Sunday, June 16, 2024

Widow wins art prize for depiction of ‘death admin’ following suicide of veteran husband

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For seven years, retired servicewoman Kat Rae has carried the physical burden of not having answers for why she lost her veteran husband to suicide.

Andrew died in 2017, and left her with a mounting tower of paperwork, consisting of failed attempts to seek support from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and what she’s called “Deathmin” – or death admin.

Ms Rae kept these documents holed up in her daughter’s wardrobe for years, before shifting them to her art studio and piling them up against the wall.

Deathmin by Kate Rae, winner of the 2024 Napier Waller Art Prize.(Supplied: Australian War Memorial)

“I stacked it all on top of each other and I realised it met me eye-to-eye, it was the same height as me and it was really heavy – same weight as Andrew”, she said.

Confronted by this tower of grief, the former lieutenant colonel decided to turn it into art.

“I feel like it speaks to the fragility of so many of us, the fatigue, it needs to lean against the wall or else it will fall. It’s asking for support,” Ms Rae said.

“It’s really important now too with the Royal Commission coming out this year to make sure that people really understand the weight and the height and the bureaucratic nightmare that is what the lives of so many veterans and their families are to get the support they need and they’re entitled to.”

“I had a recurring nightmare when Andrew was alive that I couldn’t carry him in case of an emergency, he weighed too much for me,”

“And in death, sometimes I have that weight as well and I feel like this kind of personifies and embodies, the actual weight of grief and the confusion, and the difficulty families have when they’re dealing with physical and mental health issues because of service.”

Ms Rae joined the Australian army in 2000 and was deployed to Afghanistan and Kuwait.

She later met her husband in the defence force, and the pair later went on to have a daughter.

The four-time Napier Waller Art Prize entrant has taken home this year’s highest honour for her piece aptly titled ‘Deathmin’.

The award is open to current and former Australian Defence Force personnel, encouraging them to share their service experiences.

It attracted a record 148 entrants, with 17 Highly Commended artworks on display at Parliament House in Canberra until October – a poignant location for the winner, returning the correspondence back to be the very politicians who responded to her husband.

“Bringing it to Parliament House I feel like it’s not mine anymore, these people can deal with it”.

“I think for me, it’s kind of quite poetic that this work comes back here and asks now, ‘now what are you going to do’?”

Two shells with red lines painted on hanging off a chain.

Well done, that Aamba! by Ron Bradfield Jnr. is one of the 17 works which have earned a highly commended rating.(Supplied: Australian War Memorial)

Former member of the navy Ron Bradfield Jnr incorporated his First Nations heritage into his entry by carving dog tags from pearl shells.

“Dog tags if anything, they’re sort of like an intimate sort of a bit of metal and chain that stays with you the whole time”.

His work ‘Well done, that Aamba!’, symbolises the gift of life by using the scales off an Indigenous creation spirit crashing out of the ocean and onto shores, filled with purpose.

He juxtaposed this sense of hope, embodied in the shape of dog tags – used to identify one when hurt of dead in war.

“That whole want to take it from what was death business into those pearl shells. Then carved was about life business”.

“I’ve survived a lot of things to be here today, and I should probably take the time to celebrate it”, he said.

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