This afternoon I dropped by the John Curtin Gallery here in Perth to check out an exhibition by two recent Australian War artists, Ben Quilty and Shaun Gladwell, both of whom were commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to cover the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s a very contemporary approach to war art and if one is expecting the traditional heroic depictions of the military on operations they will be sadly disappointed.
I quite liked the show, particularly Ben Quilty‘s very emotional and expressive portraits of the servicemen and women that he met whilst in Afghanistan in 2011 and then subsequently painted again after their return to Australia. The resulting portraits are not pretty likenesses, but are raw, the thick impasto application of paint charged with emotion. The paintings reveal much about the vulnerability and difficulty that so many of our servicemen face when returning home and trying to reintegrate into a society that is largely indifferent to their service and sacrifice.
Shaun Gladwell traveled to Afghanistan as an official War Artist in 2009. His work includes photographs, paintings and video. One of his pieces is a video portrait of Australian Special Air Service Regiment Victoria Cross winner Mark Donaldson VC. As a badge collector I found some aspects of this work particularly interesting, including Donno’s choice of chopped ANF patch that can be seen on his left sleeve in the stills grab above. It appears that he has cut the Southern Cross from the national flag and is wearing just the Union Jack with a single star below it. Interesting… I’ve seen this a couple of times now and I wonder if there is a reason for this symbolic change or (more likely) that its just to reduce the IR signature of the full size patch?
Both artists were commissioned as part of the Official War Art Scheme, the longest running and largest commissioning program of art in Australia. The Scheme was started during WW1 and reactivated during WW2, then again for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. In 1999 the Scheme was renewed for the Australian deployment to Timor and since then has seen artists deploy to various theatres of conflict, including the Middle East and Solomon Islands. In 2003 the AWM commissioned a mate of mine, David Dare Parker, to be its first official War Photographer, deploying alongside artist Lewis Miller to document the Second Gulf War. The patch below is one that was given to Dave by the AWM for use during the deployment and then subsequently given to me for my collection.
Ben Quilty: after Afghanistan and Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan is on show at the gallery from 2 August – 14 September, 2014