Congratulations on your upcoming exhibition Quilty at GOMA! Of the 70 or so artworks featured in the exhibition from the early 2000s to now, is there a personal favourite that you can single out as being the most meaningful to you?
I think if you asked any artists that question, they would tell you their most recent work – it’s just the way we are! The most recent work in this show is The Last Supper series about the chaotic nature of the world – that for me is the most exciting work for me to see again because it drives me back into the studio to continue the work I’m doing now. But there’s other things that I really love seeing – the Captain Cook Rorschach painting I’ve loved seeing, that feels like a lifetime ago that I made that work. The ceramic jugs as well I was really taken by – they work better than I had remembered.
Definitely a hard choice I can imagine! On the subject of the Rorschach paintings, they’re quite a notable addition to this collection. Can you tell us a little bit more about those works and how they came together?
They started with some experimenting in the studio and trying to reuse old canvases – materials are very expensive so you try and do your best to recycle things rather than throw them away. I really stumbled upon that technique and then started making landscape works using that technique to tell stories about the post-colonial history of Australia – using my ancestors as a metaphor for the way this country has been formed and particularly how the Indigenous people have been affected by my family coming here as convicts five or six generations ago.
A lot of your work has a socially conscious scope to it. Many would be familiar with your moving portraits of Australian soldiers returned from Afghanistan – for that series in particular, how was the idea of being an official war artist proposed to you and what influenced your decision to embark on that journey?
The war memorial just rings the artist and lots of artists have gone – lots of big-name artists over the years have gone. I just thought it was a good opportunity – they make it very clear that if you tell a negative story about what you see, they will back you up, and that’s a pretty powerful position for an artist to be in. I said yes straight away – I was intrigued to go and see it. I had pretty strong views about our engagement in Afghanistan and was very much against the invasion of Iraq, and being given the power and the trust to tell whatever story I wanted was impossible to turn down. I felt it would be irresponsible not to go and see for myself. Out of that experience there was a lot more good stories than I expected – I expected to come back ranting about how people in the ADF were, but when I was there I found a very stressed but very intelligent and culturally aware bunch of young Australians. It blew my stereotype of that war out of the water. I think I shared with most of the men and women that I met there the same belief that once we were in Afghanistan, pulling out of Afghanistan was only going to hurt its people. In saying that, going in was equally risky for those people – so the young Australian ADF personnel that I met were far more politically and socially aware than they’re given credit for. Once I’d been and told the story and the harrowing nature of what the Afghan people had been facing for so long, then watch these young people come back to Australia and fall apart, that was pretty confronting as well.
What was the hardest part about capturing that in art?
When I was in Afghanistan it was impossible – I was pretty lost. I did a lot of writing, took a lot of photographs, I tried to do some drawings but it’s a war zone and it’s pretty dangerous – people don’t sit about meditating and drawing and playing music, your nerves become frayed very quickly. So I just collected all the information I could, and when I got back that information was pretty meaningless. I live in a beautiful part of Australia – a very calm, green, peaceful community – so the information that I gathered was sort of lost in that context. When I realised I needed to invite the young men and women into my studio to continue the conversation that we started in Afghanistan, that then informed the paintings that I made of them.
Based on your firsthand experiences in environments in crisis, how do you see the power of art enacting change and how to you feel artists should use their work to start conversations or change perceptions of what’s happening around the world?
I think in the western world, and probably more broadly politicians, are really not trusted at all. There’s always a vested interest there – so often people are in those positions of power for the wrong reasons and then sadly I think journalists are not trusted either anymore. This notion of ‘fake news’ is so pervasive throughout community and throughout the dialogue that we have with each other, so then I think there is a place for creative people to try and tell the truth. I don’t have a vested interest – it serves me no good saying anything about any of these issues, I just feel that it’s a responsibility of the citizens of the world to do it.
There’s a lot being covered in Quilty, but at the same time there is an exhibition at GOMA running to honour your late friend and mentor Margaret Olley. You also had a hand in certain aspects of that exhibition – could you give us an insight into what Margaret was like, as well as some of your memories of her and how they contributed to your involvement in the exhibition?
She was just a friend, really. I guess the further I stand back from her and the more time that passes between now and her death, the more I realise that she was a mentor – but I think that we have in our society a very mixed and incorrect view of what a mentor actually is. She didn’t teach me how to make paintings and she didn’t teach me how to mix paint, she didn’t teach me how to sell paintings. All she really did was inspire me how to live properly – in the background, always as an artist. That’s real mentorship, I think. I was only a young man and she was a very elderly lady, and she first and foremost expected that I would go on to help other artists – to help other artists have a platform, to help them speak, to help them succeed and to be part of that community. That for me is the real nature of mentorship. I’m asked a lot to mentor now, and I think most of them hope to come to my studio and walk away a successful artist. It doesn’t work like that – there’s no point sitting in my studio watching me paint. Although, I sat in Margaret’s studio lots and lots of times and watched her paint! In that sense I was more of a studio assistant. She’d boss me around – “Mix this, grab that, make me a cup of tea.” And the whole time we’d talk – about the history of art in Australia and her place as a female artist in a very male-dominated modernist art era.
Do you find it somewhat intimidating being in a similar ‘mentorship’ role, or do you like the idea of passing on pieces of advice that you’ve picked up?
As I said, I think a lot of people have the wrong idea of what a mentorship actually is. I get asked a lot and I’d love to help people but I really just love having conversations with artists. I love young artists and I want nothing but the best for them. I think the future of art in Australia is incredibly bright and very powerful – while all the art schools and art education funding is being slashed, it’s almost empowered artists to stand up more and use their voices in a louder way. I think there are some fabulous young artists in this country at the moment – visual arts is very exciting. Often you’re asking for mentorship – I remember I never asked Margaret for anything. I met her when she gave me the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship and we just became very good friends. It was only years later that I realised what a mentorship actually is – that friendship. I’m part of a community that includes much younger and much older artists, and I guess that idea of mentorship is a much more communal thing than the renaissance idea of a master and a student. I don’t have time and I don’t believe in it – you’ve got to find your own language and your own voice, and the only way you can do that is by being on your own. You have to listen to your voice, use your voice and trust your voice.
Looping back to Quilty, it’s not just about your visual art – there seems to be a lot more depth to it in terms of extra bits and pieces throughout it. One of them in particular is the children’s art centre program that you developed with your own kids – how did you go about engaging younger minds and families for this venture?
I’ve been lucky enough to have residencies and experiences of making art all around the world, and my children are always there. It becomes really apparent which museums succeed because the longer a museum can hold my children’s attention, the longer I can stay there! The best ones engage everybody, and I think particularly for me that children deserve to have that experience. Their minds are very open and enquiring, and actually far more sophisticated in terms of visual language than we give them credit for. So when QAGOMA asked me if I would have some ideas for the education program, I have to be honest – I was very alarmed that I had no idea and I didn’t know! I wasted no time in asking my own children, and they sat down and immediately wrote a list of museum experiences that they had enjoyed and why they liked it. That then worked into the program that the gallery so skilfully put together.
Any hints as to what’s included in that program?
One of the problems for art galleries is that they need to protect priceless art and treasures, but they also need to let people feel that they’re included. I feel like years ago art museums felt like very exclusive places, but that’s being broken down very rapidly and the movement is being led by QAGOMA. We wanted children to feel like they could touch, feel, participate and draw – my son actually holds a virtual presentation of a simple drawing exercise that he says has made him the great drawer that he is – and there’s an amazing digital animation suite where kids can use a portrait to disfigure and play with by giving it goblin’s ears and long noses. It’s really all the things that my children and me like doing.
We’re also super interested in the curated playlist that will be playing over the QAGOMA radio! Can you give us any idea of the sort of music that features and how it plays into your life?
I’m lucky enough to know some of the greatest musicians in the country, who are also my fabulous friends. It’s a great job being an artist but when I see my friends get up on stage in front of thousands of people I think, “Yeah, I’d like to do that!” My son is a brilliant little guitarist and my daughter is a brilliant piano player – they’re both very musical. We all listen to music a lot and I always have music playing in my studio. I listen to everything – I’ve been listening to a lot of Chopin recently. My friend Richard Flanagan told me recently that he’s been writing for a few years now to Chopin’s ‘Nocturnes’, so I thought I needed to play more of that. Also in the playlist is a track from Ennio Morricone from my favourite film of all time The Mission, there’s everything up to modern music like ‘Depreston’ by Courtney Barnett, which I think is such an anthem for young people. One of the great privileges for me having children now, is that I can ask my son who is just entering the early years of high school what he’s listening to. He’s introduced me to so much fabulous music – without him in my life, I’d be missing it. I feel that’s something that Margaret Olley always did – she kept a pretty contemporary vein running through her mind and I’m determined to do the same thing.
You’ll be coming up to Brisbane for the Quilty exhibition – are there some things you’re planning to see and do while you’re in town?
I like to go into Fortitude Valley and pretend that I’m 20 again, but I hear they’ve brought in lock-out laws which is alarming for me having been brought up in Sydney … maybe I’ll go break some lock-out laws! There’s just been incredible research come out that the laws haven’t worked at all. You just need to look at what’s happened in Sydney to see it – and now they’re trying to wind the laws back to reinvigorate the nightlife. The fact that you punish everyone for the actions of a few idiots is just so ridiculous and childish – you shut down one of the great things that this country has. Our live music and musicians suffer because of it. Nightclubs are another thing – it’s where young people have to go and run through their own bizarre rites of self-initiation, which I get, but we should protect live music in every city around the world.
Is there anything that you’re most proud of that you’ve achieved so far, and what is the next goal you’re striving towards?
I’m definitely most proud of my children. Me and (my partner) Kylie have been good parents and brought up good children – there’s nothing that comes close to it. My kids are very compassionate people who are learning to feel the world in very sophisticated ways and I think for me it was second nature but not everyone has that. I’d like to achieve more time in my studio! That’s my goal for next year. I just have so many other things going on but Kylie is reminding me that my role on this earth is to be an artist – she’s been pushing me to get back into the studio. My great friend Nick Mitzevich – a very old friend who’s the former director of the UQ Art Museum – gave me some wise advice. He said, “Now is your time and you need to use it, and the time and place is in your studio”. I think I’m going to take that advice once this show is finished!
Take in some of Ben Quilty’s incredible works when GOMA hosts Quilty – a major survey exhibition of Ben’s art – from Saturday June 29 to Sunday October 13.
Image: Chloe Callistemon, QAGOMA