‘Generosity has been astounding’: Ben Quilty raises $4 million for Afghan people
28th August 2021

More than $4 million has been raised in a week for the people of Afghanistan after tech billionaires Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes each pledged to match funds raised by artist Ben Quilty.

Mr Quilty’s For Afghanistan campaign initially aimed to raise $30,000 for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, but Mr Cannon-Brookes promised $1 million if the artist raised $1 million from the public.

Artist Ben Quilty, pictured in 2018, is leading a campaign to raise money for the people of Afghanistan.Credit:Wolter Peeters

That target was achieved on Saturday, with Mr Quilty announcing: “We just smashed one million dollars.”

Similar pledges from Mr Farquhar and the Wilson Foundation, a philanthropic organisation headed by financier Geoff Wilson and wife Karen, bolstered the campaign spearheaded by Mr Quilty and supported by the arts community.

“I have been blown away by your generosity and the generosity of my arts community over the last few days has been astounding,” he said on social media.

The fundraising effort comes as a terror attack at Kabul airport ended the chaotic rescue mission for Afghans who helped Australia.

Artist Angus McDonald raised more than $60,000 from the sale of a painting, while author Richard Flanagan has donated a leather-bound copy of his Booker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which has attracted bids up to $11,000 and is still up for auction.

Mr McDonald said the donation of $62,000 from Katrina and Simon Holmes a Court for the painting of Afghan-born Australian lawyer and writer Mariam Veiszadeh pushed the Quilty fundraiser over the $1 million target, triggering the matching donations from the Atlassian co-founders.

“It was a nice moment for them,” Mr McDonald said. “It totally blew me away, beyond expectations but it’s about the saved lives.”

A former official artist for the war in Afghanistan, Mr Quilty said the money raised will provide items such as blankets, food, water, sanitation kits and mobile health care clinics for people in Afghanistan.

The UNHCR also plays an important role in lobbying for women’s rights and the safe passage and housing of more than half a million refugees in Afghanistan, he said.

Mr Quilty said he had been increasingly alarmed by the situation in Afghanistan since the fall of Tarin Kowt, where Australian soldiers had been based.

“That was where so many Australians were killed, but also built schools for little girls and protected and liberated communities,” he said.

He had felt moments of utter fury towards the Morrison government, “but also equally moments of adulation and respect towards the Australian people”.

“I’ve sensed in the past week how people will actually offer the support and aid and compassion our government is pretty incapable of doing,” he said.

Apart from fundraising, more than 2500 artists have also called on the Australian government to protect fellow artists, scholars, writers and marginalised groups whose lives and civil freedoms are at risk.

Backed by the peak body for artists, National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), “in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan”, the statement requests the Morrison government increase and extend its humanitarian support to those “whose lives and creative expression cannot continue under this violent takeover of the country”.

It acknowledges the damage wrought on heritage and cultural when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan. “The Taliban destroyed and looted museums and galleries, libraries, universities, destroyed historical and cultural landmarks by force, banned music and silenced diversity of thought. All forms of creative and cultural expression vanished, disrupting the maintenance and sharing of Afghan cultures.”

As of Saturday, there had been 2500 signatories, and another 494 that supported the letter anonymously.

The Australian War Memorial, the 4A centre for Contemporary Art, Australian Catholic University, the Casula Powerhouse Art Centre, and Belvoir St Theatre are among a diverse group of organisations to sign up.

Individual signatories included acclaimed Indigenous artist Abdul Abdullah and actor Meyne Wyatt, who won the Packing Room Prize 2020 with his first entry to the Archibald Prize.

Notably, artist and filmmaker George Gittoes, who founded the Yellow House arts centre in Jalalabad, left to return to Afghanistan on Wednesday. “I am optimistic about getting continuing support for the Yellow House and its artists from the Taliban and am returning to discuss the future with them,“′ he said. “I am hopeful and relaxed about it.”

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