“An extraordinary quilt of terror and strangeness” is how writer Richard Flanagan describes Ben Quilty’s artwork made from life jackets worn by desperate Syrian asylum seekers seeking refuge in Europe.
The colourful yet ominous wall “paintings” appear in stark contrast to a collection of elaborate white wedding gowns made by a young refugee which are also part of Quilty’s installation in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s new exhibition Sappers & Shrapnel – contemporary art and the art of the trenches.
“I hope my part of this amazing show helps to humanise these people – that people can sense some of the humanity of those who wore the vests,” Quilty says.
“There’s little, tiny children’s jackets … there’s still knots tied by people’s hands as they undertook this incredible journey.”
Quilty was inspired to create the work when he and Flanagan – who has written an essay that accompanies the installation – travelled to Lebanon, Lesbos and Serbia early this year with World Vision. The pair met and followed refugees who had made the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea to Greece, witnessing first-hand the desperation of those fleeing the conflict in Syria.
The lifejackets were discarded along the shores of the Greek Island of Chios, collected for Quilty by volunteers, then unstitched and sewed together.
The fate of those who wore the vests on the gallery walls isn’t known, but the artist hopes they made it safely to Germany. Many never get that far.
Perhaps most disturbing, in light of the hundreds of refugees who have drowned at sea, is that some of the lifejackets on display are imitations sold to asylum seekers by people smugglers in Turkey.
“Some of them just have packing foam inside, some have more serious polystyrene, some that Richard and I found just had compacted grass inside them,” Quilty says.
“It is haunting.”
The bridal gowns in Quilty’s Dresses for Soulaf installation were made by Raghda Alrawi, a young Syrian dressmaker whom he and Flanagan met in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Raghda’s life was in danger when Islamic State arrived in her former home town because she worked with naked mannequins, considered a crime punishable by death.
Quilty commissioned the then heavily pregnant dressmaker to create wedding dresses that she hoped her newborn would one day wear – “sort of metaphors for her hope” – but admits he was surprised they were so Western. “I expected something more traditional … she said, ‘You asked me what I hope my daughter would wear and this is it’.”
Quilty – who officially opened Sappers & Shrapnel at the Art Gallery last week – says Raghda’s optimism epitomises what the exhibition is about.
“It’s all about human resilience, about that very deep, intuitive, creative urge that human beings have … Raghda went so headlong into this project because of this idea that in creativity there’s solace and refuge from the reality of what your life is like.”
Sappers & Shrapnel comprises work by 20 contemporary artists in response to conflict and war, along with 30 examples of what is known as trench art – art made from the waste of war, such as shrapnel, shell cases, badges and artillery.
Curator Lisa Slade says that while the show features work by artists from Australia and New Zealand, “the resonances are international”.
“We travel from Afghanistan to Maralinga, from Syria to the Central Desert; we traverse and cross the world in order to look at this idea of what are the trenches of contemporary time.”
Examples of the trench art which inspired Sappers & Shrapnel are on loan from the Australian War Memorial collection, and include items such as an elaborate alarm clock made from brass, copper and steel by Tasmanian sapper Stanley Keith Pearl at Flanders in 1918.
Slade says she hopes people will be “shocked, delighted and surprised at these extraordinarily beautiful things that have been created in the most difficult circumstances … they are absolute proof that art is not a luxury, it is essentially who we are.
“I have really found, in a sense, this kind of redemptive side of human resilience and survival in trench art.”
One of the exhibition’s contemporary artists, South Australian Sera Waters, says she was inspired by both her own family’s history and research at the Australian War Memorial, where she was moved by an embroidered blanket made by Corporal Clifford Gatenby in a World War II POW camp.
Waters spent around 855 painstaking hours creating her own work, Frontline on the Home-front: Remembering the Johns, which was made by pulling recycled wool through an army-issue woollen blanket, with close viewing revealing imagery such as a leg, helmet, gas mask, soldier’s boot and other items.
While the artist’s technique reflects skills passed down between women over generations, her art pays tribute to her male ancestors – many of whom were named John or Johann – who served in World War I. Among them were Australian John Bernard Waters, who was killed in France, and her German-born grandfather’s brother, Johann, who committed suicide in Germany after the war.
“I feel like that propelled my grandfather to come to Australia, where he jumped ship and became an illegal immigrant and set up his life here,” Waters says.
“So there’s this kind of homage to the sadness, but also the impetus for change and seeking a more hopeful life.”
This article originally appeared on InDaily
Featured image: Dresses for Soulaf – Ben Quilty’s installation in Sappers & Shrapnel at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: Paul Steed