New beginnings: Wendy Sharpe and East Timor
Wendy Sharpe was one of two artists appointed by the Australian War Memorial to cover the Interfet peacekeeping operations in East Timor. She follows the tradition established by the three women appointed as official artists during the Second World War: Nora Heysen, Stella Bowen and Sybil Craig.
Australian troops arrived in East Timor on 20 September 1999. Sharpe arrived in mid-December, in time for the Tour of Duty concert and the Christmas celebrations which marked a turning point for the East Timorese and new beginnings. Sharpe's visual images are personal and passionate, providing an opportunity to engage with works that are refreshing in their quality. They are full of people and colour, giving another perspective on East Timor and a sense of hope for the future.
Sharpe was the ideal candidate for this commission: a hard worker whose artistic practice is grounded in life drawing and painting. She has an honest approach to her art and draws prolifically. She was the recipient of the Archibald prize in 1996 for her Self-portrait as Diana of Erskinville. This portrait, like her paintings and drawings, shows her strength as a figurative painter and her exuberance with paint. Her work is full of sensuality and energy, brought out by her assured rendering of the human form and her passion for her subject. She was also willing to contend with the uncomfortable conditions likely in East Timor.
The arrangements for Sharpe were the same as those established for Rick Amor: she was attached to the Army History Unit in Dili and assigned a military escort. On 12 December Sharpe left Sydney for Darwin, where she attended briefing sessions with the other Interfet personnel.
Attired in a non-combatant uniform with the insignia "Australian Official Artist", Sharpe carried her army pack, art materials and four sketchbooks and began drawing immediately on her arrival in Darwin. She filled the sketchbooks with hundreds of drawings capturing the immediacy of her experiences in pencil, charcoal, pastel and gouache. They demonstrate her love of people and faces and offer vivid insights into the daily life of the soldiers and the East Timorese. Lecture theatre, Rowell Centre, Darwin is a charcoal drawing enlivened by dabs of gouache indicating the camouflage of the uniforms. Dipping in mosquito stuff, Robertson Barracks, Darwin records precautions against mosquitoes, a continuous threat in East Timor. On arriving in Dili Sharpe found herself sharing her quarters with a young female soldier. Sergeant Kate Pendergast cleaning her rifle, Dili, East Timor shows the sergeant sitting by her stretcher, surrounded by personal belongings which create a private space in contrast with the military activity in which she is engaged. Dalila and Maria washing clothes, Dili, East Timor captures the East Timorese women getting on with everyday tasks. Kenyan, Australian and German soldiers at an 8 am briefing, Interfet Headquarters, Dili portrays the multinational character of the peacekeeping force. A group of powerful charcoal drawings of Suai Cathedral create a mood of foreboding: the cathedral soars against the night sky, shielding the horrors the militia perpetrated there against the fleeing East Timorese.
A series of watercolours and gouaches capture the everyday activities of Robertson Barracks. Kitchen, Roberston Barracks, Darwin shows the chef, clothed in white, preparing food; Self-portrait, Darwin shows Sharpe stripped to underclothes drawing in the coolness of her room. In the mess, Robertson Barracks, Darwin shows the young soldiers drinking lurid cordial.
Leaving Darwin for Dili, Sharpe found herself waiting for transport and spent the time sketching the young male and female soldiers playing cards in their t-shirts, singlets and shorts in Girls playing cards, Darwin and Boys playing cards, Darwin. Sharpe was struck by the youth of the soldiers and their amazing resourcefulness in changing situations. Her delightful gouache, Night on HMAS Jervis Bay, finds Sharpe peering out of her makeshift tent on deck seeking an escape route to the bathroom.
Sharpe's diary is an interesting chronicle of events, including what she ate and the physical difficulties presented by the heat, sweat and dirt in East Timor. These are not complaints, but a barometer which measures her continual focus on the job while trying to cope with mosquitoes, lack of privacy, finding toilets, sleeping on a stretcher and feeling dirty. Her art does not reflect these personal discomforts but, in vigorous and positive visual language, records with an artist's eye the humorous, joyful and sorrowful moments of her stay. The diary also records the many stories that she heard from Australian soldiers of the horrors they encountered when they first arrived.
Sharpe's handling of paint is assured in the many works she did of the East Timorese people, particularly the children. The intensity of their emotion reflects her compassion for and interest in what she observed during her stay. The vivid gouaches of children dressed in bright attire, clutching the toys they received from the Australian soldiers on Christmas Day, show no signs of the ordeals the children might well have gone through. The distribution of goods in Soldier handing out school materials to children, near Suai and Soldiers with refugees, Dili shows the compassionate side of soldiering in a country torn apart by conflict.
Sharpe painted her large canvas, Midnight at Suai Cathedral, on her return to her studio in Sydney. It captures the drama and terrors of a people reliving their nightmares. The orange and red sky behind the cathedral and the faces lit by a green light create a sense of apprehension. Christmas Eve, Suai is a sea of dark forms in front of a brightly-lit stage on which the East Timorese re-enacted their narrative of the carnage inflicted on them. Sharpe was deeply affected by this performance and interpreted it as an attempt by the East Timorese to exorcise their pain.
In marked contrast, her second large painting Christmas Tour of Duty concert, Dili is exuberant and high spirited, full of sensual forms which celebrate human survival. A series of smaller works, some on coloured paper, record the many lively aspects of this concert. Army girls, Tour of Duty concert, Dili and the other drawings of the concert display a refreshing use of colour and expressive forms.
Sharpe's primary focus is on the people and their sense of joy at returning home. Her contribution provides a positive view of a people embarking on the challenge of rebuilding their nation.
Lola Wilkins, Head of Art, Australian War Memorial