As you walk through Ben Quilty’s exhibition, After Afghanistan, you’re initially struck by the stares looking back at you. With only a few strokes of thick paint, Ben Quilty portrays the sadness, the furrowed brows and the ten-mile-gaze of the eleven soldiers he painted.
Quilty was commissioned by The Australian War Memorial to depict Afghanistan under the official war art scheme, first established during the First World War to record and interpret the Australian experience of war. The scheme was reactivated during the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
This rich tradition of official commissions has included works by major Australian artists Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, Donald Friend and Nora Heysen, and occupies a unique position in the history of Australian art.
After receiving the initial phone call, it was only five weeks before Quilty was deployed to Afghanistan to record and interpret the experiences of Australians as part of Operation Slipper in Kabul, Kandahar, Tarin Kot in Afghanistan and Al Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates. During his first night at the base, they were rocketed three times – Quilty was the first to admit that he was out of his element.
Quilty was adamant that he would not let the soldiers stereotype him as an artist as much as he didn’t want to stereotype the soldiers. This enabled him to quickly form strong relationships with some of the soldiers. With this closeness, the group opened up to Quilty and allowed the emotionally raw paintings to unfold.
The paintings are initially confronting. The unfocused gazes and bodies strewn in relaxed positions make you question if the subjects are portrayed as dead or alive. Quilty didn’t want to paint the soldiers in their uniforms, as he wanted them to be seen for their core emotions and nothing more.
The point of conversation for this exhibition is written across the face of every person portrayed: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Research Assistant from the Faculty of Health Sciences, Petra Skeffington, spoke about her work with patients suffering from the condition, in relation to Quilty’s exhibition.
“I felt like seeing the exhibition would help me see what war was like, but it doesn’t” Skeffington says. Instead she says, “it gives you what that person felt in that moment – not what they felt in the next moment, in the next year, or five years.”
Skeffington is interested in the resiliency of people. She explores trauma and PTSD with a special interest in people such as soldiers, police officers and
firefighters who intentionally choose a profession which puts them into high-risk situations day in and day out.
Skeffington says that people “can experience trauma and bounce back to be stronger and better people than they were before.”
In order for that to happen, symptoms of PTSD and trauma need to be identified, and this is where exhibitions like Quilty’s are important.
Skeffington states that in her work, she has seen and treated soldiers across the spectrum of trauma – some who didn’t even know what PTSD was while others understood that they were showing signs of PTSD and sought help. She states that it’s considerably easier to treat symptomatically traumatised people when they are aware and willing to seek help as opposed to those that believe there’s no need for help.
Quilty’s emphasis on the soldiers’ psychological self, rather than their physical attributes, made the images confronting for many of the subjects. For once, they weren’t just another uniformed soldier – their fears, concerns and joys portrayed as starkly as their naked bodies.
Air Commodore John Oddie sat for three of Quilty’s paintings and was particularly struck by the way he was captured, “either through a lack of insight or unwillingness, I wasn’t always admitting the truth to myself about my life,” says Oddie. “Ben really took that out and put it on the table in front of me like a three course dinner and said ‘well how ‘bout that?’ and, you know, I sort of thought well I’m not gonna come back to this restaurant in a hurry.”
Since the exhibition, five out of the eleven soldiers Quilty painted have been diagnosed with PTSD and are being treated. As Petra Skeffington states, PTSD is not a life sentence and people can work through their trauma to become asymptomatic, but that won’t happen until we start to speak about it openly and honestly.
The exhibition, Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is showing at the John Curtin Gallery until September 14 2014.
Visit Ben Quilty’s website for more information about his work.