Last week, while visiting the Bendigo Art Gallery, I encountered Thomas Sheard's 1900 oil on canvas of The Arab Blacksmith (shown in part above). I'm always taken by monochromatic images because they emphasis texture and light so I was drawn to this painting. The photo realism is quite something, as is the simplicity of the scene. Low technology, the complete focus of the men on the task at hand, the timelessness of the scene. Apart from the small child on the back of another child, who has a shy eye on the artist and on us the observer, everyone else is engrossed. Even the man on his own, with some sort of stick under his arm seems intent on watching what every one else is doing - like some sort of guard on surveillance duty. Men in the background stand talking or sitting absorbed in the conversation or the task at hand. What are they talking about, one wonders? The weather, their crops, are they transacting business or planning war strategy to protect against attack from a neighbouring tribe? And the child with the baby? Is she a young wife, traveling with her husband, waiting while their horse is re-shod so that they can continue their journey? The children are out of place, yet comfortable. If the child is female, then her place in the scene is even more unusual. So many questions. No doubt it is the mysteriousness of the unknown culture, unknown place that draws me to inquire so long of the painting.
On Monday of this week I opened the daily paper (The Age) and saw a large photo which at first I thought was men standing in front of the painting from the Bendigo Art Gallery. On reading the caption and then the article, I discovered that it is not an image from more than 100 years ago - as is The Arab Blacksmith, it is a recent image and shows Captain Stephen Karabin of the US Marines meeting with elders in Afghanistan as part of the efforts by coalition forces to prevent the Taliban from reasserting their dominance.
It just made me think how little changes in some places.