Ben Quilty

Honorary Doctor of Letters

Citation delivered by Senior Professor Sue Bennett, Executive Dean, Faculty of Arts Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Ben Quilty as a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) on 3 May 2022.

Chancellor, it gives me great pleasure to present Ben Quilty to you for admission to the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

You need to have compassion and empathy for the world.’ Ben Quilty is very proud to say, he sees his greatest achievement as having two children who are living with compassion and empathy, who are ‘feeling the world’. It is this compassion and empathy that has seen Ben become one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, with his works exhibited and collected across Australia and throughout the world.

Ben Quilty has an outstanding national and international reputation for art that draws attention to human vulnerability and injustice. An artist and social commentator, Ben paints with a purpose, and his art invites us to think critically about the world we have created, who we are, and where we are heading. Ben was home schooled while young, traveling around Australia with his parents for two years. Visiting very remote parts of Australia and meeting Aboriginal communities was very formative. With little knowledge about Aboriginal culture or history, Ben became increasingly intrigued and engaged in the injustices of Aboriginal people, their culture and history. Since then, this passion has continued to be a common thread in his life.

Growing up in Sydney’s north-west in the early eighties, studying the arts or humanities was not encouraged, especially for men. This drove Ben to study art and prove that this thinking was wrong. While never seeing art as a career goal, it was the one thing he loved, and he was determined to keep it as a constant in his life.

From his Year 12 HSC artwork exhibition in ArtExpress, Ben was selected as the recipient of the Julian Ashton Summer School Scholarship. Despite being strongly discouraged, Ben followed his love of art obtaining a Bachelor of Visual Arts in Painting from the Sydney College of Arts. He then went on to study a Bachelor of Visual Communications at the University of Western Sydney, and has also obtained a Certificate in Aboriginal Culture and History. He worked for four years as a trade assistant whilst simultaneously studying and creating his art in his garage.

Ben's art practice was transformed by his experience as an official Australian War Artist. In 2011 Ben was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to capture the experiences and stories of Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan. His portraits have been credited with raising awareness of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and drawing attention to the social and emotional vulnerabilities of soldiers returning to civilian life. His work since then has continued to focus on portraiture and self-portraiture as expressions of vulnerability and marginalisation, including in the art education program developed in Kerobokan Prison in Indonesia with artist Myuran Sukumaran. In his ongoing work on refugee vulnerability Ben draws our attention to the civilian cost of war and forced migration, including on children. Through his work on family portraiture he invites us to think critically about the world we have created, as seen through children’s art practice.

Widely known for his thick, gestural oil portraits, Ben has also worked across a range of media including drawing, photography, sculpture and installation. His works often serve as a reflection of social and political events; from the current global refugee crisis to the complex social history of war and trauma, he critiques notions of identity, patriotism and belonging. Ben has won major national and international painting prizes including the Archibald Prize, Prudential Eye Award, National Artists Self Portrait Prize and Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. Ben was also invited to become the first Australian to hold a solo exhibition at Saatchi Gallery in London. He served as a Board Member of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where a major retrospective of his work was shown in November 2019.

Ben had a number of significant mentors throughout his life including his high school art teachers and his winning Archibald subject, Margaret Olley. Ben attributes a large part of his success to Margaret Olley who taught him an unwavering work ethic through example. Margaret Olley also instilled in him a commitment to support and nurture young and upcoming artists, in whatever circumstances they are in, and this is demonstrated by his generous relationship with our students at the University of Wollongong.

Ben is actively involved in the University’s School of the Arts, English and Media, and opened the Visual Arts and Design Graduate Show, a major showcase event, in November last year. Our Visual Arts students also have the opportunity to tour Ben’s studio, an example of the multi-dimensional character of his creative professional practice, which includes aspects of commercial gallery exhibition, social advocacy, collaborative publication, and community and institutional engagement.

Ben Quilty is an artist who has used his international career success as a platform to advocate for compassionate and respectful attention to the lives of marginalised people. His advocacy and support of individuals who have experienced the most severe struggles and social rejection aligns with the University of Wollongong values. The University is reflecting its own vision of inspiring a better future through education, research and partnership in awarding an Honorary Doctorate to this significant Australian artist.

Chancellor, today we honour Ben Quilty in recognition of his outstanding artistic achievements, his dedication to social justice and ongoing advocacy for the marginalised, as well as his generous engagement with our students and University community. It is a privilege and a pleasure to present Ben Quilty for a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.