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Wendy Sharpe
Archive number: 2521
Date interviewed: 26 May, 2000

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Official Artist – East Timor
Wendy Sharpe 2521


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This interview was filmed for the television series Australians at War in 1999-2000.
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Tape 115
NB. This transcript is of an interview filmed for the television series, Australians at War in 1999-2000. It was incorporated into the Archive in 2007.


I was pretty surprised that you got this commission, or took this commission, only in relation to your reputation of previous work, or start of your previous work. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how you came to be commissioned to go to East Timor as a war artist?
Well in September


’90, god what was it, must have been, it was ’99 of course, it seems I’ve sort of lost all track of time of when it was, I was asked by Lola Wilkins from the [Australian] War Memorial, [Canberra], if I would like to go to East Timor and draw the soldiers and draw what actually was happening over there. This was before they went, so they were all massed in Darwin and, I said that I would be interested in drawing them in Darwin but I didn’t want to draw them in East Timor because at that stage they hadn’t actually gone over


and we were hearing all these horrifying reports of what was going on, so you know, goodness knows what might have happened when they went over there and I’m not brave. I don’t want to go in somewhere where I’m risking my life, so I said, if it calms down I’ll go and it calmed down so I went. But the way Lola chose me was that she was aware of my drawings and I draw all the time and I draw people so it made sense in that it’s something that I almost do anyway you know


it’s sort of part of my practice as an artist.
So you weren’t surprised?
Oh I mean, I was surprised to be asked to go over there because I mean, it’s not something that happens, you don’t get asked to do that it, I’m the first woman since the Second World War to have had that opportunity and I would never think of doing anything like that. I have never had anything to do with the military before. I’ve never had any experience like that before but in terms of drawing and in terms of my work as an artist it makes sense but


it was absolutely extraordinary, request, you know opportunity, out of the blue so I didn’t really, I sure didn’t expect that.
There is of course, a long tradition of war artists, within the era of Australians at war that we’re talking about, I mean for one hundred years in fact, many artists have gone into the field as war artists or as official war artists. And some very famous names amongst them of course


Streeton and others. Have you, does that sort of tradition have any relevance to you; I mean do you sort of have a response to being part of that chronology if you like of war artists?
It really is an honour to be asked to go and to draw and to the paintings that I’ve done since I’ve returned. I am following in a tradition of so many great artists and the War Memorial has a fantastic collection of drawings, absolutely amazing. It’s


you know, to have, to have been one of only two artists from the whole of Australia to be asked to do that is an, it really is an honour. And to know that my work will be in the War Memorial with all those other fantastic drawings it really is something special so I was very glad to have, you know take that up, to take that chance up.
Just tell us a little bit about the paintings that … the nuts and bolts of the process of becoming a war artist, I mean


just from a civilian, the painter living in comfortable you know in a city doing the stuff you like to do rather than taking on commissions of complete free spirit. I mean do you need specific training to go into a field of war artistry? What was the process of getting you there?
Well, I was referred to as an Australian official artist, as opposed to a war artist and that was on my khaki uniform just


on my shoulder. So of course, unlike a lot of the artists from the past who were actually in the army, I was not in the army, I was what was referred to as a defence civilian so I suppose I was with the army and I was in khaki as opposed to camouflage so I guess they knew that I was with them but I wasn’t one of them. But I did meet some people through the War Memorial who had just come back from East Timor and who told me what sort of things I would need to take over there and what the conditions would be and


I had to have hundreds of shots for all the different diseases and things that you could get over there. And I organised what I would take. And I made sure that I wasn’t carrying too much. One of the people from the War Memorial was telling me, “You’re going to have to carry a lot, you’re going to have to carry a lot.” and sort of trying to worry me and I honed it down to almost nothing because I was so frightened that I was going to have to lug so much stuff. Oh, because you know I’m not, I’m not a soldier, I’m not someone in peak physical condition, I mean I’m perfectly healthy but I’m not someone used to doing a lot of the things that they do and


it you know, although by December when I was there it had calmed down and it wasn’t that uncomfortable, it’s still pretty hard going but you know it was worth it. I mean I was too afraid to have showers at night because of the mosquitoes and I was worried that I was going to get malaria because the showers are outside and there is a big tarp [tarpaulin] around you so I would go to bed filthy and exhausted and all those minor inconveniences, you know. But no there was no real training, there was just, I draw anyway as I said and although I felt


first of all quite strange being in a military situation and being surrounded by people in camouflage, even in Darwin before I went to East Timor, as soon as I started to draw I just feel, I know what I’m doing. It’s like going home you know, whenever I’m drawing, I mean even if I’m drawing something quite extraordinary.
Just tell us a little bit about your own personal process of drawing, I mean some people take a lot of still photographs as a sort of aide memoir or in fact do no art as such in the field at all.


How do you work?
While I was in Darwin and East Timor, I did, I think it must be over five hundred drawings, I know that because it tells you how many pages are in each sketchbook and I filled so many of them. And I literally was drawing from when I got up to when I went to bed at night, so I was drawing people having breakfast and, I was drawing whatever I was doing all day, people having lunch, the whole thing, so you can actually document each day through my drawings. And I


was doing that non stop all the time that I was there so I did produce so much and although I do draw a lot anyway, to be doing nothing but that for so long is quite extraordinary and, to have been commissioned to do that and to, for everyone around me to want me to do that is quite a different thing for an artist, because if I’m drawing people normally like in cafes, or on the street or wherever it is, usually you have to pretend, it’s like a guilty secret so you sort of have to pretend that you’re not actually drawing people whereas there,


not only was I expected to draw, but I even had someone there as an escort from the army to facilitate that, to actually help me and organise it for me. So I did masses of drawings. I took some photographs, but I mostly worked from drawings and then on my return to Sydney I worked from those drawings, I produced lots of watercolours and things and I also did some oil paintings.
There is an interesting, also in terms of this


century of war art, of course they don’t call you war artists, because we’re not at war are we? That’s the other thing I’ve got to remember, it’s not a war situation. This thing about interpretation and representation keeps coming up all the time, and you know Charles Bean in the First World War is probably the single greatest creator of the myth of Anzac and the great Australian tradition, he loved the painting of Will Dyson who was extremely accurate in the way he represented things.


He disliked the photographs or the photographic work of Frank Hurley because he would sometimes multi-layer negatives to create an image …
Oh interesting.
… what was not true.
After the contemporary times, I mean there’s George Gittoes who was talking about, I mean his interpretation of the things he’s seen especially in Africa are quite shocking but very much the way he’d seen it. Is this something that has occurred to you or is your style such that you would always interpret anyway


in your own eyes?
I think, one of the questions that I often get asked by people is I’m surprised, the comments that people make to me is that I think it is really extraordinary that they’re sending artists, you know, these days when we see so much film and so many photographs, we have no need for that because you know obviously in previous times well, you didn’t have film everywhere so you needed it for documentation. But now there is no need for accurate documentation from an artist viewpoint, it really is


I think much more to do with personal interpretation. And thinking of the work of someone like George Gittoes it’s not about accuracy it’s about how he felt and what he wants to communicate. And so is mine and so is Rick Amor who was the artist who was in East Timor before me, so it’s about a personal view and if you had, twenty artists doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time and having the same experiences they would all come up with something different, depends on how you feel. So for example,


Rick, who was there before me, concentrated a lot on paintings of the desolation and the empty buildings and the destruction whereas because I’m more interested in people that was mostly what I was doing. And one of the subjects that I produced a lot of work on because I found that so moving and so inspiring visually was a concert that I went to in Sui down south on Christmas Eve and


it was something that anyone who knows anything about my work would imagine that I would find exciting, visually I’m talking about. Because it was, it had extraordinary tonal contrast. We were standing with people in dark silhouette and there is a brightly lit stage in the background and the people in silhouette in front of that, strong tonal contrast, very dramatic lighting, people holding little green lights under their faces. I mean that’s something that I always love that kind of thing anyway, so obviously I was drawn to that whereas some other artists might


experience that but might concentrate on drawing something else.
Just on that choice of subject, I’ve only seen some of your Timor work; I haven’t had a chance to see the whole exhibition. I’ve seen Rick’s and I know George’s work very well. Rick’s paintings, although they were about desolation and landscape, they always featured Australian soldiers.
George seldom paints


the soldiers that he’s with. He becomes so involved with the people, the victims, the collateral damage if you like, he seems to do mostly them as faces which is closer to your work I think.
Perhaps but still. While I was over in East Timor I didn’t see anything horrific, like the work of George Gittoes although it requires no imagination to see what sort of things has happened over there


so I saw things completely destroyed and I saw evidence of all kinds of things but I didn’t actually see anything really traumatic. Although you could feel it and you could see as I say, you know examples of what had happened around the place. I think that mostly, most, most of my drawings are of Australian soldiers and East Timorese people. I’m not sure which percentage is which what, but there’s lots of that. But most of them are drawings of people doing things. Whether it be the


soldiers, or the East Timorese and interactions between people. So I think, it was actually quite different to George’s and quite different to Rick’s and that was something that the War Memorial wanted too. Because they really do want a range of different views. And there’s something, I think I’ve given a couple of talks on my experiences to people and I think that in a way when I’m talking to the average person who’s had nothing to do with


anything like that, or anything military. I think that, I can almost have their view. I mean, I can say this is what I saw, this is how I felt, this is where I slept, this is what I ate, this is what we saw, this is what it felt like. This is the kind of things that I saw the soldiers doing and because I am so removed from the world of the military I think that I’m sort of seeing it perhaps the way they might. You know, well at least that’s what some people have said to me.
A different view?
Yeah, a different, I have a different view because I really, it’s something that is, completely,


you know alien to me, it’s, I mean it’s alien to everybody but I’m still – I mean I found it even strange the first day when I was in Darwin at Robertson Barracks going to the mess for dinner and standing around with all these men in camouflage and I was thinking, you know, so that was sort of even strange to me let alone everything else. And then after awhile that becomes normal and you get used to it. I also did drawings of some of the other nationalities that were over there, because you know there were so many different people there was lots of drawings I did. For example


of Kenyans when I was, went across to East Timor on the [HMAS] Jervis Bay, so there is some of those drawings and I’ve also got drawings of people in all different types of camouflage and New Zealand soldiers, German soldiers, there was Italians, there was really everybody and that was interesting too. Bangladesh soldiers, very bright colour camouflage. And being there at Christmas was something very special because, I got to have Christmas with the army of course. We had Christmas dinner


together and I got to go to masses and concerts and things that the East Timorese had on and it was a very moving time. I think it was wonderful to be there at that time.
Is there, the traditional role of course has been to bring back experience for the people in Australia and a lot of others argue that, that because all conflict has been on other shores and we have never actually had major


war in Australia, except for the early Aboriginal conflict. That there was a great responsibility to bring back the experience for the Australian public. Although nowadays we have as you say multimedia methods of distributing this information but do you still feel that as an obligation as an artist? That you have to, that you have to bring information to a viewing audience here, or is it more a personal and emotional, something that you have to do and


if they like it or have a view of it but that’s by-product.
I think that because the only way it could possibly be, I was there quite briefly and I, and all I could draw and paint about was what I saw and of course that is so obviously so subjective. You know I went to one place one morning and saw this thing and if I’d gone to another place I would have seen a different thing so obviously my experiences are very specific to me and so it’s almost like an auto, a little autobiographical thing from that time that I was there.


It’s personal but I think that quite often something that is personal and is emotional is universal. Because I’m doing what I saw and what I felt and what was happening with the people that I was with and sometimes that can reach, I think people can sort of react more to that. People can identify more with that than something that is supposedly objective.
Good answer. Yeah that’s great.


Do you, have you come out of that experience with a view about peacekeeping as such? I mean is that something you ever thought about, I mean, you obviously don’t have a military background or probably much interest in the army but you know, Australia hasn’t been involved in any sort of major conflicts since Vietnam about thirty years ago, but we’ve got all these sorts of activities which are now about peace keeping, peace monitoring, peace observing. Do you have any sort of view about that as a


sort of future role?
Well with my experience in East Timor of what the army was doing over there was, I was, came back so impressed. I didn’t know what to expect and because I, you know I can’t imagine wanting to join the army, it’s a very alien world to me. I thought what is it going to be like, being with them let alone being in East Timor and seeing all the things that had happened there. But actually I came back extremely impressed by them; they were doing a fantastic job.


And although their duty when I was there was just to keep everything calm, to make sure that nothing bad was happening and to facilitate and to do humanitarian work, I saw so much kindness and so many people going way above what they needed to do to try and help the people. It was incredibly moving, incredibly moving. And it was so appreciated by the East Timorese. There’s a wall in Sui that went around a market, that’s all been burnt down


it’s a long wall, it’s about like a city block. And in September when the INTERFET [International Force East Timor] troops came in and chased away the militia or tried to sort of get them out the local people got bits of burnt out, bits of charcoal from their burnt out houses and wrote messages all over this wall to say thank you to INTERFET. And it’s really one of the most moving things you ever saw. It’s all written misspelt because although they speak


many, even if they had, they are going to have other languages, it’s not going to be English, they have their own dialects and then they may have, if they have a second language it’s going to be Indonesian or in Portuguese, so English is quite a long way down their list. But, on this wall it says, ‘Thank you very much INTERFET my darling, thank you military Australia, I love you military Australia.’ and all this. It’s all misspelt and it’s all with big hearts around it and it’s just the most moving thing you ever saw and drawings of the soldiers


and if you’re thinking I wonder how they feel, I wonder, it’s just this outpouring of thank you. And one of the things that struck me when I first arrived in Dili was the way all the people were smiling and waving so you know, they were just so glad, they felt, it just made them feel so good that our people had come in to help them. So, it was extremely moving and I was just so impressed by them and all, soldiers of all ages, some very young


but you know, very serious about what they were doing, just so professional. And they weren’t putting on an act for me, they don’t know who I am, couldn’t care less anyway, they were just you know, they were just doing such a great job.
Great. Have you ever had a view about Anzac as such as a tradition, as a cornerstone of the Australian character, has this ever occupied your thoughts?
I actually do find Anzac Day moving but not in the way I think you’re meant to.


I usually just find it, I find it very moving just in the tragedy of the whole thing. Of all these people just sent to be slaughtered and sometimes not for any real reason I think so I do find it moving. But I certainly don’t, I certainly don’t obviously sort of go for the heroic Anzac legend. I mean there was some very great, there were some great young men that were killed and it was a terrible tragedy. It’s sort of meaningless but it was a terrible thing and I mean that’s I guess how I see it. It interests me that it’s


growing and growing and there are more and more people being involved in it. I think it is something to mark. I think it’s important but I don’t quite see it the way, you know it seems to be setup. The War Memorial itself, I hadn’t been there, I hate to admit, but I hadn’t been there since I was a teenager and going back there more recently when I’ve been involved in this work for East Timor, I found that extremely moving too, I think that was fantastic. I mean it’s important to mark these things and it is important to record them, and to have


information for people to see but it is about individual stories and it is about tragedies and human beings as opposed to some strange diorama of some supposedly heroic thing. It’s not about that, it actually is about you know terrible things that people went through and we do need to remember that and you know, maybe people are starting to feel that way now, I’m not really sure.
I’m so


looking forward to seeing your exhibition. I mean to me, your paintings have always been so joyous and sensual …
There’s still some joy.
… and playful and filled with the absolute delight of living. How does that sit with the subjects you had?
Although there is a bleakness in some of the images that I did from East Timor and there are some that are fairly bleak, although they’re not as I said, they’re not


anything terrible but there are, East Timorese, refugees sitting there and you know you get a look from their face, I don’t know whether I’ve captured it or not, but, when I saw some of them, you know you’re thinking, what have you been through and you can’t even begin to imagine. There’s also, there is also humour and there is also some of the camaraderie and some of the funny things I did see over there with the Australian army and also with the East Timorese children which are everywhere,


funny little characters. Whenever I was trying to draw, they’re standing in front of me. Love being drawn so I’ve got lots of drawings of them. I’ve also got a drawing of a young female soldier who wanted me to do a nude drawing of her so she could send it to her boyfriend so I mean I’ve got some funny things like that. And also I was at the Tour of Duty concert which was on with Kylie Minogue and John Farnham just before Christmas, so you know I’ve got,


and Christmas itself of course which had Australian soldiers wearing funny hats and reindeer horns and stuff like that, so there are some quite light things as well as something I think is a bit heavier.
Is there anything that you want to tell me that I haven’t asked you yet?
I’m trying to think, I don’t know if I should talk about a couple of images maybe? That might be a way.
Well favourite ones of course.
Yeah. I’ll talk a bit more about that concert in Sui because that was one of the things that I think is a


really interesting story.
Also anything about the cathedral which you were …
Yes I think I’ll talk more about that I think, because that. I mean I could tell you hundreds of stories but I don’t know which ones would be. But that’s something that would be good, I’ll talk about that and if I can think of anything else I’ll do a bit more of that. So I’ll do that. On Christmas Eve, in Sui, we went to a concert, and mass


that was took place near the cathedral, now there is a cathedral there that I thought had been burnt down but actually it was incomplete and it was where a terrible massacre took place. I’m not sure how many people were killed there I keep hearing different reports, but it sounds like perhaps around one hundred people including nuns and priests. Absolutely shocking. And the local people just want to leave it, they don’t want to continue building it but I’m not sure whether they actually will or not but this concert I went to took place in a temporary chapel sort of thing right


near that and when we arrived it was a boiling hot night as it always is. And virtually the whole town of Sui were all standing there watching this concert which was narrated in English and Tetum, their dialect. And when we arrived there was the New Zealand Army doing a Haka [traditional dance of New Zealand’s Maori people] and sticking out their tongues and going like that with their eyes and they were teaching the East Timorese children how to do it. And the East Timorese people just loved it, thought it was very funny and very enjoyable and then the Australians came on


and sang Christmas carols wearing little red hats. The East Timorese people sang freedom songs and some religious songs and then they did one of the most extraordinary things I have seen in my life, which was a re-enactment of the massacre that had taken in the cathedral. And it was narrated in


Tetum and in English so we knew exactly what was happening and they said, “Now about the militia coming in, now they are burning the buildings,” and they pretended to burn the building. “Now they are killing the nuns and priests,” and they would re-enact that. “Now they are raping the women,” and they would run through all the things that they did. And then they said, “And now INTERFET came in and are chasing away the militia,” and East Timorese people in white shorts with wooden pretend guns,


came in and chased away the pretend militia and everyone cheered. And that was the end of it. And we were just standing there, there was only a few us from the army standing there, absolutely stunned by this. Couldn’t believe it. It was just the most extraordinary thing. Now I mean that was amazing and also you know I had this lovely little exchange with a very old East Timorese women who saw me trying to fan myself with my hat because it was so hot. And she gave me a little card to fan myself


with, it was just I mean, very poignant beautiful things. So there was that emotional feeling of being there but visually it was quite incredible. And I was standing drawing with charcoal in the dark by moonlight drawing these silhouetted figures on the stage, brightly lit stage and all the dark figures that I was standing with because we were all in the dark and there was just the light from the stage. And they were all from my sketchbook and then


after that we went and sat near the ruined cathedral or the cathedral. And I did some drawings of the cathedral with the moon in the background, which was, this was about around midnight. And people standing around holding these lime green silum sticks with little bits of green light shining on their faces. It was absolutely incredible. I mean that was just one of the most extraordinary things and then on Christmas Day, which was the next day, we went back again, went to a mass, saw all the people there lining up their to take communion and


and I sat most of Christmas Day drawing from my drawings in my sketchbook and doing watercolours from the drawings in my sketchbook but also working from memory from all these things, because these images were just so strong. Oh another…yeah okay another story, I won’t talk about that.
That was great by the way.
That’s a good one but that is just, yeah that’s a good story. What’s another good story? What else? It just depends on what you


would be showing. Oh yeah, if I can. What other things do you think you would you like me to talk about? I can say …
Any experiences with soldiers or female soldiers?
I can, yeah I can talk about female soldiers. I can talk about that because that’s something of interest I suppose. Okay. I’ll say a little bit about that, if we can think of anything else we may as well just say things and you can see what you want to use. I’m not sure exactly the percentage of female soldiers that were in East Timor when


I was there. I heard at one stage, there was around, not around the time I was there, there is around four and a half thousand Australian soldiers over there and about five hundred are women, I’m not sure if that’s the correct proportion but that makes about one in nine. And I don’t know if that’s right. But that looked roughly right to me because although it was mostly men of course there was still a reasonable amount of women. So I wasn’t that much of a novelty and there were facilities for women and they expected that there were women there so


that was good, I mean that made it much easier for me and that of course is something quite unique. Compared to the Second World War, and they were doing everything with the men, doing most things with them anyway and, so yeah, they also were enduring quite a lot of hardships and doing everything so that was something quite special. I, I’m also not sure about this either because this is just something that I saw, but the male soldiers seem to be every age from being


probably in their late teens, or very young anyway, right through twenties, thirties, forties maybe fifties. But the women generally were quite young and I didn’t realise that until suddenly I saw a few women who looked about the same age as me or a bit older than me and I suddenly realised I hadn’t really seen very many, not in East Timor and they were mostly younger women. And I think it possibly, it’s only in the last five or so years that it’s become more common for women to join the army, I mean they always have but, well they have you know.


But twenty years ago, ten years ago, it’s probably less common. So yeah there were quite a lot of female soldiers and I mean, I think I would have definitely done more drawings of female soldiers than anyone else. Because I was interested in them as well as you know, sort of, identifying with them. That’s it. That’s it? Nothing else. It’s a cultural thing, that where they will do something like that where we would just, wouldn’t want to think about it.


But then I think there is also, I’ve just been thinking about and talking about it with people I think it’s also a human thing. That if you’re in a state of absolute grief, you know you …


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