Ben Quilty: Life Vests 2016-2017


Each life vest is in effect a tombstone, a way of remembering the dead. Together the paintings constitute a memorial, as lugubrious and dour an epitaph as Australia’s refugee policy.

The series of twelve paintings of orange life vests – now the shorthand symbol for refugees and their desperate plight – present a paradox in the fact that so many of these life vests can encourage death rather than prevent it. Ben Quilty found to his despair that many of the abandoned vests he inspected on the Greek shoreline had no floatation built in, often containing materials such as grass, even sponge, that can lose buoyancy rapidly and drag the wearer under water. Invited by the Australian War Memorial to produce images of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011, Quilty’s paintings showed men traumatised by war, afflicted by the aftershocks of what they had seen and endured. The life vests, likewise, refer to the warping effect of damaging life experiences, not on professional soldiers but on refugees.

Each vest records the name of an individual, who grasping at hope of a better life, sought refuge in Australia. For each man or woman, that optimistic belief in a future was thwarted – a false hope that would drag them under as surely as a life vest stuffed with grass. Each vest names an individual who reached the Australian border but no further, and frustrated and anguished, took their own life at the very doorway of sanctuary. Mohammad Nazari, a 35 year old Hazara man damaged by events in his past and the uncertainty of a bridging visa, hanged himself while in Sydney. Khodayar Amini set fire to himself when he believed he would be returned to Afghanistan and certain death. All were refugees, mentally battered and traumatised, who could never find refuge. Each life vest is in effect a tombstone, a way of remembering the dead. Together the paintings constitute a memorial, as lugubrious and dour an epitaph as Australia’s refugee policy.

‘Momento mori’ or Vanitas paintings dealing with death and reminding us that life is fragile have a long history in Western Art. In this tradition, Quilty’s new works by can be seen as a guide to living, initially as a prompt to self examination and the incentive to lead an exemplary life but also as a prick to the conscience sparked by an awareness of others. Each work notes the circumstances where the life preserver failed the individual and while maintaining a common schema in the central orange vest, each is personalised. The orange blot of the vests is literally a knot of congealed paint formed with a welter of twisted and slashing strokes but in one, it is almost reduced to a smear. Quilty has always matched brushwork to subject as a way of creating a dramatic symbolism that underpins his work. In this era of post factual politics it is as if he was determined to make these stories tangible, visceral and real. But his symbolism suggests that reality is a construct and the solid drawing gives way to the idea.

It is not a question of what is real or not real but what is important and unimportant.

Crying mouths appear on several vests but the viewer will never hear the imploring voices. From another vest, a frightened eye looks out, seeking reassurance perhaps, but will the viewer in front of the painting respond?

There are twelve painted vests, yet each is isolated in its frame. It sometimes seems – those desperately lonely moments that each of us occasionally feel – that despite the multitudes around us, we are alone

in a terrible empty space. Fereshteh, a refugee surrounded by over two million Perth-siders, felt she couldn’t go on and threw herself into the void. American astrophysicist, cosmologist, sceptic and writer Carl Sagan, speaking about the position of humanity within the universe remarked that ‘for small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.’

Michael Desmond 2017

This gallery has been reproduced with the generous permission of Ben Quilty and the Tolarno gallery. We thank them for their ready support for the Deathscapes project.



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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that the site contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.