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Ben Quilty says he would rather live on Indonesian execution island than with kowtowing politicians

Ben Quilty
Ben Quilty
Ben Quilty will leave Australia if politicians do not campaign for the abolition of the death penalty in countries like China and the United States.

The Archibald Prize-winning artist and Art Gallery of NSW trustee said, with a dose of black humour, he would rather live on Indonesia's execution island than witness Australian politicians kowtow to countries that kill their citizens.

"Next year is the 50th anniversary of the last person executed in Australia and if some politicians don't get up and use a soap box to proclaim that to the world, I'm leaving," he said.

Ronald Ryan was hanged in Melbourne in February 1967 for the murder of a prison officer during an escape from Pentridge prison in 1965.

Asked where he would settle, Quilty said: "I don't care. I'd rather live on Nusa Kambangan than have no politicians stand up for the great parts of what we've achieved."

"We haven't executed anyone for 50 years. We have things to be proud of but politicians like to kowtow to countries that still execute people, namely China and America and no one f***ing says anything."

Quilty was speaking at last month's Art Basel Hong Kong art fair where his large-scale autobiographical painting, After Afghanistan, Over the Hills and Far Away, priced at $130,000, was sold by Melbourne's Tolarno Galleries to an undisclosed buyer.

Quilty said the painting started as a self-portrait "and I guess in a way it maps out the last few years of me being alive".

In particular, the painting focuses on Quilty's experiences in Afghanistan, which he visited in 2011 as an official war artist, and his involvement in the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from an Indonesian firing squad.

"I'm intrigued and attracted and repulsed at the same time by those experiences," he says. "This work references directly the response of young men I met in Afghanistan to the way Afghanistan has slipped backwards since they pulled out."

Quilty refuses to shy away from controversial topics, with his next show at Tolarno in June featuring paintings and a video work of a young Hazara refugee and life vests that he found on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos.

After Afghanistan comprises 4 canvas panels and features an anguished face coloured in shades of green and purple floating above the headless figure of a naked reclining woman.

Quilty also painted an Afghani kolba or household dwelling under stormy skies.

"This domestic symbol prompted him to consider the implications of the Taliban's return to power after the withdrawal of the Australian Defence Forces," the catalogue states. "Their resumption of control over Afghan society has pushed women back into their previous subservient role."

Pearl Lam Galleries, meanwhile, displayed Quilty's Rorschach work of Nusa Kambangan - the Indonesian island where the 2 convicted Australian drug smugglers were executed in 2015.

"It's probably not a work I would have shown in Australia because I'm not ready really to go into too much conversation about that yet," Quilty says.

A regular in Hong Kong, Quilty says Art Basel and the constellation of other art fairs are obvious places for Australian artists to exhibit.

"It's just allowed us artists to be seen for how good we are and I think we mix it perfectly well," he says.

Source: Canberra Times, April 3, 2016

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