In January 2002 the Australian War Memorial, continuing a tradition extending back to the First World War, appointed Peter Churcher as an official war artist. Selected for the diversity and narrative power of his images, his brief was to record the activities of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as part of Australia's involvement in the International Coalition Against Terrorism.

In February 2002, Churcher travelled to the Middle East. Arriving at Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, he began immediately to paint on wooden boards. Street scene, Bahrain, with its dusky pink background dominated by a grand mosque, vividly conveys the atmosphere and exotic culture of this old area of the city.

During the first three weeks of his commission, Churcher experienced life aboard HMAS Kanimbla and Adelaide in the Persian Gulf. From the observation deck he was able to record a lone sailor gazing out to sea at dawn in End of night watch shift, 6.30 am, HMAS Kanimbla. Australian and American sailors bound for smugglers' vessels were documented in Boarding party, HMAS Kanimbla. Moments of sleep and waiting are captured in the paintings Sleeping guy in "helo", HMAS Kanimbla and Alert 15, two-deck café, HMAS Kanimbla. The silent, airless squalor of a vessel caught smuggling goods out of Iraq in breach of sanctions is graphically detailed in Interior of cabin in Iraqi smugglers' ship, Persian Gulf. Hinting at the "enemy", many of Churcher's works are responses "appropriate for an open ended conflict, against a somewhat amorphous enemy, with no clear battleground or frontier".[1]

ART91772. Sailor Fraser, HMAS Kanimbla Sailor Fraser, HMAS Kanimbla. ART91772

Of all the works Churcher produced with the Royal Australian Navy, it is in his portraits that he reveals his skill as a realist painter. In works such as Messman "Jacko", HMAS Kanimbla and Stoker Emma Conway: the engine room, HMAS Kanimbla, unassuming men and women are imbued with a dignity and presence traditionally reserved for the depiction of more senior naval staff. Executed in an economical manner, both works convey the physical and emotional character of the sitters with simplicity and directness of vision. The ordinary, the intimate and the unique are combined in studies such as Sailor Fraser, HMAS Kanimbla and "Jack" Daniels.

Leaving the Middle East, Churcher flew to the island of Diego Garcia, the US military base in the Indian Ocean. During his two weeks there, he captured the environment, tent life, and images of Australian Hornets (F/A-18s) in compositions that evoke a strong sense of place and the military presence on the island.

Churcher often painted at night to avoid the tropical heat. Tent city, Diego Garcia, 9.00 pm - 1.00 am, with its large air-conditioned tents, each accommodating six men, evokes the night's cool stillness. American B-52 bombers returning from, and arming for, sorties into Afghanistan details the bombers on the main American flightline, some recently returned from Afghanistan and others reloading for their next flight. A heavy, storm-cloud-filled sky provides the artist with a fitting backdrop for the squat grey forms of these menacing aircraft. The juxtaposition of natural beauty and the sophisticated machinery of war is even more apparent in View of lagoon from the eastern side of the island, Diego Garcia. Here the spectacular blue and green tones of the "unspoiled tropical paradise" contrast markedly with the row of American nuclear warships on the horizon.

ART91749. "Junior",Flying Officer Jordan Sander. ART91749

Churcher's paintings and drawings reveal the "background to a modern war - preparation, training, technology, planes, boats and people - in an ambience of waiting".[2] The young officer in "Junior", Flying Officer Jordan Sander, Diego Garcia has the exuberance of an "archetypal fighter pilot", but Churcher also witnessed some of the more managerial tasks undertaken by RAAF officers (see, for example, Flying officers' morning meeting with the commanding officer in the operations room, Diego Garcia). A young mechanic, asleep in a communal tent, is the subject of "Macka"sleeping in tent, Diego Garcia. Amid the machinery and technology of war, the elements of his public (the uniform hanging on the locker) and his private lives (the teddy bear and the photographs of his wife and dog) serve as a poignant reminder of humanity.

During his commission with the RAN and RAAF, Peter Churcher completed many paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks. The Memorial has acquired a selection of these works and they represent an important - and the most recent - contribution to its official war art scheme. They offer a valuable insight into the role and nature of Australia's engagement in the war against terrorism.

Claire Baddeley
Curator of Art

  1. ^ J. Szego, "An Army caught napping presents a different picture", The Age, 16 March 2002, p. 7.
  2. ^ L. Martin-Chew, "What he sees is what you get", The Australian, 26 April 2002, p. 13.

 

Peter Churcher Official artist: the war against terrorism