Indigenous artist Dale Harding is having a big year. His work was featured in The National: New Australian Art in Sydney, the third National Indigenous Triennial: Defying Empire at the NGA, and documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel. In her essay ‘Dale Harding: Material Traces,’ reproduced below with permission from the book Dale Harding: Body of Objects, Angela Goddard traces the Brisbane-based artist’s biography, influences and career trajectory.
Dale Harding: Material Traces
by Angela Goddard
Brisbane-based artist Dale Harding is a descendant of the Bidjara, Ghungalu, and Garingbal peoples of Central and Western Queensland, who has gained recognition for works that examine the political and social histories of his family and community. Through the use of diverse media, Harding’s practice conveys these histories with sensitivity and poetic reverence. His works speak to and of his family and their endurance of loss, as well as of his family’s connection to country, which stretches back tens of thousands of years. The word ‘speak’ is important here; Harding privileges oral histories over written accounts, being suspicious of the historical documentation produced by non-Indigenous people on his family and their sacred places, which were often written with a lack of context and respect, or inspired by self-interest.
European pastoralists began to settle this region from the late 1840s, leading to widespread frontier violence as Aboriginal people resisted these invaders. (1) From 1897 to the mid-twentieth century, the Queensland Government exercised control over all aspects of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act and subsequent amending Acts. Under section 9 of the 1897 Act, government representatives were granted the power “to cause Aboriginals within any district to be removed to and kept within the limits of any reserve situated in the same or any other district”, with forced removals continuing until 1970. Members of Harding’s family were removed to the Woorabinda reserve (est. 1926), where hunger and disease were rife among the hundreds of residents, due to chronic overcrowding and inadequate water supplies, and children were separated from their parents in order to sever their connections to culture and prepare them for lives of servitude, primarily on rural farms. Three generations of Harding’s family—his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother—worked as domestic servants in a system of indentured labour that many Aboriginal women and girls were compelled to undertake in return for food and accommodation.
While the last century and a half has been marked by violence, control, and subjugation, a much longer history of Harding’s family is carved and painted throughout the rocky precipices and walls of what is now known as Carnarvon Gorge, in their lands in the Central Highlands of Queensland, almost 600 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Located at the nexus of river sources, remnant rainforest is nourished by water that can take years to filter through the layers of rock to the lower crevices. This site is connected to the Murray Darling River system that snakes southwards over thousands of kilometres to the Southern Ocean. The Gorge is around 32 kilometres long, and the white walls of the sandstone cliffs can reach over 150 metres high. This place is of great sacred significance to Aboriginal people, and complex compositions are incised, drawn, and painted into the sandstone. The rock formations and the activities of ancestors who made art, performed ceremonies, and died here are ancient: scientific excavations have dated the human occupation of the Gorge to at least 3,800 years, with certain areas in the region found to have been occupied for at least 19,000 years. The stencil technique of blowing ochre or pigment over a hand or implement that was used here is shared in all inhabited continents; the world’s oldest examples were found recently on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, dating to 37,900 BCE.
In 2012, his first solo exhibition, Colour by Number, held at Metro Arts, Brisbane, looked at and through his family’s history. As noted in the catalogue essay, Harding “examined the policy of the Australian government to attach numbers to Aboriginal children and to grade them in the tonality of their skin. Harding’s grandmother was given the new name W38.”(2) Works were featured utilising materials that were jolting reminders of the historical realities of Harding’s family: burnt surveyor’s pegs, ominously oversized needles, and a breastplate made of lead and steel wire with his grandmother’s number carved into its surface.(3) These works were interspersed with craft work in the form of framed cross-stitch panels bearing light-hearted and empowering affirmations, such as “I am the new Blak”, and “I [love] my brown family”. Thus, the selection of works played with contrasts: hard and soft, toxic and benign, denial and comfort, servitude and domestic bliss. This debut exhibition introduced key themes that have continued to occupy Harding and inform his process-based manner of working, which frequently involves acquiring skills—such as sewing, leatherwork, and woodcarving—often from family members. The following year, Harding was included in a major group exhibition titled string theory: Focus on contemporary Australian art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. Interested in the intersections of handiwork crafts and Aboriginal women’s experience through the matrilineal line of his family, Harding included delicately stitched embroideries onto hessian, imagining the women of his family as young girls and sewing them soft collars for the rough flour sack dresses they were forced to wear as punishment within the dormitory system. The artist took advice on the construction of these dresses from his mother.
Many of his fellow Brisbane-based artists, such as Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell and Gordon Hookey, are known for agitprop posturing and vociferously political voices, deploying text and image, primarily through painting and drawing. In contrast, many of Harding’s works meditate on absence, often through the use of negative space. In 2015, a substantial installation titled their little black slaves, perished in isolation, which was shown at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in a survey of Queensland contemporary art, offered Harding the first opportunity to work at an ambitious scale. He created a room in the manner of typical rural timber houses, painted the colour of creamy butter. A narrow hallway led to a burnt-out bedroom, where a metal bed sat in one corner, with no mattress or bedclothes. A low overhead light gave the merest sense of orientation in the dark space, but the overarching feeling was one of claustrophobia, with the persistent smell of smoke suggesting a terrible event. Only once outside did one notice the label quoting Harding’s Uncle Tim Kemp, recollecting a young woman who had been locked in her bedroom at night by her ‘employers’; she tragically perished when she knocked over the kerosene lamp in her room, “isolated and alone, away from home”. (4)
Raw kangaroo hide that recalled the control imposed on Aboriginal domestic servants was threaded through decorative lace collars, referencing colonial dress codes and reflecting the social status of the households in which the women served. Imbued with pathos, some collars were attached to found rattles and small buckles as if made to be worn by very young children.
Harding next worked collaboratively with his family, inviting both adults and children to make wall paintings for his 2016 solo exhibition I Refuse You My Deathat Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Here, ancient wall paintings from his family’s Central Queensland country were the key: family members crushed and prepared ochres, applying stencilled shapes of hands and other objects, including a shotgun, to the walls. Stencils made in this manner indexically capture temporal moments as traces of objects as well as the people who made them. Harding spoke of seeing the installation as “extending as a continuation of our gallery walls out there in the Queensland sandstone belt”,(5) and also as evoking the thousands of petroglyph formations found in these sites through the carving of images of water systems from topographical viewpoints directly into the surface of the wall. Later that year, Harding again worked in collaboration with his mother to make a large stencil work in ochre for the Gwangju Biennale.
This is a palpable element of Know them in correct judgement (2017), included in the important survey The National 2017: New Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. This multi-part installation work includes Harding’s uncle’s oral history transcript of his testimony against the officials in charge at Woorabinda reserve; a reproduction of Harding’s great-great-grandmother Nanna Ada’s fighting stick; two smaller parrying sticks used for close- combat fighting; and an ochre wall painting made collaboratively by Harding, his Uncle Milton, and a young cousin. The weapons were used as stencils for the painting, their shapes repeating along the wall in a staccato formation, as if tracing the movements of an altercation.
For documenta 14 in Athens, Harding continues his exploration of forms of weaponry specific to his people. His latest Body of Objects installation comprises cast-silicone reproductions of traditional Aboriginal weapons and tools, rendered impotent by pliant material and draped over plinths. While Australian Aboriginal objects are housed in museums all over the world, many stolen and seized as trophies, we also know through rock art stencils that the forms of the objects used as reference points by Harding pre-date, by thousands of years, European items found in museums and ancient sites across Athens that are privileged as originary moments of Western culture. The irony here is that sites such as Carnarvon Gorge challenge the authority of museums’ collections, whether of Aboriginal or Western artefacts: in their continuity, on country, the rock art sites are both more ancient and authentic. In addition, the use of silicone, often black, renders many forms as sexually suggestive, highlighting the undercurrent to many of the power relationships between the ‘collectors’ and those from whom they were taken, as well as the intersections between Harding’s own Aboriginal and queer identities.
It is a bright ultramarine blue. Instead of the colour’s association with the rare and expensive lapis lazuli prized by Renaissance painters, for Harding, this colour is grounded in the labour of female domestic servants. Reckitt’s Blue is a laundry whitener made from synthetic ultramarine and baking soda; it was also co-opted for decorative use on Aboriginal artefacts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For documenta 14 in Kassel, rock art from Carnarvon Gorge will be reproduced onto the white gallery walls in this colour. The original ancient traced images, in earthy Australian ochres, are now speaking back to Europe in the transfer of the coloniser’s blue.
According to Australian art academic Darren Jorgensen, Harding’s significance resides “in the way that he turns the conceptual/minimal paradigm into Aboriginal art, and conversely, politicises conceptual and minimal strategies for art making”. (6) Clearly, Harding uses the semiotics of the gallery space and its familiar conceptual strategies in his work, but rather than de-materialising art objects or questioning their ability to create meaning, a key feature of his works is the materialisation of hidden past events and trauma through their re-iteration in new contexts. The sanctifying, austere white walls and exhibition furniture give the works a new aura, with the implication being that these traces of spaces and remade objects speak more truthfully than official historical accounts.
For Dale Harding and his family, the last century and a half of occupation is a short moment in their long history, albeit having wrought untold pain. Harding’s works claim his birthright, bringing to gallery walls and spaces the indexes of absences, and the complex paradoxes of loss, identification, and opposition. While Harding draws on the specific context of his people and their histories— their vernaculars and their taxonomies—his work has far wider resonances, through the fabric of time and space, to other bodies, objects and experiences.
Dale Harding: Body of Objects is available for purchase online from Griffith University Art Museum.
1. For example, see Lorna McDonald, Rockhampton: A History of City and District (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1981), 183–196; J. T. S. Bird, The Early History of Rockhampton (Rockhampton, Qld: The Morning Bulletin, 1904), 196–205; Theresa Forde, “Confinement and Control: A History of Woorabinda Aboriginal Community 1927–1990” (Bachelor of Arts Honours Thesis, University of Queensland, 1990), 12–14; Queensland Government, “Woorabinda,” last updated 4 February 2015, https://www.qld.gov.au/atsi/cultural-awareness-heritage-arts/community-histories
2. Hetti Perkins, Dale Harding: Colour by Number, ex. cat. (Brisbane: Metro Arts, 2012), unpaginated.
3. Aboriginal breastplates, also known as king plates, gorgets, and brassplates, were given by Europeans to individual Aboriginal people during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and encapsulate the complex histories between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia. See here.
4. their little black slaves, perished in isolation 2015 exhibition label, QAGOMA.
5. Dale Harding, artist talk given at Milani Gallery, Brisbane, 5 March 2016.
6. Darren Jorgensen, “The Minimalism, Hessian and Steel of Dale Harding,” Das Superpaper, March 2014, 50.