In November 2011, artist Ben Quilty went to Afghanistan on behalf of the Australian War Memorial. During this time there he made sketches and drawings, which he subsequently turned into paintings from his studio in Robertson.
Karen Farrell spoke to Ben about his experience in Afghanistan and his 2011 Archibald win for his painting of Margaret Olley and friends in high places …
What was it like being in Afghanistan?
It was kind of terrifying to be honest … being transported from one place to another, in and out of different zones. The actual transport is really quite dangerous, so there were panicked moments … for example, the shuttle landing on a C130 (which is a Hercules). They do this thing called a shuttle landing into Tarin Kowt. You could take it as an adrenaline rush, but when you know the reason they’re taking an insanely steep decline is because they’re worried about being shot at by mortars and rockets and AK27 riffles – there’s a weird sort of adrenaline, but absolute fear.
I just thought so many times, “What am I doing here?” I think by our very nature we are anti-war; from the very beginning I was against the war, but I wanted to go there to witness what these young men had gotten themselves into.
I read that prior to going to Afghanistan you had a stereotype of what the Australian soldier is like and that the visit there changed this stereotype …
Definitely. I grew up in the north western suburbs of Sydney, out towards Richmond, and there’s a big airbase there. I know from when I grew up and the soldiers are drunken; they’re very physically strong, and there’s a level of inherent violence about that sort of young man.
Then you go to Afghanistan and see them, and they’re eight months without alcohol and physically extremely fit, going into a very extreme sort of survival mode. I’m not normally proud of my Australianness, as I have lots of questions about our own identity – but I have to say those young people made me feel very proud to be Australian. They carried themselves very well and had a sense of looking after me, and it was quite moving really, in a way … particularly for men who are half my age.
I remember reading that you thought you might even be an imposition, but obviously they were really looking after you and saw you as an Aussie, and you’re in the field with them …
Yeah, that’s right – exactly. As a young man, I worked in a lot of trades and was often a labourer, and there are a lot of initiation processes that young men are put through when you work in the building industry. They are often quite gruelling and ugly, and I didn’t like it. I kind of expected that sort of behaviour from them, but it was the complete opposite … there was that real sense of nurturing and care, and it was completely different to what I had expected … I thought I’d really need my wits about me just to look after myself among those ranks of people, but it was completely different to that.
I read that some Australian soldiers were lost while you were there – is that right?
Yeah, the three Australian soldiers were killed by the ANA soldier, who opened up with a machine gun at the Marching Out parade of the ANA troops.
I suppose it was hard for you to leave the boys and girls in the field when you got back on the plane to come back to ‘normality’?
It was a very strange feeling. You don’t know what to say, especially to people you’ve become friends with except, “Be safe, and look after yourself”. I know my mum always said look after yourself as her way of saying goodbye, but it has so much meaning when you leave very young people in that sort of situation. It definitely made me think we need to spend more time as a public paying attention to the politics of why we’re sending young people into that sort of extreme situation.
Moving to the 2011 Archibald and your winning painting of the gorgeous Margaret Olley. I read that your inspiration for using such a colourful palette was in part due to visiting her home and quasi studio and seeing the beautiful brightness and use of colour. I understand this provided inspiration for you and how you progressed the work?
Quite often I find I almost use too much colour, and I actually consciously try and pull back the palette. But with Margaret, she was such a beautiful colourist and so interested in what colour did and about the relationship between colour and emotion …
Her house is painted this incredible colour – all red and green, with flowers everywhere; so in a way, I was sort of free to use the palette in a way I naturally would. There’s lots of colour, but the face is very bare. There’s nothing on the surface of the primed linen, as though she was disappearing, because at that point in her life she was at the end of it and she was quite open about the fact that she was facing her own death.
I talked to her about how she was dealing with those sorts of things – how she felt about being at the end of her life.
I’m looking at a photo of the painting, and I get a sense of conformability – would that be fair to say?
Margaret suffered very publicly from chronic depression, and she was a great supporter of some charities that are involved with work about depression. The thing that is very empowering for me is that for an old person who has suffered from depression, you would assume she’d be suffering from depression facing her own death; but there was a real sense of life in the last works she made. It wasn’t a source of deep depression for her, which was quite incredible to see.
Right at the end, when I made the last drawing of her in her home, it was astounding to see that such a frail little human could make so many new works.
I said to her, “What’s going on? Where’s all this coming from?” She said to me, “I’m like an old tree that’s dying, sending forward flowers as quickly as it can.” The instant analogy is so powerful and involved the thing she loved so much – the flowers – it was a pretty amazing thing.
I went home after that and made the painting. It’s about her facing her death – she’s disappearing physically, but there’s still so much life in those eyes.
With your Archibald win, you had to defend the use of a photographic reference – how supportive was Margaret with this?
Margaret said to me, “Tell him to piss off!” Yeah, she was there; she sat for me. It’s funny, when all that happened and there was that article, I told Margaret and she said, “Ben, the press is much friendlier than they were with Bill Dobell”, who won the Archibald with a painting of her. They were very cruel of Margaret as a woman when Bill Dobell won that prize; they were ruthless and ugly, and they were bigots back then.
I take criticism like that back to the studio, and I try and work through those problems. They’re very unpleasant people who make those criticisms – you’ve gotta take it not only with a grain of salt; you’ve got to take it on and work it through and work out if the criticism is aimed in the right direction or not.
The Archibald in generally criticised for being popularist and as a portrait prize, it’s really the subject of a lot of conjecture from the media and the public. There always seems to be a debacle or some controversy …
Yeah, they look for it. They look for something controversial – and good luck to them. If there are a bunch of words about the arts and that brings attention to the arts, I think it’s a good thing.
Your paintings capture young booze-addled Aussie blokes self destructing. I know you grew up in north western Sydney with a love of cars and saw lots of carnage, and I wanted to ask about that whole suburban masculinity.
I often think I stumbled upon the subject matter that gave me the success that I’ve had; but, it was more than stumbling on it. I had only just survived my youth in a way; I’d been in some really serious car accidents. I’d had some deaths amongst my friends, lots of drug use, and the funny thing was, that most of the parents in our era had no idea it was going on. And it wasn’t just me and my friends … basically, I was the same age as most of the community. It seemed such an obvious thing to try and explore and understand.
There’d been a lot of sadness and hardship and excitement. I don’t regret any of it. It was those experiences that made me who I am, although a lot of it I felt was fairly unnecessary. When I look at it now, having a little boy myself, I don’t want him to have to go through that – partly for the selfish reason that I don’t want my son, his life, being risked for such inane reasons, but also because I just think there are better ways to do it.
Germaine Greer is a big advocate of your work and what you’re expressing. Are you still in touch with her?
I’ve actually just made a big work for her. I promised that after the Archibald I’d make something for the rainforest she has. She’s a legend. I’ve never genuinely walked away from a meeting with someone and felt so uplifted and inspired and depressed all at once. She’s an amazing human. There’s not one subject I could talk to her about where she didn’t make me feel like an amateur, and that I had thought through of all my arguments properly.
She’s just an incredible intellect and in some ways, she sort of strives for humanity to do its very best. She wants the human race to be more successful than it possibly can in some ways, and that’s the depressing nature walking away from Germaine, because I think I realise that it’s never going to happen.
There’s this innate self-destruct part of human nature that’s going to prevent these things happening. Although by the same token, it’s so exciting meeting someone who spends every waking hour thinking about the human condition and why we do the things we do and how we can be better at being human.
Thanks Ben. Interview by Karen Farrell.