In conjunction with ‘GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art’, emerging writers had the opportunity to enter the ‘GOMA Q’ Emerging Writers Competition, launched on the opening weekend of the exhibition. A judging panel comprised of the Emerging Creatives team and the QAGOMA Blog coordinator had the difficult task of choosing a winner and four talented runners up from the many high quality entries about the ‘GOMA Q’ exhibition. Kathleen Morrice was one of the four runners up and her blog is published below. View the winning entry.
Small Spaces and Big Feelings
I feel like I have just been punched in the stomach. This is my reaction to Dale Harding’s deeply affecting installation work, Their little black slaves, perished in isolation (2015), currently being shown at the ‘GOMA Q’ Exhibition. I think you would have to be made of stone to not feel the same way. Working from family recollection Harding gives a voice to an unnamed young Aboriginal woman who, in the 1930s, was forced by the Department of Native Affairs into what was essentially slavery. The work commemorates her death, “isolated and alone, away from home”1. The experience reveals something deep inside us all, something of our deepest human fears. Ideally, wouldn’t most of us want to die comfortably in our beds, old and surrounded by those we love, content that they will be safe? As Harding reminds us, such luxuries aren’t fairly and justly afforded to all.
In Alain de Botton’s book Art as Therapy, he makes a case for art being a tool that can help fix problems. Assisting with memory, he argues, is one function. Another is that it’s okay to engage with sorrow. The dignified way Harding honours the life and death of this woman recalls a legend told by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder. Dibutades sketches the outline of her departing lover’s shadow on a wall so she can remember him when he is far away at his shepherding duties. This portrait contains the lover’s particular physiognomy, but also his personality and essence. In the instance of Harding’s work, the “portrait” of the young unnamed Aboriginal woman contains all that is known about her now: the particulars of her internment, her death, and the circumstances around it. Her true persona is denied to us by history. The memoriam Harding has created is a gesture alike the mourners who float away flowers for those lost at sea. It is all that we can do, and what we rightly should do.
Harding’s post-conceptual work interweaves the familial and historical; the personal truly is political. The artist has said that the stories he tells unburdens some of the histories and knowledge that his family and the wider Aboriginal community bear, ‘[that] they are really nasty, often hurtful stories and so I consider it is quite important work to try and unearth these stories and share them with the wider community…’. A key motive in Harding’s work is the rewriting or revising of history, and this is successfully done by placing the audience in a sense of having time-travelled to the location of the woman’s’ room.
Harding effectively employs academic Homi K. Bhabha’s term “mimicry” through recreating a colonial room where his forbearer was locked in at night by her ‘employers’. It is sparsely furnished with an old bed and a plain set of drawers. These symbols of forced domesticity and labour are difficult to distinguish in the dark room, and are a reflection of the despair, loneliness and alienation the woman must have felt. This hybrid space exposes the worst of human nature – those who, in the past, treated our First Nations people appallingly. It is also a space of reflection for all Australians.
The sensation of looking into Harding’s black room reflects the darkness and shame of our nation’s past history, and forces us to confront the question academic John P. Bowles asks, “How can we address our own culpability – unwitting as it may be…?”. Racism is something we all as Australians must exterminate, and we all have a part to play. The recent words of politician Nova Peris come to mind, which criticised those who deny injustices and wrongs done to Aboriginal Australians. Like Harding, she is committed to telling the truth about past wrongs, and that Aboriginal people should be able to tell their own stories. She suggests that reconciliation can be like the peaceful relationship Australia now has with Japan, after a history of war. Harding has shown us that art has the power to transform. If I could meet Alain de Botton, I would suggest another function of art – one to foster reconciliation.
Kathleen Morrice is a Brisbane artist currently completing a Bachelor of Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art.
1 Their little black slaves, perished in isolation 2015 exhibition didactic