Ben Quilty won last year’s Archibald Prize with his portrait of the late, much-loved artist Margaret Olley.
In October 2011, Quilty toured with Australian troops as the official Australian war artist for the Australian War Memorial as part of its Official War Art Scheme. He met Captain S in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan. This painting was made from a live sitting in Quilty’s studio in New South Wales.
‘The soldiers I met in Afghanistan were extremely fit,’ says Quilty. ‘The gym in Tarin Kot is always full. Unlike the patrons of many gyms in Australia, gym practice is less about vanity and more about survival. The stronger the soldier, the more chance he has of surviving his deployment. I wanted Captain S to be naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin, suggesting the darkness of the emotional weight of the war.
‘The pose for this painting was chosen by Captain S and reflects a memorable and terrifying experience he had as an officer in the Australian Army in 2011,’ says Quilty. ‘Under constant fire from insurgents in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, Captain S spent 18 hours taking cover behind a low mud-brick wall.
‘His body was clad in camouflage uniform and heavy armour with a weapon and communications equipment secured to his back. His fellow soldier and friend had been hit by a bullet in the upper leg early in the battle behind the same low wall. From his position behind the wall, Captain S not only commanded aircraft gunfire, he also coordinated the landing of the medical helicopter in order to evacuate the seriously wounded young soldier.’
Born in Sydney in 1973, Quilty has a Bachelor of Visual Arts from Sydney College of the Arts and a Bachelor of Visual Communication from the University of Western Sydney. He has worked as a full-time artist since 2002, exhibiting regularly. In 2011 his work was shown in Korea and Hong Kong. In 2007, he won the National Self Portrait Prize. In 2009, he was named runner-up in the Archibald Prize and won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. This is his seventh time in the Archibald Prize.