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Ben Quilty is an artist activist
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Conversations
23 September 2019

Ben Quilty is an artist activist

Interview by Jessica Raschke
Photography by Toby Burrows

Ben Quilty is like any other human being: complex, flawed, obvious, messy, courageous, funny. As one of Australia’s best-known and internationally acclaimed artists, his public profile as an “artist activist” can invite intense public scrutiny. He gets fairly and unfairly described as all kinds of things, yet his modus operandi is humanity and compassion.

In 2002, Ben won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, and was a finalist in the Wynne and Archibald prizes. His success continued: he won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2009 with a portrait of Jimmy Barnes, and in 2011 he won the coveted Archibald Prize with a portrait of artist and mentor, Margaret Olley. From thereon, his position in the limelight foregrounded his passion for social justice. He has travelled to Afghanistan as Australia’s official war artist, generating a suite of humane and vulnerable portraits of Australian personnel. He provided high-profile support to his friend Myuran Sukumaran, a convicted drug smuggler and aspiring artist who was executed in Indonesia in 2015. And, upon Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan’s invitation, visited refugee camps in Greece, Serbia and Lebanon. One outcome of this heart-breaking experience was the publication of Home: Drawings by Syrian Children.

Ben has a healthy disregard for boundaries and constraints, and an intolerance of injustice. His is driven by the need for more compassion and community, for working together to create spaces where everyone belongs. He is a genuine free spirit who doesn’t entertain partisanship or anger-driven, hate-fuelled left versus right politicking, authoritative controls, or prevailing creative trends and expectations (remember that painting—the art form for which he is most well-known—was once declared a dying art). Sometimes he embodies a positive expression of the Australian larrikin: a boisterous maverick with the common touch.

I met with Ben in Sydney, soon after the Adelaide launch of his first major touring retrospective and its accompanying book catalogue, Quilty. Despite surely being buffeted by weeks of media hullabaloo, I was struck that he cheerfully welcomed me with an animated smile and his nice guy charisma. We quickly settled into a spirited, sprawling conversation about so many matters central to his being—art, politics, compassion and family, and how us humans could change things for the better.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

JESS – There’s a popular narrative out there about you and your early days of having been a bit of a ratbag, drinking, drugs, driving fast cars. That gives me the impression that you were well ensconced in a really specific kind of masculinity. What was it about you that led you to take a step towards pursuing the arts? Which I imagine would have been unpopular among your peers at the time?

BEN – When I won the Whiteley scholarship I went to Paris and I had already made the Torana paintings. And when I got back, the Sydney Morning Herald had a headline like “Ben Quilty returns from Paris in a Torana.” That’s how that thing about me came up. And so people started saying, “Tell me about your youth.” But before I won the scholarship I studied feminist theory, I did a full two-unit course in Aboriginal culture and history. I was pretty rounded. I played music. I was at times off the rails as well, but lots of my young peers were. I don’t think I was any different. People wanted a headline and I had no control over it. I remember reading that and thinking I’ve made a huge body of work, some really loose oil drawings on beautiful linen—for the first time in my life I could afford good materials—and no one said a word about it. It was all about the Torana paintings. It was this kind of quirk or joke that I had gone there and made Torana paintings, which I hadn’t. They were part of the application that Margaret Olley judged me to win. From then on it was really lazy journalism, people just kept going on. Maybe it’s an interesting story, people don’t expect it, I was meant to come from a yellow corn field in France, not the north-western suburbs of Sydney. But I always knew I loved art. I never stopped. I went straight from high school to art school because when I was pushed to say what am I going to study at university I didn’t want to study anything except art or drama, or something in the humanities.

I think in Australia there is a tendency to have a limited understanding of what art can be—especially from an Australian. Art can be many, many things from anyone in any other country but in Australia it can’t be high-minded, it can’t really push beyond the common tropes that we have here.

That’s a really good point. If I was making the paintings that I make now, which are far more sophisticated and interesting, and far more multi-dimensional. If I had shown these works back then, it would have been dismissed, overlooked. It’s an arc that helps people understand, but you have to take the audience with you. In a sense the Toranas were just a fun way in. I’ve made shows before then. I had an exhibition on King Street in Newtown of little landscape paintings that I’d made in Paris. A whole show of it. That show went quite well but it got no press. And then I made the Torana paintings and I was astounded at the press they got, it was ridiculous. I knew they were good paintings but I didn’t understand the subject matter. Now I’ve tried to work out why I did that subject, what was I doing, and it came down to reading a piece by Arthur Streeton about looking in our own backyard in trying to find an Australian identity. I thought that was a really interesting point. Stop looking at Paris,stop looking for these esoteric otherworldly art subjects, and look at an art subject right here.And I tell students this all the time now, “You should look immediately around you. You can do a painting of a computer.” Italian Renaissance painting? No. Because we live in 2019.

You have reached this level of fame and there has been article after article and broadcast after broadcast about you. I wonder if, in among all of that, there are things that haven’t been said about you that you would like people to hear and listen to?

I like gardening. And I tell everyone and no one ever prints it!

[Laughs]

Okay, well it will go into this article!

And it’s the ultimate form of creativity. I put little waratahs into the ground when I had a baby boy. He was on the ground next to the hole, playing in the dirt. They’re now 12-feet high with thousands of waratah flowers on them. I love that, it’s what keeps me sane. I’m lucky that I have a studio and in the end my work can speak for itself.And the work that I made recently, it’s nothing about what I keep talking about, it’s about the sense of collective anxiety that the world is facing in these really uncertain times. In a way, I made them for my children, to show them that I was watching, that I’m protecting them. I don’t want them to worry about it. There’s a lot that the human race should be worrying about right now.

What do you think are the key concerns for the human race?

The environment. It’s the elephant in every room and it’s a big elephant. And there’s a sense of catastrophic sadness attached to that. I’m always drawn to working out why things happen. We’ve lost 33 marsupials in Australia, extinct, gone forever. And most scientists believe that 23 of 33 of those are caused by cats. In 1998, we brought in the Companion Animals Act and every dog had to be kept on a leash. They brought in legislation that every cat has to be kept on a leash. And a lobby group came up and said that cats have been free since Egypt and they should be free now. So, they cancelled the legislation, the Companion Animals Act says that dogs have to be kept on a leash and cooped up all the time and cats can be free 24 hours a day. And in that time, since 1992, 23 of those extinctions have happened. What are we doing? We caused those extinctions directly. When I hear politicians, who build a groundswell of support on this ultra-optimistic positive nationalist agenda, it’s criminal.

Have you found a way to understand that? 

No, that’s what I’m always doing. I’ve started making paintings of recent far right politicians and I think it’s important that they’re not named, that we don’t give them a platform by using their names all the time, but it’s really for me to try and understand. I have a lot of friends on each side of the left and right debate, but a lot of my left-wing friends are driven by anger. 

You won’t get anywhere if you’re driven by anger.

I go out of my way and meet people who I’m not meant to like because I want to understand them. And almost every time I like them. I like them for their humanity and for the person they are. I don’t hate someone for their belief system, their point of view or the colour of their skin. I’ve made a practice of that. I like humans. I’ve been accused of being friends with people from the other side of politics from both sides. I own it.I am friends with those people. I want to understand them.When I was 18 one of my mates was part of the beginning of the One Nation party near where I grew up. My Mum said, “I can’t believe you hang around with people like that.” But I’ve been to school with him and he’s become a really tender, beautiful, compassionate man who totally disagrees with the boy he was at 18 years old. If I had left him then… Well, I don’t say that I’m the only reason but I’m definitely one of the reasons that he’s made those changes in his life away from hate. And I practice that. I think the problem with the world at the moment is you cannot like your opposition no matter what it’s about. People saying that it should be about skin colour, that it should be about language or religion, it should be about left and right politics, it should be about whether you’re a climate change sceptic or not. I still find climate change sceptics terrifying and dangerous, but hating and having a go at them? You lose, we lose. Collectively we lose. And our children will pay the price for our loss. Whereas I think we need to reach out to those people.

Years ago, somebody wrote a bad review about me, so I wrote to the guy. I tried to make it as loving as I could, even though I was hurt. Furious, actually. I wrote to him and never heard back. When I look back, the paintings weren’t great but I still stand by them for being 25 and 26 and doing what I could do, and making a comment about my identity, who I was, how I fitted in. I was actually honest.

But you get struck down?

All the time. That’s the scariest thing now, the anger that my success has engendered, particularly in the art world.

You’re often described as “artist activist” and I wonder if that’s a concept that the Australian public doesn’t understand? If you’re an artist then you really should be in your turret and disengaged…

Seen not heard…

Yeah, making irrelevant observations that only your elite companions will listen to. And it’s more difficult to understand when the message that you are trying to convey is relatively benign in the scheme of things. It’s not hate, but because it’s not hate it’s not understood.

I agree.

People don’t know what to do with it. It’s just not the way media tropes are working at the moment. “Hang on a minute he’s talking about just loving your enemy.”

I know, I’ve seen it. I’ve had people writing really negative things about me and then I get introduced to them, and I can see that they’re shitting themselves. And then I disarm them with, “I didn’t agree with you but let’s talk.”

I don’t use anger in my artwork, that’s the key thing. Using anger is very disabling. I do feel anger. But I go and use my studio, the response is always through my studio. It informs my work.

The best advice my wife used to give me was, “Sleep on that letter. Sleep on that reaction.” Anger passes as well. If you react while you’re angry. Well, that’s the worst thing about social media. If it were legislated that you had to wait 24 hours before posting a message, then the reaction would pass and the response would be much more placid.

It’s complicated at the moment. I see the trouble of being a straight white male and here I am. I’ve been critical of it. I had a show in Hong Kong called Straight White Male in a Chinese community talking about how I understood the hierarchy that I was part of. But then people have suggested that I shouldn’t be standing in support of Myuran Sukumaran. I shouldn’t put my voice to indigenous issues. It’s over-complicating things. Well, he was my mate! I make decisions based on what I want to do.

How do you get so clear about what you want to do? 

I get asked to do a whole lot of stuff that I have to say no to. Because in the end I just want to be in my studio. But then there are other things where I feel I don’t have a choice. I went to a university when the chief historical advisor of the prime minister at the time was a frontier violence denier. I read his work and I was so devastated that someone was trying to rewrite history for a nationalist agenda about white supremacy, really. So, I see the flaws. Most of the things that I stand up for is about my role in it.

I don’t deny that my forefathers were violent, angry men. But I can definitely speak up so that my children can see that I stood against it, that at some point that cycle was broken in my family, and I’ll be the one to do it.

You get accused that this is not your business, it’s so complicated.

Being a straight white man in Australia is complicated at the moment!

Good! I celebrate that complexity, we deserve it. I’m not whinging about it, it’s got to happen, and I’ve got to deal with it. Someone has to negotiate it. I’m negotiating it for my son because he is straight and a little white boy. Mum had three straight white men.

And you’ve all been okay?

Yeah. We’re all fighting for these things. None of us are Pauline Hanson supporters.

[Laughs]

One’s been a doctor in remote Aboriginal communities for 15 years. The other one is a scientist and he’s been working in food shortages in the Philippines. We’re doing stuff. And the argument that we should stop because we’re straight white men? Are you kidding? There’s a lot of things that I could be doing that are far more destructive than what I’m doing. When the art world accuses me of that, then they’ve lost me.

I guess the challenge is communicating what really lies within. I really like the words that Richard Flanagan used in your catalogue: “A gentle man inclined to folly and passion… not infrequently at the same time.” And, “I don’t always recognise the man behind the work I see.” What does he mean by these words?

We’re very good mates. I could say the same thing about him. Actually, I have said that to him. Have you read Gould’s Book of Fish? I love it. It’s the ramblings of a mad man and it’s beautiful, it’s my favourite book that he’s written. The best works of art come when you’re not in control, almost like you’re in the zone, and things start to happen. Of course, you’re in control but it feels like you’re not. It’s about getting distance from it, not letting your ego drive it, just…

Surrendering.

Like a child. Children’s drawings are so exquisite and extraordinary.

Something else Richard Flanagan said was that the role of the artist is to make transparent what lies in the soul. How do you feel that you fulfil that function?

It’s about the collective soul, not mine, trying to look at the truth of the way we are. I totally agree with that, it’s a very poignant way of putting it. The older I get the more I realise that making paintings is partly autobiographical because you can’t make work without willing to try to be honest, like a child’s drawings are honest.

I like to think that artists are humanists as well, that there is an engagement with the human condition and the collective soul of all of us.

Margaret Olley used to try and drum into me the idea of beauty, that art should be about examining and celebrating beauty. But for me it’s not about beauty at all. Beauty is a tool within my practice and I use it to tell a much darker story about the things that I’m driven to. Darker stories about myself, the way I feel personally, or the way I feel about the world more generally. I think that is the artist’s role—to reflect and create a response to the world. I remember reading many, many years ago that some of the best art had some out of the hardest parts of humanity. Somehow injustice or hardship led to great works of art. You could argue that Ai Weiwei comes from that model, very much so. Art is very strong at the moment. Many of us have access to media about what’s happening in the world. It feels to me like a very scary time to be alive and therefore there is a great well of that inexplicable thing that drives us to make work.

The best artists in the world are responding to the nature of the world, the way we humans are, the way we interact with each other, the death of our environment, the breakdown of borders, the lack of compassion.

All of those things that capitalist democracy misses.

In one interview, you made an almost cursory comment about having PTSD in response to your times in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Greece, Serbia and Lebanon. Is that true?

No, I haven’t been diagnosed with PTSD but there were moments where I had to get help, see a therapist. I was having very severe nightmares at one point. I think that’s why the creative process is so important to people who have been through any trauma, really. I remember people talking about art therapy for people suffering from all sorts of things and I now see first-hand how helpful it is to soothe anxiety and in an abstract way resolve issues as well. It’s very healthy. And the term “getting into the zone” is about getting into a kind of meditative headspace which is really healthy, I think.

Did you see that happening with the kids that you’ve worked with? Sitting there with them while they’re drawing?

Yes, it’s funny. I meet people who say, “Oh no, the child is drawing such horrible things.” If the child is drawing horrible things it’s because that horrible thing is in them and it needs to come out. Know that it’s as therapeutic for children but it’s a healthy way for them to deal with what they have seen, for sure. Particularly for children who drew dead bodies, and lots of them drew dead bodies. They had witnessed those bodies and some of them were their siblings and parents. I know it’s a healthy thing to do because I can come here and be much stronger and healthier if I have time in my studio, having witnessed trauma and the worst of us.

You were saying earlier that you would like your children to see that you stood up and spoke out.

They already know that I do and I expect them to do so as well. And they do. I think it’s a responsibility that people don’t shoulder enough. The way we are, as 21st Century Western humans, is becoming increasingly selfish, self-centred, partly driven by social media. But you could argue that social media is a symptom of that need to dive into some kind of narcissistic pool of madness and we design things to help us look at ourselves. I think that is reflected in politics as well. Quite simply we need to be talking about the cracks in democracy, talking about compassion. I’ve been aggressively labelled a “bleeding heart” because I talk about compassion. And I don’t mean it as an airy-fairy tale, I think it goes to the heart of it all. There is an inherent narcissism where our votes are self-centred.

Whereas if you are teaching compassion and empathy in schools, then you empower children to think of others. Then they will possibly make the vote according to the betterment of society rather than the betterment of themselves.

I’ve talked about that, which to me is not a violent or aggressive stance, it’s just a conversation and a debate, and I’ve been labelled a bleeding heart in a very aggressive way. I think it’s terrifying. These are just simple discussions about way that we live with each other. If you talk about racism in Australia, people do not want that conversation brought up. I don’t say this in a judgmental way, but we are inherently racist. Probably all human beings are racist, without education, possibly they are. But to react angrily at a discussion about the prevalence of racism in Australia is so counterproductive. I’ve just spent some time with some Aboriginal people who have faced generations, lifetimes, of the most confronting and violent racism and they urged me to post about it on Instagram. I’ve stopped reading the comments because it’s made people so angry. When I was a kid, you would write a letter. And a letter takes time. It’s an organic process of getting your ideas together slowly and carefully. And you may write a very angry letter but nine times out of ten you subdue the anger. Whereas on social media it’s happening at the end of a hard day, working to pay off massive home loans, paying for children’s education, the reaction is anger and the quickest reaction is what is reflected in social media.

I think social media is a perverted version of the collective. Once upon a time you would have been talking in terms of comradeship and solidarity and you would move together as a collective and I think it’s been usurped or supplanted by a corporate model for harnessing collective behaviour. Is it possible for it to be genuinely humanist because it has a capitalist impulse?

The two are uncomfortable bedfellows: democracy and capitalism. They rely on that narcissistic self-interest to expand and the whole notion of those capitalist democracies is expansion, recession is the dirtiest word in the world.

How far can we expand before we run out of everything?

If that simple mathematics is lost on someone then they’re just a denialist.

Now, is this the career and the life that you had hoped for when you were younger?

Shit yeah! I always thought that I would make art a hobby, I always thought that it would be something that I always did no matter what. I was quite prepared to have another career but it was hard to find another career. When it became a job, it was exactly what I hoped for. I was a pretty conservative kid who liked to please everyone. I was the school captain, I won the citizenship award in Year 6, I wanted the adults to like me, I wanted people to like me. I think in Year 7 the violence really smashed my trust in authority, but I think I was too self-assured to let that ruin me. I just became very healthily mistrustful of authority. And that leads on to questioning everything. And people don’t question things enough, in my opinion. So when you do question things, the by-product, there’s a few things, is that you make a lot of enemies even though I tried to do it with love and respect but you’ll also find a new world that is quite exciting and it drives art, it drives creativity. If you’re responding to something new then you are making something unique, you are making something in response to something that has never been responded to. Like environmental issues, artists that are making the best work in the world about the threats that are occurring to our environment. And at the end of the day, making something new is very exciting, very alluring, most artists are trying to find that magic.

How do you discover the new in your process?

My process is just organic, I just keep going. It’s turning paintings upside down. I start painting over things. I will literally and actively disrupt or damage something that was good in my paintings. So, if I made a figurative painting with a life model and his shoulder worked well but the rest of him wasn’t working well, then I would put something over the shoulder and ruin it and then it would force me to fix it. It’s almost like laying problems for yourself in order for the mistakes to build up like a web and it’s really organic. I found new ways of working just by doing that. I used to make a painting and think it’s all good. That sense of ego that gets ignited when you feel like you’ve made something interesting and then you stop. What if you turn it upside down and ruin it and keep going again, do it again and again. There is a question that many people are asked, When do you know that a painting is finished?Well they’re never finished. It’s just when I need money, I need to sell paintings!

[Laughs]

I can make a painting with the most minimal mark making, like this painting of a politician behind us. The process is a very healthy thing for me, and it often leads to harnessing anger, I guess, but in a really healthy and constructive way. The painting won’t be about the politician when it’s finished, there will be no remnant of the politician left, but it underpins the ideas that I have around the painting. For example, my devastation about something happening in the world, the environment, politics or capitalism, can become really didactic and you can’t make paintings didactic, they can’t tell you what to think. The best paintings invite the viewer to have their own imagination, but you’re still guiding them down the path, it might be an angry path, a happy path, a beautiful path or a dubious path [laughs]. It’s always dubious.

[Laughs]

Your paintings are always very tactile and sensual but I’ve heard that you often wear protective gear to keep yourself safe while painting? 

Yeah, I wear gloves, I never get it on me.

Does that in any way create a distance or a sense of frustration that you can’t touch the paint?

No, no way. I love paint, it’s amazing, but I don’t like getting it on me. I remember that some of my favourite artists when I was young, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and people like that, Margaret Olley, had all of these digestive issues and it was from lead and oxides and titanium, all the poisonous substances in their paint, so the thing that they loved also killed them. I don’t want to die from that.

Margaret Olley was a mentor, a role model. Did she give you any guidance on how to be a mentor to others?

She was adamant that I would eventually support younger artists. But she didn’t have to force that on me, 

I like people making things, it excites me, young people making things is even more exciting.

You’ve said in the past that there is a need for male rites of passage. What would that look like for you?

I’ve had mates ask me to take their son on. Mentorship isn’t the right word for it but it’s just to hang out with them and be mates with young men. I do that. And I expect them to repay me when my son is that age. Just to be there as another adult in their life, as a friend. It’s about being in community, it has to happen in community. It’s about finding neighbours who can be a part of your son’s life. Can you make a friendship with him? Can you spend time with him?And because I’ve openly said that I have mates ask me in my town in Robertson. There are three or four young men who I am very close friends with. And some of them are now in their late 20s but when they turned 16 I was an adult who was their friend who was a similar aged to their father and they could trust me. I’m not going to tell their dad anything about what we’ve talked about unless it is serious shit, and then I expect their dad not to tell them that I told him to help him to help the boy become a good man. I think it is simple. It doesn’t need to be big and organised. But boys really desperately need that, they like having older male friends.

Are you seeing the fruits of those relationships?

Well, they haven’t gone off the rails. There’s a number of men in Robertson who are great role models for boys. Because a lot of men are really cruel to young boys. They’re trying to initiate young men with cruelty as the defining tool. I mean, that’s how I had it. When I was art school I was 19 or 20 years old, I was a labourer for a big building company. There’s a level of cruelty that is a part of the rite of passage of any young guy working in that industry. I think there is a far more sinister and violent edge to that. In a pub, for example, young men are physically threatened to stand up for themselves to prove their physical strength against drunk older men.

I’ve never claimed to be the perfect human, I’m far from it. I’ve made so many mistakes and at times I haven’t been a good human being, but I’ve always questioned my own behaviour and I’ve always questioned my friends’ behaviour. Role models aren’t just for little boys, they’re for young men and middle-aged men. I think men are just floundering at the moment. I studied feminist theory in the ’90s and at that time I met Germaine Greer a few times and interviewed her for a piece that I wrote, I was intrigued with the whole history of feminism. I remember thinking that my dad was one of the first men to bring up boys post the feminist movement coming in to our community. Of course, my mum was a very strong, powerful and dominant force for good in my life and in my brothers’ lives. Given that lack of role models, we don’t know who to look to. It will come, it might take generations, it might be coming now, fathers are now a lot more adept at fathering well to make good boys than they were generations ago, I hope.

You’ve dedicated your catalogue to your kids, Joe and Liv.

They’re really a part of what I do. They’re in here a lot. Both of them have drawn life models and they think what I do is very normal. I’m very involved in their lives and there’s been times when I had to go away, like when I went to Afghanistan. I’ll never forget Kylie sending me a photo of Joe who had drawn a calendar next to his bed counting the days I was gone. And a lot of the paintings they’ve been around for and been a part of. They are parts of Joe and Livvie. It’s just the right thing to do.

And what kind of future do you hope they will enjoy?

In the world? Look, there is so much beauty in the world, but everywhere I look there is so much damage and dysfunction. I’m going to Central Australia soon. I’ve taken my children there and we were at Alice Springs Airport. There is a photo of these beautiful rolling plains, the MacDonnell Ranges, Tjoritja as it should be called, with amazing flowing yellow grass, that is buffel grass, which is an introduced weed. It’s all over the tourist bureaus, they use those photos to advertise our country. And buffel has destroyed indigenous food sources for thousands of kilometres. It would be much easier not to notice. A lot of people actively make the decision not to notice. 

I just hope my children and my friends’ children are active participants and they realise how lucky they are to be alive to be witnessing the world and the universe.

I want more things that inspire me to...

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