'It's just something I feel I have to do'

07 May 2019 by Claire Hunter

Rob Douma and artist Ben Quilty.

Rob Douma recently enjoyed a mentoring session with artist Ben Quilty.

Rob Douma has been telling stories through art since he was a child.

“As long as I can remember I’ve always been fairly creative, and drawing and painting were always things I did,” he said.

“My mum’s still got a pillowcase I designed with little army men all over it … and tanks and stuff...

“A lot of my artwork has been about telling stories, whether it’s mine or others’. It’s given me a voice and a vehicle to talk about all the experiences I had in my own decade in the military, and my own years in Afghanistan...

“And I’m still telling stories.”

In 2018, the former soldier and now Townsville-based artist won the Australian War Memorial’s inaugural Napier Waller Art Prize ­— the first national art prize offered exclusively to servicemen and servicewomen — for his work, Green on Blue: the betrayal of trust.

“At the end of the day, I’m just extremely grateful to the Memorial for having the vision to start this prize,” he said.

“I think art can be incredibly important and powerful … and I can see really strong positive things coming out of it, not just for the veterans in terms of art therapy, but with military stories in general.

“Even as a veteran with 15 years’ experience, you can’t know and see everything, so to see these different stories from different aspects of defence was really educational for me … but what I really got out of it was meeting these other veteran artists and developing these strong bonds with them.”

Rob Douma with his prize-winning work.

Rob Douma with his prize-winning work, Green on Blue: the betrayal of trust.

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. 

“The prize is an excellent platform to get veterans stories out of veterans’ mouths,” Douma said.

“Everyone has different experiences, and there’s no one story that covers every single soldier … I think it’s really important to collect and tell these individual stories [so that people can] see the greater picture [and] get a better understanding of the overall narrative of service life … and operational experiences.”

Douma’s prize-winning work, Green on Blue: the betrayal of trust, was created in response to an incident in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2011, when an Afghan soldier calmly began firing his machine-gun at 12 Australian soldiers tasked with mentoring him.

In betraying their trust, he killed three Australians and an Afghan interpreter, and wounded nine more, including Douma’s mate, Sergeant Robert Althofer, who was shot in the leg.

For Douma, the work is deeply personal. “That’s part of my history, my personal history, and to have that work here is great; it just feels right; it feels like the right place for it,” he said.

“This is where it should be, more so because of the story behind it … That story needs to be a story that people understand and see in the context of the Memorial, and that was one of the main reasons for telling that story.

“I wanted to tell that story in a way that wasn’t graphic, that didn’t have guns and blood and all those sort of elements, but still told a really powerful clear message … By using that iconic ‘Judas kiss’ moment … they can know that that’s the moment of betrayal, and that’s what that act was.”

Artist Ben Quilty started a portrait of Rob Douma.

Artist Ben Quilty began a portrait of Rob during their recent mentoring session.

For Douma, art has always been about telling stories.

“I have a very conflicted love–hate relationship with art … and I always come back to a cartoon I’ve seen where it says: ‘Yes, it’s hard to be an artist, but it’s even harder not to be an artist.’ It’s just something that I really feel that I have to do… I just have to make art.”

His experiences in the military have helped shape the work that he does. “There’s incredible strength that you get out of being in the military … and as much as I felt that I needed to do art, I also felt that I needed to be in the military…”

He joined the army at 17 and was deployed to East Timor twice before leaving the army in 2004. He worked in mine rescues, and became a security consultant in Afghanistan, running a close protection team for about four years. It was in 2011 that a friend suggested he look for work on oil rigs, a job that would allow him six months of the year to concentrate on his art.

He has since completed an arts degree, started his own tattoo business, and recently completed a two-week residency in the Art Section at the Memorial as well as a mentoring session with artist Ben Quilty.

“It’s meant a fair bit both professionally and personally,” Douma said. “I’ve admired Ben’s work for years, so it was interesting to see what he’s doing … and to be in his studio. A studio space is often a very personal space for artists … so I really respected that invitation.”

He said the residency had given him an insight into the National Collection and the work that goes on behind the scenes at the Memorial.

“For me to be able to see that, that’s been great,” he said.  “The curators … are all extremely professional and extremely committed and extremely enthusiastic about the collection and presenting the collection in the best way, so to actually see that, that’s really cool.”

Rob Douma with artist Ben Quilty

Rob Douma and artist Ben Quilty.

Today, Douma still feels driven to make art.

“Now, more than ever,” he said.  “Before I joined the military, I was being pushed towards art school, but I didn’t feel right or ready. It wasn’t the right time; I didn’t know enough about the world; I didn’t know enough about myself; and I wanted to explore the world and gain experiences.”

He hopes to encourage others to connect with the Memorial and share their stories.

“It’s a fine line between romanticising, or glorifying war, but … getting these stories from young veterans while we can is really important…

“I think it’s important to hear these individual stories … [and] tell as many stories as possible.”

The 2019 Napier Waller Art Prize is now open for entries. For more information, visit here.

Green on Blue: