Contemporary War: A message from Afghanistan

landscape with make shift construction
Afghan National Army Perimeter Post with Chair, Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, 2007-9.
Image: Lyndell Brown and Charles Green

The fifth lecture of the Afghansitan Lecture Program, delivered Lyndell Brown and Charles Green on the 4 July. In this lecture Brown and Green explain the images they brought back from Afghanistan.

In 2007, Brown and Green were appointed Australian Official War Artists - as “contemporary” war artists in that immensely high profile tradition. They were deployed for six weeks in combat zones and remote military bases (both Australian and U.S. bases) across Iraq, the Gulf and Afghanistan, later finishing a 33-painting commission and a series of mural-size photographs documenting those wars for the Australian War Memorial. As critic Ray Edgar noted, “If the Australian military was after a gung-ho endorsement of the Iraq conflict, clearly they had recruited the wrong troops.”

Their method was to work with documentary objectivity in apparently neutral but very large photographs of silence and stillness, or apparently literal, extremely austere paintings of dust and emptiness.

In a 2008 feature in the pages of the Melbourne Age, Andrew Stephens assessed their contribution as follows: “CNN, YouTube and the World War II, Korea and Vietnam films that have flooded out of Hollywood have brought war images much closer for civilians, vigorously shaping perceptions. Even so, such imagery emphasises constant action. In the art of Brown and Green, the results are wholly different: stillness and the “quiet looking things” of Streeton strongly characterise their work, yet there is much to be seen. Their paintings and photographs, made after a six-week tour of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf are, like their other work, complex and layered but much more firmly grounded in direct representation of what they saw amid a symphony of gravel, sand, dust and bomb-blast barricades. In some ways, they resemble grand 18th-century landscapes, carefully composed and steeped in one of war's overwhelming yet little-documented qualities: the state of interminable waiting.”

Dr Lyndell Brown is a Melbourne-based artist. Charles Green is Professor of Contemporary Art and Head of Art History at the University of Melbourne. Since 1989, they have worked in collaboration as one artist. In early 2007 they were Australia's Official Artists, working on location for the Australian War Memorial with the Australian Defence forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf.

Download audio file (mp3, 16MB)

Download transcript file (doc, 95Kb)

Contemporary War A message from Afghanistan

Adrienne Leith:  Good evening, everybody. Welcome to this evening's lecture, which is co‑hosted by the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria as part of the "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures of the National Museum of Kabul" exhibition, which I'm sure you've all seen by now. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we come together this evening, the people of the Kulin nation. We pay tribute to their elders past and present.

Tonight's lecture looks to be a wonderful one, "Contemporary War: A message from Afghanistan." This will be presented by two people, Charles Green and Lyndell Brown.

Dr. Lyndell Brown is a Melbourne based artist. Charles Green is Professor of Contemporary Art and the Head of Art History at the University of Melbourne. Since 1989 they have worked in collaboration as one artist. In early 2007 they were Australia's official artists, working on location for the Australian War Memorial with the Australian defense forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf. Please join me in welcoming the pair of them to the stage.

Charles Green:  Thanks very much. We're going to talk primarily about our experiences as war artists in Afghanistan. That's an Australian connection with Afghanistan. We'll talk our way through some of the issues that arose and our experiences, and also about the art that we made there.

Lyndell Brown:  As Adrienne was saying in her introduction, we've worked collaboratively since 1989. The great thing about working together on every single work, and that's between paintings and photography, so we literally paint on the same canvases in layers so you don't know who does what. The great thing about the collaboration was that when the War Memorial approached us and wanted to send us into a war zone, they had to send both of us together. The initial approach was very mysterious. We had a call from Canberra saying, "We want to come in talk to you." When they suggested that they'd like to send us to Iraq and Afghanistan, we actually initially said, "No way!" We just knew it was too dangerous. We were extremely well informed. But then once we got over the shock, and we thought the honour of being asked to follow in the tradition of Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, great artists like that, we actually thought that it was quite a humbling privilege, and we felt that we had to accept.

Charles:  There's been a great tradition since the First World War of Australia sending artists into each conflict zone, usually once every two, three, four years. It's very expensive and very complicated to do. The war artist tradition lapsed for a couple of decades after Vietnam. During Vietnam, only one artist ‑‑ actually a couple, but one artist principally ‑‑ served as a war artist. When it started again just after Timor‑Leste, just after the intervention in East Timor, the War Memorial decided to send initially an artist to every conflict. If a conflict stretched on, as Afghanistan has, then it would be once every two or three years. The approach, as I said, was very mysterious. You don't apply to be, in Australia, a war artist. You're approached and tipped on the shoulder. It is a great honour, so it's very hard to refuse, even though you know that it's the sort of thing that you don't necessarily. If you think about it, it's a pretty crazy thing to volunteer to do. In World War I, George Lambert, one of Australia's very first war artists, was appointed to the rank of captain. He was very savvy, very smart. He rode horses, and he knew the army. He knew that if he was appointed to that rank, he would get treated better. We didn't know any better, so we were appointed to the lowest rank possible, which was second lieutenant.

Lyndell:  As you can see from the sequence of images…We won't talk to each one, but this is particularly interesting. That's the Ziggurat of Ur, which is a famous archeological site near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. As you can see, we're looking at it through a collection of explosives and crates. That, believe it or not, is actually inside this particular air base in Tallil in the south of Iraq. That gives you a sense of the scale of war and the way it actually affects ancient history. If you think about it, Iraq was the cradle of civilization. Here we were at the Ziggurat of Ur inside the base. You also see now in this image, again from Tallil ‑‑ we're actually using this to lead into the Afghan images ‑‑ the false connection of the twin towers with the war in Iraq, which was something that the American servicemen were walking past every mealtime going into the dining facility.

Charles:  We were sent first to the Gulf, to spend time on Australian navy ships circling oil wells in the Gulf, and then into Iraq, into Baghdad. It was the start of the surge, so it was probably about the craziest time to go. From there, we flew from Kuwait down the Gulf, after spending time down in the south of Iraq, into Afghanistan. The touchdown point initially in Afghanistan was right down the south in Kandahar, a big, huge, enormous base there that the British and the Americans use as a transit point for moving around the rest of the theater of war there. From there we found that we were flown off to the dry, dirty district up at Tarin Kowt. Tarin Kowt is high up in the mountains in southern Afghanistan in Uruzgan Province, which is the second worst in terms of terrorist action, the second worst of all the provinces. The worst is Helmand Province, and then Uruzgan. Officially, something like 80, 90 percent is under Taliban control, but in fact it's more like 98 percent. The only areas that are really under government control are the actual bases. Nothing else is under control.

This is the perimeter.

Lyndell:  This is in marked contrast, of course, to Charles' experience. He was travelling in Afghanistan in, I think, the early '70s, which was before the fall of the Shah in Kabul, and travelling through Afghanistan in such a different place, which is one of the reasons, when we were originally approached, we said we that we wanted to go to Afghanistan but not to Iraq. This image, by the way, just as a little digression, is a detail from an earlier painting. You can see the collapsing of history and mapping on the body into sort of multi‑layered, very finely wrought paintings. The image is of the Veil of Kashmir. That contentious ground, the fight between India and Pakistan, is obviously of crucial importance to the war in Afghanistan.

Charles:  We were quite mystified to be approached because the tradition before us of war artists from Timor‑Leste on had been pretty conservative artists who basically worked with figure painting and from observation. We don't do that at all. We take a lot of photographs, and we then translate them slowly. We were told, in all the briefings we did, we were to do whatever we wanted. We realized eventually we’re very aware of pictures like this. This is an oil painting. They knew what we'd done, and they basically wanted us to do whatever we wanted. The tradition of war artists in Australia is to set the artists to do whatever they want, to respond in whatever way they see fit. There was no expectation that we would document what we saw. Still more than that, there was absolutely no expectation that we would wish in any way to propagandise these wars. In fact, there was quite an expectation that we would be extremely opposed to Australia's intervention in Iraq.

Lyndell:  You can see another aspect of our paintings that's quite important to us is that we work from an archive of images. We usually assemble a huge archive of photographs, and then we distill and select and represent. These are actually oil paintings. They're painted from photographic sources, but we feel that the translation into the finely worked oil paint adds a layer of resonance. Our choice in going to Afghanistan was to collect as many images as we could. Then, in the safety of studio...This is different to the usual war artist mode of painting from life and maybe producing quite sketch‑like works. We wanted to be able to do something quite grand, a type of history painting. For us, that needed to take place in the studio. We accumulated an archive of thousands and thousands of images, and then over the next year back in the studio we were able to distill and select. We often find with the painting sources that they're not primarily those key photographs that are complete in themselves. They're often images that are maybe the second cut. Once you paint them and translate them into paint, you can intensify and reinvest meaning in them. That was our particular method.

The War Memorial commissioned a group of three large scale paintings and 30 smaller canvases, which you will see in a moment, but they also ended up acquiring a large body of very large scale photographs, some of which you've been seeing.

Charles:  Here's a little signpost that the Australians have rigged up inside the base in Tarin Kowt. It says, "To the Taliban." Of course, that's a weather vane. It shifts around depending on where the winds coming from. The Taliban are basically everywhere. There's nowhere they're not. They creep up every night and rocket and mortar the base. This is the outermost perimeter. You're looking at our escort. This is from a perimeter post run by the Afghan National Army. It's shelled fairly regularly. The mountains beyond there are the sands where Australians have been dying. Those are the actual mountains where they've been dying. The mountains here in Uruzgan are where Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, comes from. It's virtually 100 percent Taliban territory. They’ve been pushed back periodically up to the heads of the valley, but they come back all the time. They will come back and take over as soon as the ISAF forces, the international forces, pull out.

Lyndell:  You can see the sad fact about our experience in Afghanistan. This is the case for Australian soldiers, as well. Most of the time, you're confined to the base. What the Australian engineers were doing in Tarin Kowt when we were there, and at that point the Dutch were still in Tarin Kowt, they were doing works for the local communities, going out and building a well, a school for girls, or a medical center. To do that, for three Australian engineers to go out - This is the dirt flight strip that you can see, with the cargo waiting to be picked up. Whenever it rained, of course, you were trapped there. You couldn't fly out.

For three Australian engineers to go out and do one of these what they called backyard blitzes, where they'd build whatever the local communities had agreed they needed, they would go out, say, at 4:00 AM or 2:00 AM at very odd times with about 120 armored troops to secure them. They would have to do that so the Taliban couldn't predict when they were about to move out of the base. As you can see, it's a very dangerous situation. To be there as Australian non‑service people, civilians like us, we were instantly a target. You can see the plane landing in the distance in the dust there. We had to at certain points put on 25 kilos of body armor when we directed to.

We were also quite constrained. We couldn't move out into the community. It was not possible. It was not safe. We would have been, probably, kidnapped. That's the other factor that is a very sad fact of life in Afghanistan. For the Afghan people it's quite a tragedy.

Charles:  At the same time, there are other ways of making war art than this. One of them is the great tradition of photojournalism. Marvelous photographers such as the Australian, Stephen Dupont, who specialize in action. We know their work very well. We knew of that tradition very well. It was definitely something they could always do better than we could, so we had no interest in that at all. What we were interested in was looking at the way the international forces touch down in Afghanistan and make this implacable environment, this semi‑desert mountain environment and meet absolutely implacable opposition, as well. In a way, it's as if globalization is fought to a standstill. The other mode of making art in these sites of conflict I suppose is exemplified by an artist whose work we admire greatly, the filmmaker and painter George Gittoes, who currently is running a project based out of Jalalabad in central eastern Afghanistan, where he works with local performers and filmmakers and makes films with them, but also has created a circus that he takes around to villages, which is simply impossible in these territories down in the south.

Lyndell:  To be fair, I think George Gittoes is actually working in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, but that border is quite porous. There are a lot of Afghans in that area, too. Obviously, as a man and dressed in the traditional garb with his long beard and long hair, he can almost deceive people as to where he's from and get away with it. I think we would have stood out like a sore thumb. The other fact about this particular Uruzgan Province, there were no NGOs there. The non‑government agencies couldn't operate there. It was too dangerous. It really felt like the end of the line in that sense. There was another sequence of images, which we'll come to later, where I'm in a Chinook helicopter sitting behind the pilot and copilot on a supply mission from Kandahar Base airport into Helmand Province, into one of the British bases, which felt really like Colonel Custer's last stand, and flying over this spectacular rocky, mountainous landscape very low, 50 feet off the ground, very low and fast. This is a pre‑dawn image, by the way, in Tarin Kowt.

You saw the adobe mud brick compounds. Because we were flying overhead, you'd see women hanging out, washing. You'd see goatherds in the fields with the goats. It was that close. You could practically see the fear in their eyes as the helicopter passes overhead. Also, fields and fields and fields of opium poppies just coming into bloom.

It actually felt like we could be in the 12th century. There was no sign of what we know of as our contemporary life. It was quite awe inspiring.

This is the market in Tarin Kowt. This is just inside the base. As a way of fostering opportunities for local merchants, the Dutch and Australians set up a market where they could come and sell their wares essentially to the soldiers on the base. They're all very carefully vetted.

This image is emblematic, in a way, of our experience in Afghanistan. You see the Afghan men all in a circle with their backs to you. You can't quite figure out what's going on, but it is quite a powerful image. Then you realize, if we tell you the narrative, that what's happening is, the woman Dutch surgeon, six foot tall, spiky blond hair, is trying on, perhaps inappropriately, the men's cap and the shawl that they wear with the cap. The Afghan traders are all quite fascinated by this. They can't quite work out exactly what's going on. A sort of cross‑dressing.

This image became this mysterious iconic image for us, yet in the frame after this, you see a man turn away with a big grin on his face. He thought it was hilarious. It shows how images that cohere into icons can then dissolve into something quite mundane.

Charles:  Of course, meanwhile, the soldiers set up with as much humor as they can. In fact, many officers said to us that they wished the Australian soldiers would spend a little less time on their so‑called art than they did. They were quite concerned at many of the bases at the amount of sheer ingenuity and inventiveness that they were pouring into the Bin Laden Don't Serve Kandahar Board‑riders Club, which is as absolutely as unlikely a place as you can get. You're way high up in the mountains and surrounded by...a couple thousand miles from anything approaching water.

Lyndell:  This was next to a bird cage full of Aussie birds ‑‑ cockatiels, budgies, all sorts of Australian birds that were bought at the Kandahar market, oddly. This quiet, quirky humor. This is a famous explosive detector dog called Sabi. Sabi is the dog who went missing. We met these dogs when they were there. They're explosive detector dogs, so EDDs. Then they have their service number. Because the army doesn't have the money to breed the dogs they want, they select what they call fanatical retrievers from the pound. The fanatical retrievers being, as some of you probably know, the dogs that you throw a ball for them and they will just go and catch that ball forever. They don't want to do anything else. Sabi actually went AWOL. She disappeared for about 18 months and then turned up ‑‑ you've probably heard this story ‑‑ quite well fed. Turned up at the base. Americans found her and thought, "She looks like an Aussie dog." They brought her back to the base and she's become quite famous. I think she's since been repatriated to Australia, gone through quarantine and is probably living a comfortable retirement.

Charles:  At this point, we're going to move to some of the pictures that we painted. We'll talk about the paintings. Incidently, here is the image that Lyndell was talking about, one of the images that she shot from a Chinook chopper as it was sweeping across the Taliban territory towards a forward British commando base.

Lyndell:  We can we're flying so low that it almost doesn't feel as if you're flying. It's really just 50 feet off the ground. One of the reasons for that is because of the very high altitude. Choppers need a certain friction to stay up in the air. Obviously, you don't want to go up too high. Those are two things you don't really want to be thinking about with your 20 kilos of body armour on and your communication headphones and everything. The other factor, of course, being that apparently it's harder to shoot the Chinook down when it's low to the ground. It's like ducks out of a tree, apparently. That was something I didn't particular want to think about at that time, in the Chinook helicopter, either.

Charles:  As artists, we had no experience at all of military people or military life. My father fought in World War II, as did my uncle, as did most Australian men of his generation. My uncle was killed in Papa New Guinea. But we were amazed by the regard that we emerged with for people in the Australian military. We ended up with a really intense sense of public duty and service that really motivates many of those people. Out of the time we spent there, we then went away for a year and worked pretty much non‑stop on two bodies of work. An exhibition, a large group of big photographs, and a large group of paintings. This, in the Ian Potter Museum, at the University of Melbourne, which was the first stop of the exhibition that resulted. The Australian War Memorial has been touring this exhibition ever since, around Australia and abroad.

These are the paintings we did, 33 paintings. We'll look at some of them in a minute. We'll talk our way through them. But we will also talk a little bit about what we realized about the current conflict in Afghanistan that comes both out of our experience there and also the research and reading that we've done since. This is the big gallery of photographs, large color photographs. The large photographs were often about a meter and a half high, by about a meter and a quarter wide.

Lyndell:  These images, there's a particular mode in contemporary art. Artists like Andreas Gursky, who had a big retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, of large scale photographs that actually look like paintings. When you saw the image of the Afghan men at the market, it actually had this strangely painterly quality. The backdrop almost looked like a painted backdrop. We've always been interested in the paradoxes between, say, documentary type of painting and a painterly type of photography. Here, we've actually produced 30 of these smaller images that are about, in the old measurements, a foot square. We saw them as a film sequence, like a film strip, so you could create a narrative out of seeing different juxtapositions. In this particular show, they were curated into groups according to the countries. But we actually saw different connections between images that the War Memorial could play with. Because we were aware that a lot of these works will be out.

There's such interest in the contemporary conflicts and the Australian involvement that the War Memorial would want to have flexibility, in terms of how to show the images. This is actually back in Iraq, on the roof of the Baath Party Headquarters, the observation post or the sniper post at the top of that. It's actually right near the American Embassy in the green zone of Baghdad. To get there, we had to go along what was, at that time, the most dangerous road in the world, Route Irish, in an armored rhino bus. That was a pretty terrifying experience.

Charles:  Basically, we're now looking at some of the small paintings that we did, up in Tarin Kowt, and also flying out into the mountains there. There were a couple of layers to the conflict there. We were aware of them at the time. They became more and more apparent the further we've got away from it and the more literature that's emerged. The first one is, this clearly was part of the terribly named War on Terror. Australia was a part of that. We asked constantly our military escorts, officers we met and Intel people we met, "Why are we here? Why are we here? Why are we here?" The answers we got were various. "We're here in Afghanistan because the Americans messed this up so badly when they first invaded. Then they were completely diverted by Iraq, got out, and the Taliban moved back in and took over virtually the whole of Afghanistan."

That's when the Americans started pumping people back in. That's when the Australians moved back in, in force.

Lyndell:  This particular image, if I could just butt in, this is a surgeon, Jeff Brock, who was actually in a dust‑off team in Kandahar Base Airport. A dust‑off team is a medical evacuation team. They were an Australian medical team embedded in an American Black Hawk helicopter. This is the ultimate interoperability, as it were. There he is, actually seated in the Back Hawk, exhausted after a long day escorting Karzai to a particular meeting in a helicopter. They need medical evacuation there, just in case something happens. We're taking his portrait. He was, still is, a very wise man, served in Vietnam. Very experienced. He said, in all the time that he was there, this particular six month rotation, what he noticed was they never evacuated a single woman. The thing about the dust‑off team is, they would evacuate Taliban, ISAF, which is the international forces, any person at all, without any discrimination, back to the Kandahar Base Airport Hospital, where Canadian surgeons would do their best.

There was one female that they evacuated in the entire six months. It was a 10 year old girl who'd been the victim of an IED attack, which is an improvised explosive device attack. She'd had a major artery in her shoulder severed. They evacuated her to the hospital. They tried desperately to save her life, but she died. A short while later, her parents appeared at the hospital, in tears, wanting to thank the Canadian surgeons for trying to save her life.

They'd never had that before and they'd lost several other children in similar incidents. What Jeff Brock said to me, about that particular story, was that he realized that women in Afghanistan did not get medical help at all. Their fathers, their husbands, their brothers, would not give them permission. They would just die in their villages. That was a deeply sobering experience. Which is why we then did the portrait of Jeff Brock.

The images, for us, and hopefully for a wider audience, are like memory images. Where we can actually remember what's happened. The other thing that you'll notice, because you've seen our earlier work, where there's lots of juxtapositions and layering. In the war images, you can see we've stripped that right back. We've taken out all the commentary, all the juxtapositions that could add or alter a meaning and really tried to just show what we saw. We felt that was the most powerful way. Obviously, people might like us to make clear our anti‑war sentiments. But we actually felt it was more important to let the images speak for themselves.

Charles:  Especially since we gained such regard and admiration for the people we met and for their sincerity in a totally hopeless situation, a situation when we went there, when it was becoming apparent to everybody that contrary to the briefings we'd had, Afghanistan was a much worse disaster, much worse than Iraq. Which it seemed occupied everybody's attention, which seemed such a crisis. And it was. But Afghanistan, it was immediately apparent, was much more chaotic, much crazier, much worse and much more hopeless. These are a group of soldiers on the tarmac of the airfield in Kandahar, waiting to get ferried onto another base. This is absolutely constant movement, non‑stop of hundreds and hundreds of planes. What you can't believe, and we cannot communicate this to you, is the scale of this enterprise, the money, big as belief, and the expenditure of people and labor.

Lyndell:  And lives.

Charles:  And lives. It is actually beyond belief, in a situation that everybody there and everybody who thinks about it knows is hopeless, totally bleak. To imagine any redemptive capacity here is to be misguided.

Lyndell:  The thing about the Kandahar Base Airport, the flight line, is that when we got there we were briefed as to where we could go safely, just a situational awareness briefing. We were told that when we went to the DFAC, which is the dining facility, for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we had to stick to the well‑trodden paths. Because Afghanistan is one of the most heavily land‑mined countries in the world. The Russians left all the land mines there when they left. The ISAF forces hadn't had a chance to de‑mine the far side of the airport. You can imagine that level of danger and threat. It's bad enough for us, as civilians, who never, ever imagined ourselves in a war zone. But for the Afghans, with all these foreigners coming in a constant stream, and also leaving this terrible situation for the Afghans.

Charles:  This was one of the larger pictures we did. It's almost two metres by two metres. It's a large figure group, pretty much straight from the photograph. But in the process, we've transformed it quite rigorously into a very tight composition. As we painted the picture, we were intensely aware of the geometries and interactions that were emerging. One of them is, in the center of this picture, and you'll see a detail now, and this is very much a 21st century war, you see a Dutch film crew interviewing Dutch servicemen about the war. They're making a documentary in the middle of this pretty much fake Afghan market, which is very much staged for the soldiers and the Afghans. There's no real economy going on here. All the time, the Australians...when you see an Australian from the back here, with the guns. They're all loaded. They're all ready for anything to happen. We're in the outermost perimeter of several concentric circles in the base.

It's only the outermost perimeter that Afghan locals are allowed into, in the small numbers they are. For us, every single detail of these images was intensely meaningful.

Lyndell:  This is the forward base in Helmand Province.

Charles:  Large painting.

Lyndell:  It's a detail from the large painting. That is the paradox of a painting. It's like an action painting. It's an image through the windscreen of a Chinook helicopter. It's not the sort of place you'd be setting up an easel. It just gives the sense of the bleakness of the place. The other thing I'd note about that particular mission is that we were there. We were on the ground for about 60 seconds. They really had it all timed. They had cargo on, cargo off, people on, people off. They were radioing ahead to line it all up. Obviously, it's not the sort of place you'd want to stay for any length of time.

Charles:  As we said, it took us about a year to finish the first commission for War Memorial. In that time, we didn't produce any images that combined, that laid images over each other or into each other. The way we normally do work is a bit like shuffling a deck of cards and then arranging the outcomes. It took us about a year and a half to be able to approach these images in any sense of wanting to recombine them and layer them into a wider, broader, historical panoramic narrative. We started to do that over the last couple of years.

Lyndell:  This is an image, a crowd seen in Afghanistan, Afghan men. On the left, you can see a fragment of an image, of a Chinook helicopter taking off in the desert dust. It is actually overlaid over the Brooklyn Bridge, in New York. Actually, a view from the old World Trade Centre towers that we had been to a few years before it was...

Charles:  Actually, six months before it was attacked.

Lyndell:  Yeah. That was one of those uncanny coincidences, I suppose.

Charles:  These were a group of small pictures that we showed, in part at the Melbourne Art Fair, a couple of years ago. This is a detail of a very large painting that's now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In the top left, you can see an image that we've culled from a newspaper cutting in The New York Times, of a border post on the Pakistan side of that border that had just been bombed by American drones. We're currently painting a portrait of a drone and a group of American contractors and American army people who aren't in uniform. We started to recombine images. This over a scene of the Yarra River at Studley Park and another group of images. Here is another detail of another painting of ours, a couple of years old now. The same image of a Pakistan border post, right on the border with Afghanistan.

But in the background, you see an asylum seeker boat approaching Australia.

Lyndell:  Because of course, there's no coincidence that many Afghans are still fleeing Afghanistan for Australia. These things are all interlinked, aren't they?

Charles:  And of course, the biggest racial or ethnic group, one of the very biggest that's fleeing Afghanistan, the Hazaras, from central Afghanistan, who are really not beloved at all by the predominantly Pashto Taliban. There are real reasons why asylum seekers find their ways to our shores. It's not a matter of choice. It's a matter of total desperation.

Lyndell:  This is a painting that's in the show opening tomorrow night. In the left foreground you see another image of the outpost, on the edge of the Tarinkot Base. Here it appears as a memory image that's crumpled, worn, weathered and beaten. Juxtaposed against an image of Tibet and then an ideal image of a European civic space. The painting's called Outpost.

Charles:  We've been through a sequence here, in this presentation. In a second, we'll ask if there's any questions you want to ask us. Please do. But we've shown you the unlikely narrative of two artists who never dreamed they would find themselves in the desert mountains of Afghanistan, in the middle of a war zone. Whose work, to them, had nothing to do with such a pursuit. We've shown you a small panorama of the way our journey progressed, from Iraq, the apparent headline conflict, into Afghanistan. Which at that point, at the start of 2007, looked to the media as much less important. We've shown you, basically, the constraints that are attendant upon any foreigner, any civilian or any merchant person being in Afghanistan. The total constraints, the lack of movement, the fact that you are looking at being on bases unless you're special forces. Really, the freedom of movement is almost nil. We've tried to communicate the bleakness of that.

Then we showed you a sequence of the images that we gradually created out of that, in which we moved gradually from a documentary mode, a documentary looking, which was born out of almost the trauma of being in a war zone, of seeing the incredible stress that servicemen are under, and that we lived through in a micro‑scale in the almost couple of months that we were there. Finally, we've shown you some of the images in which we started to reintegrate those experiences into a much more panoramic mode of making art. That's it. Thank you.

Adrienne:  Thank you for coming tonight. I'd like you to end tonight with, once again, a big round of applause for our wonderful speakers.

Proudly supported by University of Melbourne, University Partner for the Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures exhibition.

University of Melbourne logo

Speaker/s

Charles Green and Lyndell Brown