Artist William MacDonnell still cannot believe some of the things he saw as an embedded artist with the Canadian military.
In Croatia, he visited a graveyard littered with landmines. "We hopped from grave to grave. And we understood how much hatred there was. They had opened up the tombs, and pulled peoples’ ancestors out and scattered their bones."
Starting this month, the Canadian War Museum is featuring A Brush with War: Military Art from Korea to Afghanistan an exhibition of 64 works from various Canadian artists, featuring art from the Korean War to the current military operation in Afghanistan.
MacDonnell, a former officer cadet in the Royal Canadian Signals, has two works featured in the exhibit. In 1995 he painted The Wall, a depiction of the outside of the aforementioned graveyard in Croatia. "I was interested in places where these historical battles had taken place. There was a town we went through that had been completely destroyed and all that was left was a church and the cemetery with the desecrated tombs. Such unpleasant things had happened there. So much hatred. I've used the town as a symbol for the war."
Poet and writer Suzanne Steele was on hand at the opening and was also seeing the exhibit for the first time. She calls herself a ‘war poet’ and has written extensively about the military. In 2009, Steele went to Afghanistan and says she is still in contact with many of the soldiers she befriended, some of whom are coping with post traumatic stress syndrome. "As artists we are witness to valour but also to suffering," she says.
Steele uses the well-known poem In Flanders Field as an example to show how people relate to art on a personal level. "So many people respond to that poem, and it goes to show how much of an impact art can have."
Steele says she was excited to have the opportunity during this exhibition to meet fellow war artists. "We're rare birds," she says. "We don't do it for the money. I don't get paid to fly over the Taliban, but I feel it's a calling."
In one of her latest online diary entries, she responded to her emotional meeting with other war artists at the opening of the exhibition: "We looked at one another through the ballistics of our trades – poet, painters, graphic novelists. And recognize that each and every one of us war artists has literally put our lives on the line for our work. Because we believe in something. Because we are listening to something greater than ourselves. And none of us. NONE OF US. Is here to glorify the unglorifiable."
According to Steele, one painting in the exhibition was a source of controversy among Canadian troops. Gertrude Kearns' Somalia 2, Without Conscience depicts Canadian solider, Master Corporal Clayton Mactchee, who in 1993 was serving in Somalia, torturing Somali teenager Shidane Arone. The painting became the focal point of much heated discussion and controversy in the months following the Canadian War Museum's opening in 2005.
She says she showed photos of the exhibit's collection to soldiers, and some of them were not pleased with the Somalia painting's inclusion. "They said, 'This should not be in here!' But it has to be. It's the truth, it happened. And it was a definitive moment because after that the military had to be so much more accountable."
"A Brush with War" will be on display at the Canadian War Museum until March 2011.