An unspoken story: Ben Quilty’s ‘Sergeant P, after Afghanistan’


This extraordinary portrait, Sergeant P, after Afghanistan 2012 by Ben Quilty, one of Australia’s acclaimed contemporary artists, tells an often unspoken story of modern military conflict.

In 2011, Archibald Prize-winning artist Quilty reached a serious turning-point in his career when he was offered a commission by the Australian War Memorial to fill the role of official war artist. Accustomed to producing his work –  in thickly smeared oils on linen – in a studio environment, a deployment in Afghanistan with the Australian Defence Force provided Quilty with the intensity and insight on which he thrives as an artist.

RELATED: Sergeant P, after Afghanistan

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Ben Quilty, Australia b.1973 / Sergeant P, after Afghanistan 2012 / Oil on linen / 190 x 140cm / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Appeal and Returned & Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ben Quilty

Ben Quilty talks about his creative process

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Quilty spent nearly a month in military bases around Afghanistan, from the two largest cities Kabul and Kandahar and the now-deserted airstrip of Tarin Kot, to record and interpret the experiences of Australians deployed in Afghanistan as part of Operation Slipper. “What those people are going through is the most extraordinary, extreme, violent and horrendous thing that I could imagine,” he admits. “When I got back to Australia and I started to try and work from the photographs that I’d taken there the photographs really to me felt quite hollow”.1

What developed from this exchange was an unshakeable desire to portray the raw intensity of emotion borne in the bodies of these Australian servicemen and women. Sergeant P, after Afghanistan 2012, this year’s Foundation Annual Appeal work, is the remarkable result of a private studio session with a recently returned soldier. The large-scale portrait stands as a vivid and compelling example of Quilty’s resultant ‘After Afghanistan’ series.

Sergeant P, after Afghanistan bears Quilty’s hallmark swathes of swift impasto linework, applied thickly and spontaneously with a palette knife. Yet while his earlier work demonstrates a marked preoccupation with emotional biography and the potential fragility of masculinity, Quilty’s role as an official war artist has seen his portraiture map remarkable new dimensions of empathy, awareness and gravitas. The muddy reds of Sergeant P’s face and furrow of his brow blend into the eddying confusion of background brushwork and seem to broadcast a maelstrom of emotions within. A walking stick cupped between two hands and a deep black swathe shrouding foreshortened legs hint silently at the life-threatening injuries that its subject sustained during service. His resolute stance tells its own story, confirmed by the artist himself: that, despite it all, he was determined to stand for the occasion throughout his portrait session. Quilty captures his subject with striking pathos, conveying Sergeant P’s strength and fragility, trauma and resolve.

Sergeant P, after Afghanistan tells a poignant story of one Australian’s participation in international conflict, composed with the remarkable observational skills of one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. This significant work marks not only a new subject and level of technical sophistication for Quilty himself but, more importantly, a nuanced insight into the character and dimension of Australian society and some of its heroic, often unheard participants.

Sergeant P, after Afghanistan imparts a powerful narrative of the military experience and, on the centenary of World War One, makes a rich artistic link with our country’s historical involvement in conflict, both on and off the battleground.

1  Ben Quilty, ‘War Paint’, Australian Story, ABC, first broadcast 3 September 2012.

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