Between July 12th and 15th August I was artist in residence at Expressions working on Sand in the Apricot Jam.
It must have been a rather worrying sight for the Director and Curator of the gallery to have an artist turn up with only one of the four 3m panels complete and with only the assurances of the artist that it will all be finished within the month! But if they were concerned they didn’t let on and left me too it.
Creating the work onsite offered quite a different way of working in that not only could I work on all of the panels at the same time, I could also stand back from them, view them from multiple angles, sneak up on them as a whole and see how they are coming together as a body of work. I could judge how they would operate together in their final state of installation.
There were those initial teething problems of talking too much and not getting much painting done! But that was why I was there, I wanted to share my research and my process and hear others stories so it was about finding a balance.
I still maintained my artistic process of combining drawing and painting from life, and from photos. I was my usual magpie self, grabbing bit’s from many resources to create a single figure. The expression of the face and body and the relationship between man and horse were pivotal to the success of the work so it was important to scourer many resources to find the right look.
Each of the panels have a couple of layers of gesso over the paper to stop the paper absorbing the oil paint. But often I would leave areas that were just the bare paper as I like to pay recognition to the surface I work on and the paper is a nice tone of brown too. In the Sinai Panel I had left the crosses depicting a grave site in Rafah as the untouched paper surface.
This soldier was derived from an image I had sourced from the Middle East theatre of war of WWI, I chose to use it as even in the dusty desert some men still looked quite dapper. One visitor wondered if perhaps someone might recognise him from a family photo, I liked that idea.
One of the things that seemed to flummox many of the people who came to visit was the jackal I featured in the panel about the Palestine Campaign. Not the fact it was featured at all but because it was upside down. It is not unusual for me to depict things upside down in my work for many reasons. On this occasion the jackal was painted upside down to represent an abstract idea of the strangeness of the experience of a tired soldier returning from reconnaissance work, or returning from battle, at night and hearing the eery sound of the jackals howling not knowing quite where the sound is coming from.
It was really important for me to represent the importance of water in the Middle East campaign because it made the difference between battles won and lost. Without it man and horse could not survive. The Desert Mounted Corps (of which the Mounted Rifles were part of) role in the final battle of Gaza was to secure the wells in the town of Beersheba which is why I chose to depict the importance of water in this way.
I wanted to leave the back section of the horse as the sketchy underdrawing as if the horse is fading away. This is because this section of the painting that shows the horse walking towards the soldier references the moment of departure. The horses were not to return to New Zealand and the men were reluctant to sell their trusty steeds to the locals believing they would be treated badly, so most chose to shot them instead. This shows that moment before, the hose knows something is up, the soldier knowing what he must do. My grandfather said there was not a dry eye when the men had to shot their horses.
My depiction of this inevitable act was inspired by the song by Eric Bogle, ‘As if he knows’ and the lyrics from this song go as so:
It’s as if he knows
He’s standing close to me
His breath warm on my sleeve
His head hung low
It’s as if he knows
What the dawn will bring
The end of everything
For my old Banjo
And all along the picket lines beneath the desert sky
The Light Horsemen move amongst their mates to say one last goodbye
And the horses stand so quietly
Row on silent row
It’s as if they know
Time after time
We rode through shot and shell
We rode in and out of Hell
On their strong backs
Time after time
They brought us safely through
By their swift sure hooves
And their brave hearts
Tomorrow we will form up ranks and march down to the quay
And sail back to our loved ones in that dear land across the sea
While our loyal and true companions
Who asked so little and gave so much
Will lie dead in the dust.
For the orders came
No horses to return
We were to abandon them
To be slaves
After all we’d shared
And all that we’d been through
A Nation’s gratitude
Was a dusty grave
For we can’t leave them to the people here, we’d rather see them dead
So each man will take his best mate’s horse with a bullet through the head
For the people here are like their land
Wild and cruel and hard
So Banjo, here’s your reward.
It’s as if he knows, he standing close to me,
His breath warm on my sleeve, his head hung low.
As he if he knew.
Copyright Eric Bogle July 2001, reproduced with the permission of Eric Bogle
The Lighthorsemen are the Australian Lighthorsemen who the NZ Mounted Rifles fought beside.
My residency at Expressions was a wonderfully rewarding experience. The team at Expressions were incredibly supportive. Many people enjoyed coming back to see how the works had progressed, quite a few coming back a number of times over the month. People would generously put me onto books they had read they thought might be of interest to me. Visitors were so generous with their words of support and admiration. Many shared personal stories from their own families experiences of the First World War, from the boot maker employed at Trentham Army Camp to the great uncle who had half his face blown off in the Western Front only to survive then be sent back when recovered, the family of 8 brothers that all went to war and only 1 surviving. Then so often the conversation would fade off to “…but we never learn do we”.
This residency has facilitated the opportunity for me to share what I have learned about the Mounted Rifles and I believe, has also enabled me to honour their memory both with the public process of creating the works to the finished works themselves.