Shaun Gladwell, Field strip, 2012, two-channel synchronised HD video, 16:9, colour, 8 minutes 3 seconds. Cinematography: Gotaro Uematsu. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Gender War: Shaun Gladwell and Ben Quilty in Afghanistan

Australia’s official First World War historian Charles Bean remarked that ‘‘the big thing in the war for Australia was the discovery of the character of Australian men’’; since then the figure of the Anzac soldier has stood as the principal allegory for Australian nationhood and manhood.[1] In the Anzac myth, the physical characterisation of the Anzac is bound to a psychological identity that accentuates his masculinity. The Anzac is brave, loyal and egalitarian, not fearful, cowardly or uncertain.

This masculine construction of citizenship has been redressed by feminist histories of war that recognise the contribution of women to the battlefield and home front. More recently, Australia’s military engagement since 2001 in Afghanistan has taken place against the backdrop of shifts in the sexual and gender politics of the modern battlefield. The political battle in America over ‘‘don’t ask don’t tell’’ and debates about the deployment of women in frontline combat units in Australian forces have raised public consciousness of the diversity of gender and sexual identities in the military.

Yet Australian popular culture has been slow to revise the image of the impenetrable male soldier as a symbol of national strength. An assault on the masculinity of the Anzac or the rites by which it is consecrated still constitutes a rupture of the body politic.[2] In this context, the work of Australian artists at war has enormous potential to contribute to debates about gender and identity. This was the case for Shaun Gladwell and Ben Quilty, who undertook commissions in Afghanistan under the auspices of the Official War Art Scheme in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Both artists were particularly well-armed for the task. Their work has examined not only the visual expressions of male sub-cultures, but the rituals by which identities are codified in icons: the skull, the car, the motorbike, the skateboard, the breakdancer. This was captured in their concurrent exhibitions in Sydney – Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (29 March – 12 May 2013) and Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the National Art School (21 February – 13 April 2013) – bringing both icon and ritual under scrutiny.

Shaun Gladwell, Field Strip, 2010, two-channel synchronised HD video, colour. Cinematography: Gotaro Uematsu. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

It is an axiomatic quirk that the recording of a sub-culture inevitably results in its unveiling. In the case of Quilty’s Afghanistan portraits, the artist reveals the inner sanctum of his subjects’ psyches, exposing a dissonance between the private and public expressions of soldiering. As one of his subjects, Air Commodore John Oddie, remarked, “what these paintings do, [is] put on the table the thing that we won’t tell our families. The things that we won’t, for embarrassment, or fear, or uncertainty of reception, we won’t put in front of you as we walk down the street”.[3]

This is borne out in works such as Captain S (2012) in which Quilty’s deep intimacy with his subject affords him a degree of agency in his representation. Painted from life in Quilty’s studio, the pose was chosen by Captain S to reflect an engagement in which for eighteen hours he took cover behind a low wall. During this time he not only directed aircraft gunfire, but supervised the evacuation of a friend severely wounded in the battle. Despite the heroism of the soldier’s actions, his pose in the painting is remarkably vulnerable. His arched back presses his upturned chin awkwardly towards the viewer. His right arm, which reaches desperately towards his head, implies a physical manifestation of mental anguish. Although it bears a likeness to Rayner Hoff’s Christ-like Sacrifice (1934), Quilty’s focus on the individual, shorn of heroic symbols, reclaims the figure from spiritual allegory to that of tribute to the soldier’s humanity. It is a portrait that mediates between the soldier’s remembered experience and residual self-image.

Ben Quilty, Captain S, After Afghanistan, 2012, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist

Quilty’s intention to depict the soldier “naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin and the darkness of the emotional weight of the war” is realised in Lance Corporal M, After Afghanistan (2012).[4] Beneath the thick skins of Quilty’s paint lie the scars of psychological wounding and an anxiety at the social dislocation that admission of this condition brings. As a consequence of his service, Trooper M recorded that he “was diagnosed with major depression and post traumatic stress disorder ... It’s still a very stigmatised injury within Defence”.[5]

The subject of the psychologically wounded soldier – to some the antithesis of the heroically wounded – is the subject of few Australian artworks. Yet Quilty met many young men afflicted by PTSD or suicidal thoughts and part of the anxiety embedded in his portraits of Anzac soldiers is his own. It is also expressed as a loss of faith in previously redoubtable icons. In Bushmaster (2012), the bullishness of the Torana of Quilty’s youth is replaced by the ambivalence of a wrecked vehicle. In Kandahar (2011) a monstrous, unstable mass might stand for the difficulty of reconciling wartime service with civilian life.

Gladwell’s Afghanistan work is similarly concerned with negotiating the relationship between artist and subject. In his photographic series BPOV MEAO (behind point of view, Middle East Area of Operations) (2009–10) he explores the construction of identity through the symbolic markers – names, ranks, patches, uniforms – by which military roles are designated. His video Portrait of Mark Donaldson VC (2011) records the soldier in deep contemplation, transforming the frozen instant of a traditional portrait into a meditative exchange between viewer and subject.

But Gladwell’s work is more significant for its reflection on the rituals and mechanisms by which these identities are translated. In Field Strip (2010) two soldiers – one in parade dress, the other in camouflage – dismantle and reconstruct their weapons in slow motion. For a soldier in the field this is a necessary act to maintain battlefield capability, but the significance of the ritual to homefront ceremony is less apparent. The comparison becomes clear as both men check their gun sights with metronomic precision; both the conduct of war and its commemoration are performative acts. Identities constructed on the battlefield are fought for and maintained by rite, ritual and tradition be they on the parade ground, in public ceremony, or in politics or culture.

The question of what role the war artist plays in constructing and upholding these rituals is a subtext of Field Strip. In POV mirror sequence [Tarin Kowt] (2009–10) the focus turns to the artist. In it Gladwell and a soldier (two, alternately) simultaneously film each other, their feeds displayed on facing screens. The artist and his subject circle each other, shuffling to keep the other in their sights. The viewer becomes complicit in this physical play, forced to turn between two screens to both view the images and avoid the sensation of being scrutinised.

Gladwell recorded that “image-capturing technology is deadly as it helps the enemy see where [the soldiers] are. My camera in some instances was much more of a problem for people … than a gun’’.[6] He was, of course, speaking of the threat that technological surveillance poses to combat operations. But the ability of the camera to shoot dangerous material hints at the potentially problematic status of the war artist. Temporarily commissioned within a highly-protected sub-culture, their role is to observe, record and memorialise, but they also posses the power to criticise.

Both Gladwell and Quilty emerged from their commissions with heightened respect and support for the military service of Australian men and women. It is a testament to the poignancy of their observations that the work of both artists has inspired public debate and critical reflection. Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan was paired at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre with Landlock, an exhibition that explored the cultural dialogues between Afghanistan and Australia through the work of Afghan-Australian artists. Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the National Art School met with a tremendous media response, instigated by a television documentary on the ABC TV's Australian Story program that was updated and rebroadcast shortly after the exhibition opened. The second Australian Story drew particular attention to the intense psychological struggles of many of Quilty’s subjects post-war.

A critical tension has certainly emerged in Quilty’s practice after Afghanistan. Of his decision to highlight not only these mental battles but also institutional responses to such trauma, Quilty admitted that “there are some people [in the military] who are going to hate that I’m [speaking out] and I feel like I may be threatening the future of the war artists’ residency”.[7]Whether or not Quilty’s work in particular poses a threat to the national image, it is fitting that both his and Gladwell’s commissions in Afghanistan have raised new avenues for debate about the construction of male identities in wartime. For, in the history of Australian art, frontier zones have always been sites for the exploration of an Australian interiority.


  1. ^ Quoted by K.S Inglis, “The Anzac tradition”, Meanjin, 24(1), 1965, p. 25. 
  2. ^ In 2012 for example, television presenters Yumi Stynes and George Negus were pilloried for tasteless quips about the intelligence and sexual performance of Victoria Cross recipient Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. The ferocious public backlash ultimately settled on the validity of the presenters’ claims to citizenship. Questioning why the Anzac legacy should be a vehicle for enshrining citizenship is also problematic, as the furore around the 2010 book What’s Wrong with Anzac? See Marilyn Lake et. al., What’s Wrong with Anzac? The militarisation of Australian history, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010.
  3. ^ Video interview, ‘On the warpath’, Australian Story, 25 March, 2013.
  4. ^ Talk by Ben Quilty, School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra, 22 August, 2012. Quoted by Laura Webster, Ben Quilty: Afghanistan, exh. cat., Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2013, p. 18.
  5. ^ Video interview, ‘On the warpath’, op. cit.
  6. ^ Interview with Warwick Heywood, Australian War Memorial, Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan, exhibition catalogue, Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2013, np.
  7. ^ Video interview, ‘On the warpath’, op. cit.

Dr Andrew Yip is an art historian specialising in the art of war and Australian artists in the Middle East. He is Coordinator of Public Programs at the Art Gallery of NSW.