When Ben Quilty left for Afghanistan in 2011, he promised his wife one thing – he wouldn’t travel over land in a Bushmaster. Instead, the official war artist found himself hitching a ride in a Chinook and saw something that has intrigued him ever since.
“I remember one trip leaving Tarin Kot with a group of young men who were on their way out to a forward operating base – quite tense, very armed – and there was me with a drawing book, in navy blue, standing out as the odd one out,” he said.
“All of them completely understood that I’d made a promise to my wife, and … we flew over an incredible mountain ridge, and looking down they said, ‘Hop up, and look out the windows now.’
“We were at about 3,000 metres I’d guess, and looking down to the top of the mountain I saw two wheel tracks travelling up the side of a huge sandy hill, and on top of the hill, laid out in rocks, was a massive – and I’m talking 60-metre long – perfect image of a kangaroo.”
No one on board knew how the kangaroo came to be there, but Quilty was intrigued.
“I assumed … that there had been some Australians leaving their mark in a very peaceful and poetic way on top of a huge dusty hill in the middle of Uruzgan Province,” he said.
“I asked when I got back, and two young men said, ‘Yes, we know who will know. Come and meet Simon,’ and I went into his armoured shipping container on the outskirts of Tarin Kot, inside the Australian Base, and he pulled aside his sheet on his little bunk bed. He had hundreds and hundreds of drawings that he’d been making ever since he’d arrived in Afghanistan.
“That young man was a real centre for a lot of other young men and women. It was a very peaceful place, [and] even though it was his private bedroom, all of the boys that I met there knew about Simon’s drawings, and knew about the poetry of his drawings.
“But even Simon didn’t know who put the kangaroo on top of that mountain, so if anyone does know, I’d really be very interested if you could tell me who did it.
“And I hope the young men and women that made the kangaroo hear about [this prize] because there was a very creative bone in that group of people standing on top of that hill in the middle of Afghanistan, waiting for their next deployment.”
Quilty was speaking at the Australian War Memorial at the launch of the inaugural Napier Waller Art Prize, the first national art prize offered exclusively to Defence personnel.
The $10,000 prize is open to all current and former Defence personnel and aims to promote the healing potential of art for servicemen and servicewomen and to raise a broader awareness of military experience and the impact of service on the individual.
“They are people who have huge stories to tell, so … I think it’s a really exciting thing to encourage them to have that serious outlet to show the world,” Quilty said.
“When I was in Afghanistan … a lot of the young men and women felt that they were doing very important work, but when they came back to Australia they often felt very disempowered and very voiceless, and I actually feel that it’s very important that we all hear from them, to hear their stories [and] to hear what war is like.
“I know one mate said, ‘Oh, I’m terrified, I can’t do that,’ and I said, ‘Really, you served in Afghanistan four times – this is not scary, enter your artwork and tell the world about your stories.’”