My favourite painting: Dr Kate Pretty

Dr Kate Pretty, founder of the Young Archaeologists' Club and former principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, chooses Gulf Women Prepare for War by Maggi Hambling.

Dr Kate Pretty on Gulf Women Prepare for War by Maggi Hambling

‘Although all the work in the New Hall Art Collection is by female artists, few pieces make such an emphatic statement about women and their modern capacities and responsibilities.

For me, it brings an archaeological image of the great tawny, dusty plains where western civilisation began, starkly over-printed by the modern black-veiled figures.

At New Hall, I met fellow undergraduates, and then pupils, who came from the Gulf and were fiercely involved in the emancipation of women through education and, as the painting suggests, through political and physical action. It makes me both wonder and admire’

Dr Kate Pretty founded the Young Archaeologists’ Club in 1972 and was principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, 1991–2013

Charlotte Mullins comments on Gulf Women Prepare for War

This large painting by Maggi Hambling is one of the most arresting works you encounter as you walk around Murray Edwards College in Cambridge. A woman dressed in a black hijab and loose-fitting clothes sits in an unnamed location. She is armed with a rocket launcher, her index finger curled over the trigger.

She is at war, fighting alongside other women who create a temporary front line in an unforgiving landscape. The barren desert is tinged pink, as if by the early-morning sun. Behind the women, black dust swirls and coalesces, as if ancestral ghosts are rising to urge them on.

Hambling based this painting on a photograph in The Times showing preparations for the Iran-Iraq war. She used women fighters to confound our expectations of war imagery.

There are similarities with Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867–68), but Hambling strips away the victim, the setting, the anonymity of the firing squad. By contrast, we see this woman’s face, feel the weight of her weapon. She fights an unseen enemy. Do we even know whose side she is fighting for?

Hambling was the National Gallery’s first artist-in-residence in 1980 and during her time there she made a study of the soldier loading his gun in The Execution of Maximilian. Her regendering of this weaponised fighter in Gulf Women Prepare for War has not been without its critics and the painting continues to stimulate debate among students at one of the three women-only colleges at the University of Cambridge.