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Ben Quilty: how I travel

The artist on the lure of the Western Desert, the world through a child’s eyes, and the inspiration of Beirut.
Ben Quilty

Artist Ben Quilty.

Daniel Boud

When I was 19 I left art school for a year. I was pretty off the rails. A mate and I took an old Commodore station wagon and travelled around Australia. He had a book of Pitjantjatjara language, which we were trying to learn around campfires at night. One night in Cairns we met a young man who told us we’d already travelled through 60 different Aboriginal language groups. I realised at that point I knew nothing about my own country. When we came back I enrolled in Aboriginal culture and history at Monash University.

I ran out of money by the time we got to Darwin so I went looking for work. You’d stand around the local CES office in the morning, they’d read out the jobs and people would put up their hand. One morning they asked if anyone was a painter. I think half a degree at Sydney College of the Arts was worth putting my hand up for. I got the job and flew to Elcho Island, off north-east Arnhem Land, where I worked for a month as a house painter. I learned about the vibrancy of that community and the racial divide between the men I worked with and the people who lived there.

I’ve been travelling to the APY lands [the Aboriginal local government area in central Australia] every six months or so for years. It’s all permit country – you need to be invited there. Most recently I headed out through Kintore, in the far west of the Northern Territory, to Kiwirrkurra, a tiny community in WA in the heart of the Pintupi homelands. This is where many of the Papunya Tula artists come from; George Tjungurrayi, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati are a few of the extraordinary artists from the area – in my opinion the best painters in this country at the moment.

The Western Desert is a completely unique landscape. There’s nothing like it anywhere. Particularly the parts that haven’t been covered in buffel grass and other introduced species.

Ben Quilty.

(Photo: Daniel Boud)

When I was in Year 5 my family travelled around Australia in a caravan. My parents home-schooled their three boys. It was the mid ’80s, around the time that the Pintupi Nine walked out of the desert. We were travelling though country where people were still living very close to their traditional way of life but we knew nothing about them or their incredibly complex history and culture. There was nothing in the school syllabus; my parents didn’t know how to teach us about those communities because they themselves hadn’t been taught. I was among generations of white Australians who knew nothing about those communities. We live on their land and they’re keen to teach us about their way of life. I think that’s one of the great things about this country.

My children are very lucky, they’ve travelled all over the world. Though when I ask them what their favourite holiday is and where they’d like to go next, they want to go back to central Australia and sleep in a swag. Travel isn’t just about new landscapes but learning about human difference. Travel is one spectacularly beautiful way to teach children about compassion by understanding other people.

Art is a portal into the community you’re visiting, into its history, culture and visual language. I remember visiting the Palais de Tokyo in Paris when I was on the Whiteley travelling scholarship. It was all about the most cutting-edge visual culture, and it opened my eyes. Another favourite in Paris is the Musée Marmottan Monet, a jewel of a museum dedicated to the works of Monet – such a succinct, beautiful way of looking at an artist.

I’m interested in humanity. I like human beings and I’m interested in the different ways we live our lives. Normally the way I get to that is through the art they make. That just pushes me back to the studio and when I get home my head is filled, bursting, with ideas. I’m inspired by lots of things: crafts and music and history.

My dad’s an amazing person to travel with. He’s got the most inquiring mind I’ve ever known. He travels around Australia on his own and sleeps in a swag in the desert. For his own interest he researches Aboriginal massacre sites and colonial frontier history. I got my thirst for history from him.

Beirut is a highlight of the past five years of travel. It’s such an extraordinary city, a vibrant, warm, open community with fantastic food, live music and the ancient culture of Roman towns built over Phoenician towns all the way down the coastline. That history is so invigorating for me as an artist, to have that visual, tactile experience of walking along Phoenician roads, then climbing a bridge built by Romans.

The first time I went to Beirut was with World Vision Australia to witness the Syrian refugee crisis. I realised the stark difference between the way my community treats people in need and the way Lebanon was treating that same community. It was profoundly heartwarming and exciting to see communities all around the Middle East standing up for their neighbours. I mean, Syria and Lebanon have been at war for many years and yet when the Syrian people desperately needed help, Lebanon allowed over 1.2 million people to come into their country. It’s so inspiring to see the good part of humanity.

A major solo retrospective, Quilty, shows at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art from 29 June to 13 October,; and the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 9 November to 2 February 2020,

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