By Kelly Manning
Twenty years ago, I was awarded a Vietnam Veterans' Trust scholarship for children of Vietnam Veterans while completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing at RMIT University in Melbourne. The scholarship provided art supplies and books, enabling the production of a substantial body of work that was both self-exploratory and investigative. As a result of this self-exploration, I regularly visited Melbourne University’s anatomy museum. Drawing internal anatomy became a pathway toward investigating the effects of the spraying of Agent Orange (AO) in Vietnam. The body as a ‘toxic and mutilated vessel’ became my focus, as I was keen to explore the tumour I had on my spine as a child and how it connected to my father’s war experience.
In 2000, I travelled to Vietnam, seeking a connection with the country and its people. My artwork before Vietnam had been predominantly achromatic: upon my return it exploded with colour. The colours I use are very symbolic – orange for Agent Orange, red for blood, pink for the skin that absorbs it, and teal, the colour used extensively in institutions like army barracks and hospitals, places I frequented as a child.
After my scholarship ended in 2002, I undertook an honours year while being artist in residence at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. Here I immersed myself in my father's war slides, reading about the effects the Vietnam War had on the people and the environment, and investigating war machines and the paraphernalia that goes with war and army life. The study of war took its toll on me psychologically – it’s not a light subject. Eager to both clear my conscience and pursue my connection with Vietnam and its people, I returned to Hanoi at the end of my residency. While in Hanoi, I created a series of paintings – ‘The Quiet’ and ‘Standing Room Only’ – where I employed a new technique utilising latex to create a liquid stencil. These paintings reflected the daily and domestic life in Hanoi at the time.
In 2009, I took part in the Nam Bang exhibition at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in NSW. Nam Bang explored multiple perspectives of the Vietnamese–American war. I produced a large multi-panelled mixed-media painting called ‘Plaques of the Day’, depicting an ‘army brat’ hiding from her father’s PTSD.
Today, the key focus of my work is portraiture. It is the progression of the work related to the Vietnam War: focussing on a broader context of war, survival and post-apocalyptic imaginings. I am also thoroughly fascinated with brutalist architecture and strength in structure, especially that of the bunker as a tool for self-preservation and a gesture to the complexities of the individual within an industrial world. For me, the bunker proposes a new ideal, a utopian squat, creating luxury in survival where traditional ideas of luxury do not exist.
It’s going to be a new and exciting chapter ahead as I follow this thread.
We were delighted when Kelly agreed to catch up with us. We unearthed Kelly's speech from 20 years ago in an unmarked folder at the back of a filing cabinet. Kelly's speech is a moving account of the impact of her scholarship on her life at at time when assistance was very welcome. Click here to read Kelly's beautiful speech.
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