It's a big call to shine the light of truth on a contemporary Australian artist. But Catherine Hunter, director and producer of Quilty, Painting The Shadows, has captured the personality of Ben Quilty, the controversial 46-year-old painter, with a poignant 60-minute film.
While the film, which will debut on ABC-TV on Tuesday, November 19, covers much of Quilty's career, the underlying focus is on the idea and creative process behind his giant artwork of the Myall Creek massacre.
Quilty has loomed large in the Australian psyche for his work. He was the face of a campaign to save Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan for execution in Indonesia for drug trafficking. He was an official war artist in Afghanistan, producing a series of emotional portraits of soldiers. Most recently, he curated (along with Richard Flanagan) a book of drawings by Syrian children and their depiction of the idea of "home".
Hunter first filmed Quilty in 2006 when he won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. She filmed him again in 2011 when she was making a documentary about Margaret Olley (it was the year Quilty won the Archibald Prize for a portrait of Olley).
She says when Quilty agreed to allow her visit him for a couple of days at his Mittagong studio at the beginning of the project, she knew he was committed to the project.
The documentary has several authoritative voices from the art world, including Nick Mitzevich, director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, and Lisa Slade, assistant director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and curator of Quilty, the major survey exhibition of his work which has just opened at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of its tour.
The film opens with a background exploration of the Myall Creek Massacre (in June 1838 12 stockmen killed a peaceful camp of 28 Aboriginal men, women and children at Myall Creek in northern NSW). Throughout the film it revisits Quilty's interest in making a painting from the place of the massacre and his feeling and thoughts about it.
"It's almost what's not here that needs to be painted," he says at one point in the film. "It's the site of a war crime..."
In another segment, he's leaving the Myall Creek area after a visit and he says, "There aren't any rules. I can say exactly what I want to say when I want to say it, and how i want to say it. Even if it pisses some people off. And they call me unAustralian. Maybe I am unAustralian."
Hunter says "there has been little coverage of Ben working in the studio and the idea of following a painting from the beginning was always the driving force of this documentary".
Hunter has been producing documentaries on the arts and architecture for 30 years. Subjects include John Russell, Glen Murcutt, Trent Parke, Margaret Olley, Jeff Carter and Sidney Nolan.