing short of surreal and amazing, Quilty says.

It now defines the 40-year-old as one of the hottest artists in the Asian region after he won the opportunity of the solo show at Saatchi, along with a $50,000 cash prize, as the overall winner from 500 artists considered in the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards for Contemporary Asian Art.

"At first I thought is this for real and I really only believed it when I walked in and saw the works on the wall and then human nature cut in and I thought that's normal," he says. "It is astounding. I am very lucky and honoured and I feel it is already opening doors for me."

Just as art has taken Quilty from a misspent youth in Sydney's rough western suburbs to London and Paris, where he will undertake a three-month residency after the Saatchi show, it landed him most unexpectedly in Afghanistan.

That experience is the focus of an Australian War Memorial exhibition about to open in Perth. Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan, showing at John Curtin Gallery, includes 16 sketches made during his attachment to the Australian Defence Force and 21 paintings created back in his studio in the NSW Southern Highlands. Also showing is Shaun Gladwell, Afghanistan, which features photographs, videos and paintings from Gladwell's posting as Official War Artist in Afghanistan in 2009.

Both artists were tasked to interpret the experiences of Australian service personnel deployed as part of Operation Slipper.

Quilty was basking in the glow of the 2011 Archibald Prize when he was called out of the blue and given three days to accept an invitation to join the ADF in Afghanistan. "I promised my wife after the Archibald that we would have a quiet year and then I got the phone call from the War Memorial which changed things."

Given assurances that authorities would not censor or dictate what he created, Quilty was kitted up and flown by troop transport and helicopter into 12 forward patrol bases in Uruzgan.

He says he felt an overwhelming need to tell the stories of the men and women serving in Afghanistan and was conscious of the responsibility of following in the war-artist tradition that has included Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, Donald Friend and Nora Heysen.

"You have a real chance to effect social change and even though most good artists wouldn't take a really overt anti-war or pro-war position, you try to find the centre and try to find the truth," he says.

"The very act of going to a war and recording it is inherently anti-war. That is a pretty powerful thing to have been involved with. I really did make an effort not to make any anti-war statement, no sloganeering, no nothing, I just wanted to tell the truth."

Included in the exhibition, to be opened by Australian War Memorial director and former defence minister Brendan Nelson, are images of Perth-based Special Air Service commandoes and other soldiers, identified largely by such tags as Trooper M, Sgt P, Lance-Cpl M and Capt. S.

Upon their return to Australia, Quilty painted some of the soldiers naked in his studio, stripped of the protective layers of uniform and body armour and in postures they felt expressed an aspect of his or her experience. Throughout the studio sittings, they spoke openly about memories that they would otherwise have found difficult to share.

"I focused on 10 young men and one young woman who had served in Afghanistan. Out of the 11 of them, five had been diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder and there lies the anti-war message. There are families and parents and communities who are going to suffer for generations because of what happened to those young people."

Quilty is known for his robust, almost violent, thickly textured impasto painting style which explores misdirected rites of passage, masculine identity and Australiana in images of Torana muscle cars, skulls, snakes and grotesque portraits of "straight white males" like him.

He brought all this to bear in Afghanistan, where he asked the questions he had been wanting to have answered since he read Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front as a 13-year-old: why are you here; have you been with someone when they died, have you killed someone, what is the sound of someone dying?

"Having spent 20 years of my adult life exploring ideas around masculinity, I knew how to ask those questions, I knew how to, I guess, cut through the masculine bravado to get to the essence of what the emotions of that place are about.

"They taught me all of it," he says. "They were a pretty honest and down-to-earth bunch of people. I was pretty impressed with them all. The quickest rite of passage you could get is to go into a combat zone and it forces them to grow up."

Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan and Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan are at John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University, from August 2 until September 14; Ben Quilty is showing at Saatchi Gallery, London, until August 4.

The West Australian

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