Exhibition Review, Reviews

Voices of Veterans

Photography Exhibition Review

VOICES OF VETERANS | MICHAEL ARMSTRONG

National Press Club Building, | Until 19 June 2022 – by appointment only – bookings to view the exhibition or to experience insights with the artist can be made at https://voicesofveterans.com.au/events

Molasses! A viscous substance primarily used to sweeten and flavour foods. A major constituent of fine commercial brown sugar. And a primary ingredient used to distil rum.

I’ve eaten food containing molasses, seen photographs of it, even found a photography business with the word molasses in its name. Never before have I seen portraits of people covered with molasses with its thick, sticky consistency. Glue-like, tacky, treacly, and slimy might also be used to describe this substance.

Voices of Veterans, created by artist and veteran Michael Armstrong, is a collection of photographic works that visually represent individual experiences of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So is this an exhibition of artworks or is it simply about supporting a Veterans’ cause?

The exhibits are most definitely photo artworks and very fine ones indeed. But the exhibition is also part of an important project. Every sale contributes to the Voices of Veterans Fund, supporting veteran health and directly funding grassroots arts programs in Australian veteran communities. And it is always great to see art being used to highlight important issues.

So why use molasses, covering large expanses of the subjects’ bodies with it? Armstrong says “Molasses behaves in a manner that mirrors many of the symptoms of PTSD. Its weight and dark enveloping form, it’s staining and sticky qualities mark everything it touches. The manner in which it mirrors qualities of light and dark around it. My models naturally resonated with the experience of working with molasses and found the medium profoundly evocative”.

There are both monochrome and colour images – dark and brooding portraits, some where facial expressions are not easy to interpret, others where the molasses reminded me of bleeding wounds.

Mike Armstrong #3, 2022
Mike Armstrong #1, 2022

A very powerful one features a hand hanging down alongside part of a torso, richly coloured molasses clinging to it yet also dripping. Indeed all the images featuring hands stand out.

Mike Armstrong #5, 2022

A PTSD survivor himself, Armstrong was motivated by personal experience. Each veteran subject in the exhibition has a story, and their stories are told, expressed, felt and heard through his use of a challenging and rewarding creative process with molasses as a metaphor. The works show both sides of lived experience – the dark emotions of challenging moments and the light feelings of healing, release and hope.

Subjects’ own words are shared alongside artworks. One speaks of “the feeling of being dragged down into the thick, welcoming abyss until you are choking and drowning. Being able to barely keep your head up enough to catch a breath.”

So, the choice of molasses is enormously successful. The resultant images almost force you to study them. They are at once poignant and haunting, dark and evocative, graphic and expressive. They will bring strong memories or feelings to the minds of people who have family or friends who have suffered the effects of PTSD. They will remind others of different, yet also traumatic, experiences.

Mike Armstrong #2, 2022
Mike Armstrong #6, 2022
Mike Armstrong #4, 2022

Indeed, the created artworks have resonated with veterans deeply. When posted on Armstrong’s social media they reached a broad audience, creating high levels of engagement and many conversations. This sparked the need to create widespread awareness – and the project was born.

The exhibition will tour Australia raising awareness of the individual experiences of veterans living with PTSD, and veteran art-based workshops will support the creation and growth of healthy communities. Community events will be offered during the Canberra exhibition, including trauma-informed movement classes with health practitioners and veteran art workshops with Armstrong.

There is a gallery of the artworks online at https://voicesofveterans.com.au/art-gallery.

This review is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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