When I meet Ben Quilty he looks and smells exactly as I imagined. He’s dressed in a flannelette shirt, jeans and sneakers, with scruffy hair and a beard that's fiercely thick. He smells of oil paint and I can see it still jammed under his fingernails. Sitting in a leafy courtyard at the National Art School, Quilty disarms me with his warm and welcoming presence despite the obvious emotion he displays as we start discussing his latest exhibition.
Quilty was commissioned as an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial to document the experiences of Australian servicemen and women and spent a month in Afghanistan back in 2011. The resulting exhibition After Afghanistan has quickly become the most hotly debated of his career. Interestingly, he was officially given the Australian Defence Force (ADF) stamp of approval but, perhaps ironically so, it has stirred up quite a few emotional responses since it’s opening last month. The 21 studio paintings – in Quilty's signature oil on linen – and 16 sketches reveal a lot more about the human face of war than the ADF is perhaps willing to admit.
We've been speaking for only a few minutes but I can already see the incredible effect this collection of work has had on the artist. He speaks with intense emotion, his eyes are wide and concentrated and just as captivating as his words.
“It was dark and sinister and overwhelming,” says Quilty of his time in Kandahar.
“The thing I wasn’t prepared for was the constant threat and rockets landing inside the basin, that was horrifying."
But Quilty's exhibition isn't one that celebrates the war hero in a traditional sense, rather, it focuses on the intense physicality of the soldiers and the emotional and psychological consequences of war.
“They carry with them an emotional experience that is almost physical and I wanted to record that emotional weight,” says Quilty.
Works like Trooper M, after Afghanistan and Air Commander John Oddie and after Afghanistan no. 2 are not portraits of the traditional heroic nude, but images imbued with the lasting experience of war. The faces in the impressive canvases are frightened and hollow and the bodies stripped bear appearing fragile and contorted without the protection of armour or a uniform.
Quilty spent 12 months creating the works in his studio in the NSW southern highlands where he invited the troopers he met in Afghanistan to sit for him upon their return from deployment.
“It was very confronting, particularly watching these guys fall apart and unravel. There’s a sense of team morale while the troops are in Afghanistan but when they return to their green, safe, first world Australia that’s when they fall apart and that’s the classic time when post-traumatic stress hits.
“They have nightmares, they become very violent, they often drag their partners out of bed and hold them on the ground and scream for cover and I’ve heard that from many young guys who are dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve had their wives and girlfriends in tears in my studio talking about their experience being married to these people.”
This is an overwhelming part of a largely untold story.
“Three guys have been diagnosed since I started working with them and most are going outside of the ADFA to find their own private specialists to help them and at the moment the ADFA isn’t making things easy for them.”
Quilty explains subjects like Trooper M are part of the Special Operations Task Group and are therefore classified under protected identity status.
“They are fighting a war every single day and they are engaging with enemies, risking their lives and dealing with high enemy casualities. There is constant death around them, extreme pressure and because of their status, they’re not allowed to talk about their experiences, which is doing them a big disservice.
“The stories [Trooper M] told me about Afghanistan, the triggers to his post traumatic stress, and the experiences he’s had are like nothing I’ve ever heard in my life. And most of them have these stories.”
Throughout the painting process, Quilty says he wanted to provide a vehicle for his subjects to tell their stories, confront their fears, and shed a light on the darkness so many are suffering - often in silence and with little help.
“I found the commission so much more important than my career and in the end the work that I made is not my opinion of who they are, it’s the truth about how they feel, what they are confronting. It’s about their future and their past,” he explains.
Australian soldiers, sailors and a number of air force personnel have come to the National Art School to view the exhibition and have expressed their gratitude to the artist for telling a story that no one else would.
“The arts are crucially important to a healthy society. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I know what I’ve achieved with this exhibition and how cathartic it has been, on a personal level, for the guys I’ve worked with,” says Quilty.
Yet, in a nation obsessed with sporting heroes and the pursuit of physical excellence, the arts seem to fall to the wayside.
“The underfunding and lack of respect for the arts in this country makes me very sad,” says Quilty, his voice raised a few decibels.
“The arts isn’t just about painting; it’s about film, theatre and literature – these are so important and make up the real fibre and substance of a community.”
In fact, his exhibition is on show at the National Art School in East Sydney because the Australian War Memorial in Canberra doesn’t have an exhibition space.
“The Australian War Memorial has one of the biggest collections in Australia containing some of the most profoundly important work about war, death, sadness and hope, and yet, no exhibition space. In the past they probably thought their collection was worth a lot of money but not really important to their audience.
“I hope I’ve proved them wrong.”
After Afghanistan will tour New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Canberra until May 2015.