A Townsville artist and former soldier has been recognised as the inaugural winner of the highly distinguished Napier Waller Art Prize.
The competition, run by the Australian War Memorial and University of Canberra, invited current and former Australian Defence Force personnel to raise broader awareness of the military experience and celebrate artistic excellence by taking part.
Rob Douma’s moving piece Green on Blue: the betrayal of trust was awarded First Prize from more than 100 entries, securing Rob’s work a place in the National Collection and winning Rob a two-week research residency in the Art Section of the Australian War Memorial, a mentorship with former official war artist Ben Quilty and a $10,000 cash prize.
Rob’s piece depicts an incident in 2011, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, where an Afghan soldier fired on Australian soldiers who were mentoring him, betraying their trust and killing three Australians and an interpreter and wounding nine more.
Rob said he first heard of the incident on the news, before learning ‘through the social media grapevine’ that his friend Sergeant Robert ‘Sprouty’ Althofer had been one of the casualties.
“I bumped into Sprouty on ANZAC Day 2013; he was walking with a noticeable limp and the assistance of a cane,” recalled Rob. “I realised that while it was too soon to discuss … I would one day like to create an artwork about him to highlight those incidents.”
During his own time serving, Rob worked in Afghanistan as a Security Consultant tasked with escorting the US Army Corps of Engineers to locations all over the country. Around the same time as Sprouty’s incident, Rob was beginning to recognise the likelihood of being shot at by Afghan security forces inside a base.
“This had been happening to other Coalition forces throughout the country as well as in our own camps,” Rob said. “It was not always a direct threat; the Afghans would shoot each other as well. I recall three shootings in one month at my base that were the result of personal disputes. We once tried to provide medical aid at a major incident we witnessed that left three American contractors and a few Afghan soldiers dead. That had also escalated from a disagreement, and was not a Taliban attack per se.”
It was a few years before Rob and Sprouty met again and Rob felt enough healing had happened to pitch his artistic idea. Sprouty agreed.
“Around the same time [as my reunion with Sprouty] I came across the Caravaggio painting The Betrayal of Christ through other research and I thought it was the perfect image to recontextualise and discuss the betrayal of trust,” said Rob.
While there are clear similarities between the two works, Rob’s also stands alone as a powerfully striking piece.
For Rob, it’s the emotive strength of art that he believes could help our defence personnel process their experiences, while also deepening understanding of service life and closing the divide that exists between the military community and the general public.
“A clinical explanation of the events may not evoke the same emotion or understanding that an artwork may impart on the viewer. Art is an incredibly powerful tool for storytelling,” said Rob.
“The Napier Waller prize exhibition has 12 stories that are quite diverse. It has pieces that are reflective and observational, while others are raw and incredibly honest. I think it’s this honesty that people really connect with. Regardless of the viewer’s personal stance on conflict and Australia’s involvement in wars, they can view these unfiltered, sometimes deeply personal stories.”
While Rob is yet to complete his Bachelor in Visual Arts through University of Canberra at TAFE North Queensland, the Napier Waller Art Prize is not the first notch on his belt. He’s already been recognised with a string of honours including regional awards for printmaking and drawing, being named a Finalist in multiple portrait competitions including this year’s Percival Portrait Painting Prize, and taking out TAFE’s Student of the Year for North Queensland in 2017. However, the honour of clinching this particular competition is not diluted in any way by Rob’s past achievements.
“Winning a national award and having my artwork acquired, as permanent part of the Australian National Collection, is quite humbling,” Rob said. “The win was surprising, but more humbling was the support and congratulations shown by the other finalists as well; their respect has had a deep impact on me. I think for most, it was not about winning the competition, rather the opportunity to share their stories.
“The resulting media attention is also positive and provides another platform to share veterans’ stories and my own. Additionally, I would like to adjust the narrative of art as therapy, to include the power of art as part of a strong preventative maintenance plan. ‘Art is good for the soul’ is a cliché, but more realistically put perhaps ‘art is good for long term mental health’.
Rob is now preparing his next major artwork, the Partnershipping Project, which will tour the country including Townsville in 2019; and hopes, in the long-term, to become an official War Artist.
Townsville artist and former Navy Service Woman Marie-Louise Jones was also named among the 35 Napier Waller Art Prize Finalists for her piece Anchor Bend. Rob and Marie-Louise are both eligible for the People’s Choice Award, with voting running until 25 November 2018.
To view all Finalists in the 2018 Napier Waller Art Prize, and to vote for the People’s Choice Awards, visit https://www.awm.gov.au/form/napier-waller-shortlist. Voting is open until 25 November 2018.