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From War: The Importance of Art in the Military

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For many, war and art may seem worlds apart, but one Australian institution is bringing veteran art to the forefront with a captivating exhibition at Parliament House this November.

Veterans have long used the arts as a means of improving or maintaining their health and well-being since the beginning of Australia’s military services. The Australian Defence Force has a rich history in the arts, extending back to trench art in World War I.

“We know that even during the Gallipoli campaign, there was a group of performers called the ANZAC Coves and they were the earliest types of veteran artists that we identify were boosting morale and making performances and music at the time,” says Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM) founder and Head of Arts Programs, Tanja Johnston.

“We also know that in World War II, a lot of prisoners of war made art and for them, it was literally a life force, it gave them purpose, it helped them survive some of the horrible experiences and conditions that they had endured”.

For Tanja, this connection between battle and art runs deep. With family ties to the military and a strong background in art, these two seemingly separate facets of her life fatefully collided to see her found ANVAM five years ago.

ANVAM Head of Arts, Tanja Johnston. Credit: Gordon Traill.

With ties to the military and a strong background in art, these two familial influences fatefully collided to see her graduate a Master’s of Art Therapy and go on to found ANVAM nine years later.

“I came to study a Master’s of Art Therapy in Melbourne at La Trobe, mainly because I really saw a benefit in engaging with art and I wanted to find a way to use art to help support others,” she says.

“I have a family history that is quite embedded in the military and having married a soldier it was always something that was a part of who I was and who I am,” she continues. “[And] I’d always been interested in art and making art, so it probably really manifested from strong foundations at home”.

Further exposed to the community on a clinical placement in a veteran’s psychological hospital, Tanja says she established “a very real and tangible interest in how art was able to support not only some of those physical injuries but also, more importantly, the psychological side effects or impacts of service”.

Eager to continue this line of work within a community she was so familiar with, Tanja was frustrated to find there was no equivalent service outside of the hospital, within the community, for veterans to access.

“I felt really compelled to create some sort of regular support that we could maintain,” she says. “I saw the greatest need with the community that I was working with, especially because there wasn’t anything like it”.

“Art is something for everyone of all ages and abilities, it cuts across the generations and it can be very diverse and it is really something that is incredibly supportive”.

Five years on, ANVAM has flourished to support the wellbeing of current and former service members and their families through a range of community-based arts engagement and arts therapy programs.

“Our approach is around supporting the individuals where they’re at,” says Tanja. “One of the things that we try to do is to provide a scope of opportunities, so it might be through some workshops, through shorter sessions, or through one-off programs that we run”.

This November, witness the compelling relationship between art and the military context for yourself as ANVAM hosts its exhibition, From War, at Parliament House. Blending work by contemporary veteran artists with historical artworks from the Parliament House Art Collection, From War highlights the importance of art engagement.

“The title, From War, is a way of entering into looking more broadly and exploring what actually comes from war, and it may not be what everybody thinks,” explains Tanja.

“Some of the work will be more raw and coded, there will be metaphors in the work that have meaning for individuals but there’s a lovely balance with some of the great cultural experiences that serving members have had,” she continues.

“The idea for the exhibition is to really highlight how important development of the arts has been through the military context and how important it is to draw on those individuals who have been making art and have had some sort of service”.

“This is a life experience for many that stays with them, the good and the bad, and the exhibition showcases both of those”.

the essentials

What: From War exhibition
Where: Parliament House
When: Opening Friday 9 November
More information: here

Feature image: Geoffrey Jones Lament for Afghanistan, 2015 (detail). Image supplied. 

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