Afghan inspired collages
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
As I write this blog today, it seems the theme of reiterations and layers of experience in this collage project is a poignant echo of real life. Afghanistan is being overrun by the Taliban, who are taking over almost uncontested ground - a heartbreaking thing to watch after 20 years. This time last year I left the Army after 20 years of full time service. In my second year of service my peers watched the Twin Towers fall and consequently my career had a been focused on the Middle East. I had been to Afghanistan a good few times, and spent about a year of my life there working to help try create a secure and safe nation.
Four years to this day, my Army veteran husband, Andrew, suicided, leaving our two year old daughter, Imogen, and our lives in a flat spin. Supported by incredible friends and family, and working enormously hard at healing, my daughter and I have since worked to give ourselves a new and happy life. It is still sad at times. But last night, I lay in bed, thinking about Andrew's death and watching the Taliban's advances. This morning six year old Imogen asked me why my dad is an old man now, and even a grandfather, and hers is dead. It's still so sad.
Turning to the art project, I have just completed three complimentary collages. I have incorporated three historic monoprints that remained unresolved after having to leave the studio for the first lockdown. You can read about them here . I had always felt they needed more work and it has been excellent to revisit them through this collage project.
The monoprints had reflected the Afghan mountains and the cost of war, particularly on women, with a repeated motif of the woman wearing a burka and a stylised Australia War Memorial stencil. In the aftermath of my experiences I have often thought of the many Afghan war widows and their children, not cared for in the same way Imogen and I have been. I have also reflected on how the Australian War Memorial reflects the heroism of the fighters, usually men, but under-represents the plight of widows and children, and other feminine versions of war's collateral damage.
The softness and prettiness of the colours and patterns have been said to be at odds with people's idea of Afghanistan. But when I was there I was struck by the feminised aesthetic of the Afghans and the beauty of the mountainous environment. There is a beauty in the stoic witnessing of nature, the way those mountains have seen the ebb and flow of human history. There is strength and story in femininity, even though it has rarely been given the limelight. The shapes of the mountains also seemed to echo the shapes of the burkas, their pale mauve and purple also reflecting the different lights of nature. Examples of the colours and shape can be seen in a google search:
Reviewing and reworking the images, as I see Afghanistan overrun by the Taliban as the last of the remaining forces and diplomatic staff evacuated Kabul in a fall of Saigon style rush, is surreal. Afghan women are again losing their jobs and being turned away from universities. Many veterans are concerned for the safety of the Afghans that helped us and the Royal Australian Air Force is sending a mission to try rescue many of those about to be trapped by the advance. Kabul airport is being mobbed by thousands trying to escape. I'm sure this is only the beginning as Taliban rule invariably sets in. It is heartbreaking, a real time Handmaiden's Tale. Here are some of the images that show what tragic things are happening in the news today:
The collage project called on me to add additional historical print matter to the work in a collage style. In a lockdown setting, I found myself restrained in resources. I found myself raiding my bookshelf and cutting maps and pictures from a number of military books I had from my time in the Army. Whilst it was sad to cause some damage to these books, it also seemed appropriate and symbolic that they were now getting consumed in another way, in in service of my new life as an artist.
I wanted the layers of print sources to reinforce the layers of mountains and reflect layers of history, experiences and suffering in Afghanistan, but through war at large. Some of the books were seminal pieces that were studied as part of my Masters in Defence Strategy: Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, and Clausewitz' On War spoke to the enduring nature of war. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE 'Lawrence of Arabia' had some beautiful printed drawings and the comedic history-based fiction Flashman had an interesting map referencing the extent of western military influence over the Middle East region. Jungle Tracks spoke to Australian military involvement in Vietnam and Khaki and Green was a 1943 publication on Australian World War Two contribution. I included Goya's evocative Disasters of War etches from a book I purchased in Madrid whilst on war leave in 2007. On the internet I found a page of a historic jihad booklet, which the US has disseminated in support of Afghan resistance to the Soviets, which I printed and used for one of the mountains. Andrew Quilty's article this year published in the Monthly 'The Worst Form of Defence' was an important text for my recent photo etchings about the civilians killed through Australian Defence Force warcrimes of which you can read my blog about here. The pages of Quilty's article are also incorporated into my collage as mountains.
These mountains were very grounding to me when I was based in Tarin Kot. They were huge, majestic and an ever present witness to the human plights of war and peace, which are fleeting compared to the enduring age of nature. War has a long history, but nature's history is even longer.
Initially my collages seemed too crowded and 'bitsy'. I wanted the calm, reflective beauty of the grounded mountains to be the mainstay of my collages.
The faces that Andrew Quilty had taken to illustrate his article seemed too dominate so I painted them darker with black gauche to help the facial features to recede into the background some more. In the end though, I found the images too be too bold for the harmonious look I was trying to achieve. I will keep them for a future project however because they are incredible evocative photos and say so much about the state of Afghanistan.
I looked at Belinda Fox's mountain screenprints and drew inspiration from her simple but bold compositions which seemed to effortlessly depict . Listing what the mountains meant to me each day I was based in Tarin Kot was helpful to articulate in my notebook too. Evoking feelings and moods through artwork can be such a challenge.
I started ripping up soft purple Japanese paper into larger mountains, sometimes using their negative space to indicate additional layers of form and allow parts of the original monoprints to be displayed. The class that Clare Humphries gave on composition building helped enormously in my endeavour to create the dynamic but grounding feel of the mountains. For example, I started putting the mountains along the bottom edge of the pages to give them a firm and natural base, and allowed diagonals of the forms to create movement and interest. This made the images seem more serine and calming. The colour tones I'd used in my composition lesson, greens, tans, browns, black and white, all were added into my collages too. They seemed harmonious, and in so many ways, reflected Afghanistan's natural beauty.
Larger shapes seemed to depict the enormity of the mountains, history and grief.
I used a variety of shape-making methods - ripping for the soft edged and hazy mountains and cutting with a knife, but later more effectively with bigger craft scissors and then little nail scissors. When it came to gluing the I did experiments with the three types of glue I had access to at home: rice glue, PVA and glue sticks. I tested them all for the different papers I was using on the collage and switched between which glue worked best for each type of paper.
I used my hand and a silicon spatular pressed through baking paper to flatten the glued papers together and once sections of the collage were completed, they were pressed under heavy things, protected by more baking paper. The process took a few days and my kitchen table is still a collage in itself - papers, books, glue and paint strewn everywhere!
Through the composition I was able to reestablish the themes and motifs of war's effects, particularly on women. The Australian War Memorial and the women in burkas still could be viewed as parts of the background. I could enhance the theme and add extra layers of endurance, service and suffering through the Goya and 1940's pictures. The woman scrubbing the floor next to the Australian War Memorial talks to how cleaning up after the war so often lands on women. The etched Goya woman poking Lawrence of Arabia whilst holding her baby is another playful and poignant couplings of images of which collage allows as a technique. The jovial Armoured Corps men sitting on their Armoured Personal Carrier as it tilted jauntily down a paper mountain slope and the upside-down statue of Lawrence poking down from the sky have a playful poke at ideas of heroism and legacy - who gets the statues and books after war is done.
I am still deciding whether to cut the collages down the edges sharply as three collages in a series, or try joining them together for an extended landscape view. This is something I can experiment with as I play with installations.
In the meantime, these are the completed three collages, which can be viewed in detail also on my gallery page.
Afghanistan will always be an important place for me. I can't stop thinking about her beautiful people, especially the women and girls, and hope that this transition of power doesn't reverse all the good ways their lives have evolved over the last 20 years.