Friday, September 30, 2011

Of Pilot Simone Aaberg Kaern: Official war artist hits Libyan frontline

Simone Aaberg Kærn in the cockpit of her plane.
(Photo courtesy of

The small blonde woman flew in a Libyan Chinook helicopter from Misrata down the Mediterranean coast to a field hospital near Sirte, one of the last hold-outs of Moamer Qaddafi loyalists.

There she don a flak jacket and helmet and hitched a ride with reporters to the front line to talk to fighters taking cover from artillery fire under a flyover.

Simone Aaberg Kaern was in Sirte – besieged for weeks by National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters trying to oust Qaddafi diehards –to conduct field research for her new job as Denmark’s official war artist.

Denmark abandoned its tradition of artistically recording its conflicts in the 19th century after yet another humiliating defeat – this time at the hands of Germany.

But it is now reviving it to depict the battles its soldiers and warplanes are or were involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, where Danish aircraft are playing a prominent role in the NATO air strikes targeting Qaddafi’ s rapidly deteriorating military machine.

Kaern, a self-confessed former punk and squatter in Copenhagen’s Christiania hippy commune, is an unusual choice for such an official role. But she is used to controversy.

When she was picked to paint the official portrait of Denmark’s former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen – now NATO secretary general – there was a media storm.

It passed and the painting now hangs in the national parliament.

The Danish military appears to have taken a shine to Kaern. When Denmark’s air force was scrambled to join the NATO Libya campaign this spring, its pilots had no mission combat patch to wear on their uniform sleeves.

Kaern, 42, was commissioned to design one, and quickly produced a slightly subversive design that shows a falcon gripping the olive leaves of the United Nations logo in its beak.

She aimed to highlight the irony of “bombing for peace,” she told AFP as she waited in a mosque compound for an NTC fighter unit to take her to a forward position on the outskirts of Sirte.

Kaern has long had a fascination for flying. She wanted to do work on surviving Soviet women pilots in World War II but was spurned because she did not know how to fly a plane.

So she dropped out of Goldsmiths College in London, where she was studying, and trained for her pilot’s license.

That led to numerous aeronautical and artistic adventures, the highlight of which was a three-month, 33-stop trip to Kabul in 2002 in an ancient two-seater plane to find an Afghan girl and teach her how to fly after reading about her dream to become a fighter pilot.

That expedition was recorded in the Emmy-nominated film “Smiling in a War Zone.”

When she heard that the Danish military was looking for four war artists – to cover Iraq, from where Danish troops have now withdrawn, Afghanistan, Libya and the fight against piracy off Somalia – she immediately threw her hat in the ring.

“In mid-September they told me it was me,” she said, but they did not want her to come straight away to the North African desert country.

“But I had to come here while the fight was still on,” she said, adding that she left before even negotiating her fee from Denmark’s national history museum, which is overseeing the project and where Kaern’s work will eventually hang.

She flew to Tunisia, went overland to Tripoli and has since toured the last two major battle scenes in Sirte and Bani Walid, taking photos, doing sketches and absorbing the atmosphere.

She said the 20th century British war artist Paul Nash and the Spanish artist Goya – who she believes brilliantly captures the “gruesomeness” of conflict – are two figures whose war art has impressed her.

Kaern has one to two years to produce just one painting of the Libyan revolution, which erupted in February and saw rebel fighters slowly take city after city before finally capturing the capital last month.

“It’s going to be quite naturalistic in the sense that you can recognize figures. It will be a picture with a lot of detail. That’s why it has to be really big,” she said.

“Really big” means an oil on canvas work of 4.5 by 3.5 meters (14.8 by 11.5 feet), she said.

“Making a painting like that is like making a film. But you have to get the whole bloody film into one frame.”

Libya is likely to be Kaern’s last war.

“With six kids it might be a bit tricky doing another one,” she said.

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