An Afghan refugee helps restore the Bunbury War Memorial

This article By Sharon Kennedy originally appeared on the ABC website on 23 April, 2015.

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Undertaken by the City of Bunbury with the aid of a Federal Anzac Centenary grant, a major part of the restoration entailed replacing sections broken from the head of the sculpture.
Monumental stonemason Mehdi Rasulle used marble from Afghanistan for the remodelling.

Mehdi was 16 when he arrived in Western Australia in 2001. A refugee fleeing the Taliban, injured and alone, he left his family behind to undertake the perilous journey via Indonesia.

Once granted refugee status in Australia, he was able to return to school and planned on becoming an architect. However, the family tradition of stone work wasn’t so easy to discard.

Descended from a long line of stone carvers, Mehdi increasingly found his skills in demand for heritage work.

A lick of paint every year

The soldier keeping vigil on top of the memorial was missing the right side of the hat brim. The nose was broken and the face had sustained other damage, probably from thrown stones.

Before Mehdi could begin remodelling, the statue had to be relieved of over 20 coats of paint.

Paul Rees is the director of Clinton Long Project Management, the heritage restoration company which undertook the refurbishment.

“The entire structure was waterlogged,” he said. “When you use a modern plastic paint on soft stone, the stone can’t breathe.”

As a consequence, sandstone will de-crystallise and the surface will crumble and pit.

Previous cleaning attempts had caused other disruption. At one stage, an axe and chisel had been used to gouge out graffiti and high pressure hosing had exacerbated pitting on the surfaces.

Stonemason Jamie Kallarn led the team charged with removing the old coatings.

Test panels revealed not just the annually applied coats of white paint but also some coloured layers, says Jamie.

Three applications of a very mild chemical were needed, though in most areas, it was possible simply to peel paint off because of the crumbling surface beneath.

Once the stone had been denuded, the restorers could gauge the extent of the hidden staining and damage to the plinth itself.

“When we were sanding, it was hard to tell how good it was going to come up,” Jamie recalled. “A lot of the moss was so ingrained. Fortunately we didn’t have to sand too far down.”

Patching and filling

Invisible repair was not the goal of the restoration according to both Paul Rees and Jamie Kallarn.

“The idea is to recapture the materials and the intention and the technology that was used at the time the monument was created,” said Paul.

Imported natural hydraulic lime was used to fill some of the gouges in the plinth. Actual sandstone replacement was kept to a minimum.

Says Paul, “There are still imperfections but they would have been when it was built.”

Once the paint had been removed, Mehdi Rasulle could begin the detailed sanding work needed on the statue itself which showed signs of fine surface crumbling.

He needed to restore a smooth hard finish which would resist salts and pollution. Fine details on buckles and rifle and wording on the shoulder epaulettes called for careful attention.

For the minor damage to the face, Mehdi used crushed marble to remodel eye, cheekbone and nose.

Taking up marble he had previously brought from Afghanistan from the family quarries, Mehdi sculpted a new hat brim.

To attach it, he first sanded back the cratered broken surface. Stainless steel rods provided structural integrity and the piece was finally rejoined to the hat using matched marble glue.

“Difficult, challenging” and “rewarding” are the words Mehdi uses to describe the work. “That sort of job is stressful. But with luck and the right tools, you get through.”

Over the moon

“I’m very proud of the job,” says Paul Rees. “It’s beautiful to have the opportunity to participate in a job that is so historically significant at this time.

“Now that the stone is in its natural state and able to breathe, it won’t degrade as it did under the plastic film of the paint.

“There is no reason why we won’t have that for hundreds of years.”

Work on the memorial done, Mehdi Rasulle is currently working on a University of Western Australia building.

“It’s great that [the monument] came out well and everyone was happy about it,” he said. “And I was happy to give back to Australia as well.”