'I feel like this makes my voice matter'

04 June 2019 by Claire Hunter

Natalie Duncan

When Natalie Duncan was serving in Afghanistan, she was moved by the rugs women created in response to the conflict.

“When I was over there, I would go down to the market place,” she said.

“They have these war rugs that women have been weaving for generations that capture the conflict of Afghanistan.

“You can literally go back and see the history of conflict in Afghanistan through these war rugs.

“They have a lovely colourful, naïve take on conflict, and I really connected with it.”

In 2018, Duncan created her own version of the war rug for the Australian War Memorial’s inaugural Napier Waller Art Prize, the first national art prize offered exclusively to servicemen and servicewomen.

Her work, Memory jug, was highly commended and featured in the 2018 Napier Waller Art Prize exhibition at the Memorial.

“I’m just really proud to be here,” she said at the time. “It was a really great catalyst to make something that was important to me … And I’m really proud of it, and really proud to be a part of the [prize]; I think it’s so worthwhile and so important.”

Entries are now open for the 2019 Napier Waller Art Prize, which aims to promote artistic excellence and the healing potential of art, while raising a broader awareness of the military experience and the impact of service on the individual. 

For Duncan, the prize was a way to share her own story of service and make sense of her memories.

“It was inspired by the war rugs that you see in Afghanistan,” she said. 

“I just loved the way these scenes were represented in this lovely, naïve way, so when the art prize was launched, I knew exactly what I was going to do.

“I can’t weave, I make ceramics, so I put my own war rug on the ceramic, and each little illustration is from a memory of my time there.”

She remembers watching soldiers go outside the wire for days, knowing they faced the hidden dangers of improvised explosive devices, and seeing them return filthy and exhausted. She remembers hearing “Maximus” fire for the first time, thinking they were under attack, and then sleeping through a rocket attack. She remembers hearing the Islamic call to prayer and seeing a woman floating in a sea of blue material on the back of a motorbike. But she also remembers studying her fingerprints, and “Ben the sniper” saying, “Don’t worry, Nat, we’d find you and bring you home” – and knowing  that they would.

She poured her memories into her work, using the medium that she loves to tell her story.

“Everyone has different stories, but art gives you that autonomy to tell it exactly how you want to tell your story … and that’s what’s so great,” she said. “There’s a lovely tactile quality in the ceramic; you can put your hand in it, and you bring something essentially out mud, and make this precious object from dirt and clay, and I love that.”

Seeing her work on display at the Memorial was particularly special.

“I think, for me, it’s the fact that people want to hear my story,” she said.  

“I didn’t think I would ever be in the War Memorial … I’m a clerk that went to Afghanistan; I don’t have the war stories that a lot of people do here, but I feel like this makes my voice matter.”

Applications are now open for the 2019 Napier Waller Art Prize. For more details, visit here.