In a place dedicated to showcasing the horrors of war through dioramas, artefacts and dry, realist paintings, Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan emerges as a bold and dynamic expression of the psychological effects of war.
Held at the Australian War Memorial, the exhibition showcases a small collection of paintings and drawings created after Quilty spent three weeks in Afghanistan in 2011 as an official war artist. While the position of war artist has traditionally been highly contentious, and seen as promoting and glorifying Australia’s engagement in foreign conflicts, Quilty is resolutely anti-war. The exhibition, consisting entirely of portraits of Australian soldiers after their return from Afghanistan, is testament to this, revealing the psychological strains and trauma experienced by soldiers.
Quilty’s figures are predominantly nude, focusing on the soldiers after their protective armour and uniforms have been removed. In focusing on the body, Quilty brings us back to the reality of the soldiers’ lived experience. War becomes not just an abstract concept but rather something tangible that is fought with the real bodies of real men. In Quilty’s own words, he wishes to show “the frailty of human skin and the darkness of the emotional weight of war”.
In works such as the series on John Oddie, Quilty renders his subjects using thick, impasto paint that drips and folds like old skin upon the soldiers’ faces. The paint acts almost as a symbol for lived experience, weighing the soldiers down. A strange dichotomy is created in the contrast between the laboured face and Oddie’s simple, clean uniform. In reflection of our society’s treatment of returned soldiers, the realities of war remain trapped in the paint, in the skin. The trauma is confined to the minds of those who have experienced it, unable to be manifested in other, more concrete forms.
However, as important as bringing the realities of warfare home to an Australian audience is, Quilty’s real value lies in what he achieves for the soldiers that he depicts. Seeing themselves, and their experiences, through the eyes of Quilty, has proved to have a decidedly therapeutic effect. As John Oddie explained upon seeing his portrait, “until then I hadn’t been fully honest with myself about what I was feeling”.
Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan runs until June 17
The Australian War Memorial is open 10am – 5pm daily
Image: Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no 3 by Ben Quilty
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