‘Helmets Full of Stories’ shows the impact of a peace mission in works of art

The exhibition Helmets full of stories started just before the summer at a secured military site between Arnhem and the Hoge Veluwe National Park. In a steel hangar at Deelen Air Base, the helicopters were exchanged for paintings, photographs, sculptures, tapestries and installations for a day. Enlarged advertisements hung on the high outer walls of the base; soldiers with camouflage paint on their faces greeted the employees. But Top Gun-atmosphere in the pictures of the defense was not present inside. In the shed, the soldiers, partly dressed in uniform, moved modestly – among the rather louder artists – through the exhibition they had taken part in.

The exhibition Helmets full of stories is part of a project where young and experienced veterans are connected to visual artists. After the opening at the airbase, the exhibition moved to the Memorial Museum in Nijverdal. The plan is to travel with the exhibition through all Dutch provinces.

The initiator and coordinator is navy veteran Amy van Son. “I approached the project militaristically at the beginning,” she says. “I adopted a buddy system where you have to look after each other, just like what we know in the army. Artists went ‘on a mission’: In a safe environment, veterans talked about their deployment, and the artists then got down to business. Sometimes they were together for three to four hours when they first met.”

A participant in the exhibition Helmets full of stories in the Memorial Museum in Nijverdal.

Photo Milon Abrahamse

Unique insight

The first batch of the project resulted in twenty-two very divergent visual works. The veterans are depicted in black-and-white portrait photographs alongside the artists over poignant fragments of history they shared, providing a penetrating and unique insight into the soldiers’ experiences on missions.

With the project, Van Son wants to make visible the impact of missions on military personnel in a way that is understandable to civilians. “Srebrenica was 25 years ago, only now is it recognized what happened. It would be nice if we could learn from it. Meanwhile, the Netherlands has been contributing to various UN peacekeeping missions for forty years. The need to show the impact of this on the military is already evident from the seventy-five registrations from veterans who entered shortly after the open call.”

Van Son says she has issued the call as widely as possible: “The army, the air force, the navy, the military police and the home front are participating in the project. I also looked at different functions. A cook stirring peas in a pot in Kamp Holland and hearing rockets flying overhead can be as affected by a deployment as an infantryman.”

penetrating texts

In the accompanying texts next to the artworks, penetrating text fragments from the participating soldiers follow each other. Just like the painting we lost one by Mieke van Zundert. An empty chair is highlighted on the otherwise soberly colored canvas; in oil she caught the first meal after the loss of a soldier. Erik Kuiper, conscript soldier of the Royal Dutch Army, lost a comrade from his own post during the Netherlands’ first UN mission in Lebanon. He writes:

“(…) you have such a form right under your nose. It had to be a choice. But whether it was smart to send a bunch of 19-year-olds there… I don’t know.”

Or with a five piece by the artist Sjaak Kooij, where he shows the theme of fatherhood and the impact of violence on children in a desert landscape. The image of a shard in an open hand is based on a memory by Kaweh Madad, adjutant and non-commissioned officer of the Royal Dutch Army, of children in Afghanistan playing carelessly with butterfly bombs lying around. Madad served as an interpreter in Afghanistan and writes:

“When I was twelve I fled from Iran to the Netherlands with my parents and sister. With that background, it may seem crazy that you want to go on a military mission.”

It is one of the few works that shows the impact of a mission on the local population.

Army materials such as ammunition boxes, helmets, barbed wire and a sword have been incorporated into various sculptures and are more noticeable under the bright hall light of the museum interior in Nijverdal. Several faded T-shirts worn during the missions and often designed by the military themselves hang on a wall. The violence is carried out with bravado on individual shirts. For example, one of the shirts shows a teddy bear with a precision rifle next to a skull with a shattered bullet with the text: “Long-distance brain surgery”. Another shirt bears the sober text: “What am I doing here anyway?”

Van Son: “People think too easily: ‘You signed up to shoot people.’ This is of course not the case. And the soldiers’ minds change too. People made their own construct about Afghanistan in their minds, which now has to be changed again after the withdrawal.”

She continues: “Suppose you are theoretically educated and you want to do something good for the world, then maybe you work for an NGO like Doctors Without Borders. If you are more practical, you will end up in the army faster. Once you’re deployed, soldiers support each other, not for politics, but because the person you’re working with becomes family.”

Veterans at the exhibition Helmets full of stories.

Photo Milon Abrahamse

Rehabilitation center

In the hangar at Deelen Air Base, veteran Edwin de Wolf, manager of a military rehabilitation center, told him that the military profession is an essential part of him. “It’s not just a job. Even if you take off the suit, you remain military and your heart remains green.”

In artist Anook Cléonne’s studio, De Wolf told the story of his deployment in Bosnia, where he lost his left leg when he stepped on a roadside bomb. Cléonne: “At first I thought: the world of defense and the world of art couldn’t be further apart. But it’s about making things visible. How do you show what happens to someone after the ground is knocked out from under their feet and how they moving on from that? How do you imagine and make tangible what someone doesn’t have words for? Art is a great tool for that.”

De Wolf says so with the unveiling of Cléonne’s artwork The map is not the terrain much to him. “You don’t sleep for a few nights. But no, in the process of getting there, I knew no shame. And in the end, a complete stranger managed to extract images from my story.”

Helmets full of stories is on display until 26 August 2022 in the Memory Museum Nijverdal, Overijssel. From September, the exhibition travels to the Johan Willem Friso barracks in Assen. Inl: helmetsvolhistories.nl

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