Ben Quilty’s time in Afghanistan was both defining and debilitating for him as an artist. His previous inquiries into mateship and mortality were recast into a more critical inquiry into self and survival. In a suite of works made in the two years after his return from Afghanistan, sitter after sitter made the pilgrimage to Quilty’s studio in the New South Wales Southern Highlands for restoration. These harrowing insights into the mind of war and its aftermath are captured in a series of intimate portraits, including Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan, 2012. Quilty’s first meeting with Porter was in Tarin Kowt, where he drew her for the first time with ink on paper. In the following year, he painted Porter naked, setting her against a raked violet ground pummelled with corrugations.
Quilty also made a preliminary sketch for Kandahar before working up the composition in paint. A vortex of quiet dark violence, at once human and machinic, hovers above the ground and is set against the mauve-tinged mountain range of the Hindu-Kush. Quilty’s sketch is accompanied with the words:
Outside through the layers of barbed wire fields weave away towards the towering mountains of rock that surround us, and elsewhere, the ancient drum beat of holy war can echo off the mountains.