eX de Medici, Australia, Special Forces (Everywhere Current), Veg Pattern, 2007, 2010. Drawn in Canberra, 2010. Collection of the Australian War Memorial. Purchased in 2011. On display, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, until September.
IN March 2009, Canberra-based artist and tattooist eX de Medici fulfilled a longstanding ambition when she was chosen as an official war artist, a tradition that dates back to World War I.
De Medici, who has an interest in contemporary warfare, was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to record the peacekeeping mission of the Australian troops in Solomon Islands.
It was, however, a posting that would test her mettle as an artist. She was embedded with the Australian Defence Force during the wet season, and the unrelenting rain made it impossible for her to sketch outdoors or even to complete paintings. She resorted to taking hundreds of photographs: of the troops, of former battle sites, new military bases, aircraft and all manner of weapons.
She also kept a personal journal, recording her observations and conversations.
Once back home in Canberra, she used this material to produce a series of 26 works on paper highlighting the complexity of the peacekeeping operation. She depicted the day-to-day work of the ADF and the Solomon Islanders, but also explored broader issues such as colonisation and foreign exploitation of natural resources.
One of de Medici’s watercolours featuring an Australian soldier’s helmet is on display at the Australian War Memorial. When I visit Can- berra, I’m shown Australia, Special Forces (Everywhere Current), Veg Pattern, 2007, 2010 by the memorial’s head of art, Ryan Johnston, who says that her images of helmets are “really quite extraordinary”.
“The helmets are an interesting development in her career,” he says. “Even though she had done a lot of work previous to this on skulls, the helmet is becoming a kind of synonym with the skull.
“Another interesting thing is her use of watercolour. It is a conservative medium and it is like a velvet glove approach almost. The idea is to have these beautiful watercolours, which seduce you into what becomes a very loaded and very complex social and political commen- tary. She is making analogies between the contemporary military presence in the Pacific and the history of colonisation in the region.”
De Medici, who was born in regional NSW in 1959, studied painting in Canberra, then moved to Los Angeles to become a tattoo artist. For many years she has worked with the image of the skull, which she describes as the “ultimate signifier in tattooing”.
It also references the vanitas tradition. Of her use of watercolour, she has said that while it may not be considered a serious medium, she has always been attracted to “things deemed not interesting or unworthy in the high-status stakes: biro, coloured pencil, photocopy, tattooing, watercolour and natural history”.
While Johnston and I examine her image of the soldier’s helmet with its vegetation camouflage, it is evident it is drawn with an almost scientific attention to detail, a skill she developed while an artist-in-residence at the CSIRO. Also evident is her use of gold leaf, almost evocative of the old Byzantine icons, and added as a comment on the status of soldiers in contemporary society.
“One of the reasons I love eX’s work in this context is that, in this time of highly technologised warfare, there is still this amazing vulnerability,” says Johnston.
“And I think the really interesting thing with eX is that she takes a contemporary conflict in Solomon Islands and works in a very long history of conflict and colonisation with these complicated art historical references. It is a very rich work to look at, and it rewards coming back on multiple occasions.”
Watercolour and gold leaf on paper. 57.2cm x 76.4cm