Review by Nix Herriot
Twelve life jackets. Rendered in violent strokes of oil paint, these luminous vests comprise a monumental artwork. A contorted face appears on one canvas, emitting a silent scream. On another, a disembodied eye stares at me in terror. The impact of artist Ben Quilty’s paintings is immediate.
Each jacket carries as its title the name of an individual who reached Australia’s borders seeking refuge, but made it no further. Fearing deportation, Khodayar Amini doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in bushland south-east of Melbourne. Mohammad Nazari, a Hazara man tormented by the uncertainty of his bridging visa, hanged himself on a Sydney construction site. Upon receiving his rejected application for asylum, 30 year old Rezene Mebrahta Engeda drowned himself in Victoria’s Maribyrnong River.
Quilty’s life jackets are tombstones. With his palette knife, he memorialises the lives of refugees with a sensitivity that we never witness from our nation’s leaders.
This searing condemnation of injustice is evident across the artworks currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. ‘My work is about working out how to live in this world,’ Quilty explains. ‘It’s about compassion and empathy but also anger and resistance’.
On another wall, Quilty presents a nightmarish vision of the violence inflicted on Afghanistan by countries including Australia, a conflict which Quilty experienced as a war artist in 2011. Along the horizon, we identify the purple mountains of Kandahar. The centre of the canvas is inhabited by an apocalyptic maelstrom of wildly applied paint, threatening to drag humanity into its dark depths. Viewed alongside powerful portraits of returned soldiers, we cannot help but feel unsettled by this surreal and sinister vortex of war.
Descriptions alone do no justice to the sheer intensity of Quilty’s paintings. This is art which presents us with compelling visions of our time. And despite the sombre nature of the subject matter, the possibility of change are a constant presence. We shouldn’t respond with quiet contemplation. Instead, Quilty’s humanism urges us to act.
Quilty, 2 March — 2 June, Art Gallery of South Australia, free entry.