Wendy Sharpe: Official war artist in East Timor

Wendy Sharpe, Corporal Alicia Carr, 1999, gouache on paper. Courtesy Australian War Memorial.
Wendy Sharpe, Corporal Alicia Carr, Darwin, 1999, gouache on paper. Courtesy Australian War Memorial collection

The idea of women being appointed as official war artists still raises eyebrows. The typical response to the suggestion that women might work as war artists is: ‘‘are there any?’’ War and art are still viewed as a man’s thing, ruled by issues of propriety about what women should and should not witness, and spatial zones they ought not transgress.[1] War, even modern-day techno-war, still employs an older style language of ‘‘the front’’ where battles take place, while the home front is supposedly a safe zone, even though front-line battles take place in towns and villages where women and children live. The language and geography of wartime space are deeply gendered.[2] Yet women artists have always engaged with issues surrounding war and conflict. Gay Hawkes’s mocking portrayal Saddam Hussein on a Rhinoceros (1990) comes from the days of the Gulf War; while Barbara Hanrahan’s biting Poppy Day (1982), showing war widows attempting to put a brave face on their plight, is informed by the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam War era.[3] Commentary of this kind has been done at distance, and from the safety of the home front.

Even today people still have to be reminded that three Australian women artists, Nora Heysen, Stella Bowen and Sybil Craig, were appointed to the position of official war artist during the Second World War. All were required to work in-situ, reflecting the view that war artists typically need to observe what is going on to work effectively. Nora Heysen’s subjects were principally women in the Pacific, so she worked in New Guinea and northern Australia; Stella Bowen’s subjects were Australian servicemen in the main in the Air Force in Britain, so she was based in three British air stations; while Sybil Craig worked on the home front in munitions factories in Melbourne.[4] These three women were out-numbered, though, by the 47 male artists who were official war artists during that war.

Another 54 years passed before Sydney artist and Archibald Prize winner Wendy Sharpe became the fourth woman to be appointed as an official artist in 1999. This was the time of the horrific East Timor conflict and she originally refused the offer to work there, only agreeing when conditions improved. Rick Amor, who was also appointed, went in September, and Sharpe spent three weeks there in December 1999. Both marked a new era for war artists. It was the first time male and female appointments have been equal in numbers. Also, Sharpe was not required to join the defence forces as were two of her three predecessors, Nora Heysen and Stella Bowen, who were each appointed at the rank of Captain in the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service).

By 1999, much of the red tape which delayed their appointments in 1943–44 had vanished. Sharpe was simply a defence civilian attached to the Army History Unit in Dili; her dress was plain khaki and a patch on her sleeve identified her as an Australian official artist. She was not restricted in her movements, as was Heysen, and travelled all over East Timor under the protection of two armed soldiers. None of the clashes between the army and artist, which so frustrated Heysen, occurred. Times have changed. Sharpe carried her own army pack and art materials. She is a prodigious drawer and, as she says, drawing all day long she looked busy, and the army likes busy people![5]

In 1999 East Timor, which had been occupied by Indonesia since 1974, was the site of intense brutality against the local people who fought until they achieved Independence. Sharpe was there during the period of transition from ‘war’ to peace, but the evidence of atrocity was everywhere.[6] Australian and other Interfet peacekeepers were assisting the people to return home and recover their families, their sense of safety and their land. One of Sharpe’s drawings shows children standing by a wall on which they scrawled in charcoal ‘‘Interfet we love you’’, while Girls in Suai  shows children in their frilly, colourful clothes displaying a mix of relief and apprehension and clutching toys given to them by the soldiers. Refugees returning to Dili oozes with the fear and uncertainty the old and young felt, clinging to their few belongings and returning to see if their homes were left unscathed. As the artist commented, from ‘‘the look on their faces I can’t even begin to think what they have been through’’.[7]Their fear and anxiety was compounded by tales told to them in West Timor of what Interfet would do to them.

Wendy Sharpe, Midnight at Suai Cathedral, 2000, oil on canvas. Courtesy Australian War Memorial collection.
Wendy Sharpe, Midnight at Suai Cathedral, 2000, oil on canvas. Courtesy Australian War Memorial collection

A remarkable painting completed back in the studio, but based on drawings in situ, is Midnight at Suai Cathedral (2000). On Christmas Eve in Suai, Sharpe and a small group of Australian soldiers attended midnight mass which was held outside the cathedral. During the conflict the cathedral had been the scene of a horrific massacre and months later the local people refused to enter the building. After the soldiers had sung some Christmas carols, the East Timorese astounded the onlookers by re-enacting the brutal massacre in which 300 of their fellow Suai people lost their lives. As Sharpe recounts: ‘‘It was narrated in English. They were acting it out and saying, ‘Now they are killing the nuns and priests, now the militia are raping the women - and now Interfet are here’’’.[8] This cathartic and ritualised way of thanking Interfet informs her haunting painting Midnight at Suai Cathedral, in which a group of East Timorese show their attempt to come to terms with their memories. The blackened cathedral stands behind them like a gruesome reminder of evil, while the residents’ eerie faces lit by their luminous green tapers suggest they have been to hell and back.

Like Stella Bowen before her who probed the emotional psyche of airmen engaged in daily bombing raids over Germany in 1944, Sharpe portrayed the softer side of the soldiers as peacekeepers. Her Soldier with Refugees, Dili shows one assisting a group of local people by holding their baby: but his position as peace keeper, not victim, appears to be an accident of history. This compelling image of a soldier wracked by anxiety points to how the soldiers themselves felt working in a country where appalling acts were performed. Sharpe was also in East Timor for a tour-of-duty concert and a number of works show singers and dancers performing for appreciative soldiers and celebrating their efforts in rebuilding a nation. Kylie Minogue and her troupe are shown in their gaudy stage clothes including black fishnet stockings strutting their stuff in Kylie and Co., Tour of Duty Concert, Dili. Their exuberant, physical performance almost jumps off the canvas.

Wendy Sharpe, 2000, Soldier with Refugees, Dili, gouache and crayon on paper. Courtesy Australian War Memorial.
Wendy Sharpe, 2000, Soldier with Refugees, Dili, gouache and crayon on paper. Courtesy Australian War Memorial collection

Women now form an integral part of the military landscape: Sharpe shows them playing cards, cleaning their rifles and even engineering risqué self-portraits. The light-hearted rendition of Corporal Alicia Carr, Darwin, dressed only in her army boots and hat came about when the sitter suggested to the artist that it would be fun to send a nude pin-up image to her boyfriend, also based in East Timor. This in itself makes for an interesting change of the rules of who supplies the pin-ups for soldier’s quarters.

Working as a war artist is tough, as Hans Heysen warned Nora Heysen. Sharpe, like Heysen before her, felt challenged by her new life and while on a troop ship heading for East Timor commented that she ‘‘felt like a bohemian flower that’s been thrown onto a war zone’’.[9] Months later and the experience still fresh, she said she would never be the same again, having seen the worst and best of what humans are capable of. Both Sharpe and Amor had a short, intensive period in the field, followed by an equally intensive period in their studio completing their work. For Sharpe, back in her inner Sydney studio when her East Timorese experience was still fresh, she was ‘‘dreaming about being there, and working every day, it almost felt like I was still there’’.[10]  Just a few months after her appointment ended a large exhibition of 64 works, appropriately titled New Beginnings East Timor was held at the Australian War Memorial. Sharpe’s vibrant, warm and expressive art shows the human side to rebuilding after conflict.

If only her appointment were the last and the need to appoint war artists, male or female, vanished. It hasn’t, and Peter Churcher was appointed to go to the Persian Gulf, Diego Garcia and Afghanistan in 2002; Lewis Miller covered Iraq in 2003; and Lyndell Brown was appointed along with Charles Green to go to Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007. Jon Cattapan was based in East Timor in 2008, and eX de Medici was sent to the Solomon Islands in 2009, while Shaun Gladwell and Ben Quilty have been in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Even in appointments today of leading contemporary artists to the position of official war artist, there are still very few women. Only Lyndell Brown and eX de Medici have followed on from Wendy Sharpe. Women, war and art ‘‘up-close-and-personal’’ is still a zone to watch out for.


  1. ^ See Margaret Higonnet, ‘Not so quiet in no-woman’s land’, in Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (eds), Gendering War Talk, Princeton University Press, Princeton,1993, pp. 205–8.
  2. ^ On geography and space see Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 20–28.
  3. ^ Australian involvement in the Gulf War was limited to a small naval fleet so the Australian War Memorial decided to acquire contemporary artwork produced in response to the conflict: Anne Gray, ‘Gulf War art’, Art and Australia, vol. 31, no. 2, 1993, pp. 208–9. No women were appointed as war artists during the Vietnam War.
  4. ^ See Catherine Speck, Paintings Ghosts: Australian Women Artists in Wartime, Craftsman House/Thames and Hudson, Melbourne, 2004, chapters 7–10.
  5. ^ Wendy Sharpe, ‘New Beginnings Floor Talk’, Australian War Memorial, 4 July 2000.
  6. ^ War was never actually declared.
  7. ^ Wendy Sharpe interviewed by the author, 4 July 2000.
  8. ^ Wendy Sharpe quoted in Rebecca Lancashire ‘The War Artist’, The Age, 14 January 2000, p. 11.
  9. ^ Wendy Sharpe quoted in ‘Images of war’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 2000, p. 56.
  10. ^ Wendy Sharpe interviewed by the author, 4 July 2000.

Catherine Speck is Professor of Art History at the University of Adelaide, and coordinator of Postgraduate Programs in Art History and Curatorial and Museum Studies at the Art Gallery of South Australia / University of Adelaide. She has published widely on gender and art.