Quilty, winner of 2011 Archibald Portrait Prize, became War Artist for Australian War Memorial, Nov 2011. What was it like being in Afghanistan?
It was kind of terrifying to be honest … being transported from one place to another, in and out of different zones. The actual transport is really quite dangerous, so there were panicked moments … for example, the shuttle landing on a C130 (which is a Hercules). They do this thing called a shuttle landing into Tarin Kowt. You could take it as an adrenaline rush, but when you know the reason they’re taking an insanely steep decline is because they’re worried about being shot at by mortars and rockets and AK27 riffles – there’s a weird sort of adrenaline, but absolute fear.
I just thought so many times, “What am I doing here?” I think by our very nature we are anti-war; from the very beginning I was against the war, but I wanted to go there to witness what these young men had gotten themselves into.
I read that prior to going to Afghanistan you had a stereotype of what the Australian soldier is like and that the visit there changed this stereotype …
Definitely. I grew up in the north western suburbs of Sydney, out towards Richmond, and there’s a big airbase there. I know from when I grew up and the soldiers are drunken; they’re very physically strong, and there’s a level of inherent violence about that sort of young man.
Then you go to Afghanistan and see them, and they’re eight months without alcohol and physically extremely fit, going into a very extreme sort of survival mode. I’m not normally proud of my Australianness, as I have lots of questions about our own identity – but I have to say those young people made me feel very proud to be Australian. They carried themselves very well and had a sense of looking after me, and it was quite moving really, in a way … particularly for men who are half my age.
I remember reading that you thought you might even be an imposition, but obviously they were really looking after you and saw you as an Aussie, and you’re in the field with them …
Yeah, that’s right – exactly. As a young man, I worked in a lot of trades and was often a labourer, and there are a lot of initiation processes that young men are put through when you work in the building industry. They are often quite gruelling and ugly, and I didn’t like it. I kind of expected that sort of behaviour from them, but it was the complete opposite … there was that real sense of nurturing and care, and it was completely different to what I had expected … I thought I’d really need my wits about me just to look after myself among those ranks of people, but it was completely different to that.
I read that some Australian soldiers were lost while you were there – is that right?
Yeah, the three Australian soldiers were killed by the ANA soldier, who opened up with a machine gun at the Marching Out parade of the ANA troops.
I suppose it was hard for you to leave the boys and girls in the field when you got back on the plane to come back to ‘normality’?
It was a very strange feeling. You don’t know what to say, especially to people you’ve become friends with except, “Be safe, and look after yourself”. I know my mum always said look after yourself as her way of saying goodbye, but it has so much meaning when you leave very young people in that sort of situation. It definitely made me think we need to spend more time as a public paying attention to the politics of why we’re sending young people into that sort of extreme situation