TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2023

OPENINGS: D HARDING

D Harding, Extractive painting 2, 2021, gum arabic and dry pigment on linen, pigment on unprocessed photographic paper extracted from linen canvas. Installation view, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

D Harding’s current exhibition at Norway’s Bergen Kunsthall, “We breathe together,” is awash in color. To be more precise, the artist has extracted powdered pigments—yellow or pale rust ochers—from paper or felted wool, mixed these with water and gum arabic, and brushed, stamped, and stenciled them across the white walls and coolly lit, gridded ceiling of the kunsthall’s galleries. At first glance, many of this magazine’s readers will feel a familiarity with Harding’s sculptures, paintings, and installations, fluent as the artist is in the formal and conceptual languages of twentieth-century Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and, especially, post-Minimalism. They frequently employ monochrome in their work, as well as seriality, geometry, and variations on the grid. Sculptures and paintings are keyed to the artist’s own body. And more often than not, Harding treats the white wall of the gallery not as a backdrop but as an active surface to be washed, sprayed, stenciled, or gouged.

But the operations cited above have also been present for tens of thousands of years in Aboriginal practices, whose lineages Harding consciously engages. A descendant of the Bidjara, Ghungalu, and Garingbal peoples of the Central Queensland Sandstone Belt, the Brisbane-based artist has been recognized with major commissions and solo exhibitions across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, along with a dizzying number of biennial and group show invitations in a scant few years, including those to ARS22 in Helsinki and “Reclaim the Earth” at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in 2022; “Surface Tension” at the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Fifteenth Biennale de Lyon in 2019; the 2018 Liverpool Biennial; Documenta 14 in 2017; and the 2016 Gwangju Biennale. This matters only insofar as it makes palpable Harding’s repeated negotiation of the collision between the appetites of a peripatetic, global contemporary art world and a practice fundamentally rooted in a place they must physically leave far behind: the Carnarvon Gorge, a sacred site some four hundred miles northwest of Brisbane. Home to extraordinary rock-art galleries of stencils, engravings, and paintings, which are significant to the local Aboriginal peoples as testaments to a lengthy and unbroken cultural continuum, Carnarvon is also Harding’s matrilineal Country. “Country” is a sophisticated concept, a lived truth whose nuances elude non-Aboriginal notions of place. It might best be thought of as a “sentient landscape,” to use a phrase offered by Morgan Brigg and Mary Graham, who note the deep imbrication of Aboriginal people with land, but also with ancestors, one another, and other-than-human beings.1

D Harding, Untitled (private painting H1), 2019, dry pigment, acrylic, and gum arabic on linen. Installation view, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2021. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

In turn, Harding approaches each installation, each progression of their practice, each new material or process with extreme care, consulting with family members, following cultural protocols around how to ethically engage with Aboriginal knowledge and materials, recalibrating after each exhibition, weighing and attending to the needs of others, and allowing for privacy and rest. (Rest for collaborators as well as for Country—Harding actively discourages visits to the Carnarvon Ranges, long a tourist destination.) Theirs is a lived, ethical position toward others and toward Country. What appears in a gallery is not the result of one individual’s making or even one individual’s decisions: It is the product of a collective and shared process, in which the artist is responsible to a community that they must protect under the conditions of public display in the contemporary art gallery.

Around 2014, under the guidance of an uncle, Harding began applying ochers they had sourced from Carnarvon directly onto the gallery wall. They created silhouettes on the wall by holding up objects like a shovel or a broom handle and then blowing powdered pigment over them—effectuating less a reenactment or reperformance in the contemporary Western sense than a desire, or even a need, to physically embody their ancestors’ processes of making. Just as often, the artist used Reckitt’s Blue, an ultramarine-colored laundry whitener imported to Australia from England in the nineteenth century that Aboriginal women, many in forced domestic servitude, would rub onto linens to make whites whiter. That the hue clearly resembles International Klein Blue, and is patently gorgeous as well as horrific, is not lost on the artist.

D Harding, International Rock Art Red, drawn from felt blankets (detail), 2022, wool felt, hematite, gum arabic. Installation view, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Photo: Petri Virtanen.

Harding frequently collaborates with family members. Untitled (private painting H1) is a six-panel canvas made with their cousin Hayley Matthew in 2019 for the Sharjah Art Foundation. For four days, Matthew painted directly onto the stretched, unprimed canvas, which was scaled to her body, with a mixture of pigment and gum arabic, a material native to the Australian wattle, or acacia, tree. After she was finished, Harding rolled the canvases with acrylic white gallery paint, “veiling,” as Matthew described it, or even “obliterating,” in Harding’s words, her visual imagery and rendering the painting private.2 This process was undertaken deliberately in close consultation with the elder Kate Harding, the artist’s mother and Matthew’s aunt. Painting over their cousin’s story becomes an act of protection, as well as an acknowledgment of cross-cultural forms of covering, both Emirati and Aboriginal. The painting is at once ghostly and brazen. The residue of Matthew’s gestural mark-making remains clearly visible underneath the subsequent coat of paint, the white stained pale yellow by the pigment, even as the work signals a refusal to be exhibited. A public act of privacy, it insists, in aesthetic terms, on self-determination.

Over the years, the Carnarvon Ranges have been visited by some of Australia’s best-known modernist artists, from Margaret Preston to Sidney Nolan. Harding addressed this site, and this history, in “Dale Harding: Through a Lens of Visitation,” a 2021 solo exhibition at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, which traveled in 2022 to the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney (Harding changed their name to D shortly afterward). “Solo exhibition” is not quite right, though; the artist invited Kate Harding to contribute a cloak and five handmade quilts. One of these, a topographical sweep from Carnarvon to the hinterlands to the coast titled Tribute to Women, 2021, took pride of place at the entrance to the exhibition. That an artist would initiate their solo show with a work by someone else—and that that someone else would be their mother—tells us something about the worldview on offer here, its insistence on bringing others with you and sharing space. The exhibition emphasized the importance of the matrilineal, but also of domestic space and domestic art; Harding uses the infrastructures of global contemporary art to amplify what they call “kitchen table cultural knowledge.”3 These ways of being and making in the world are collective, intimate, intuitive, and shared. They also usually occur within spaces of and for women.

A hallmark of Harding’s practice is its ability to hold in suspension both long-standing Aboriginal knowledge and the ongoing, violent impacts of colonization.

View of “D Harding: “We breathe together,” 2022–23, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. Foreground, from left: Body of Objects (Rockhampton contem­porary boomerangs), 2022; Body of Objects (Rockhampton sword boomerangs), 2022. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Harding first experimented with wool felt in “Through a Lens of Visitation” and has gone on to develop this material in several recent projects. In Woorabinda, a town in Central Queensland, Harding and their collaborator Jan Oliver, who has worked with textiles for more than thirty years, rubbed red soil and gum arabic into wool squares, let them dry in the sun, folded them, vacuum-sealed them, and shipped them to Paris, Helsinki, and, most recently, Bergen. This practical solution to the imperatives of international exhibition-making is also a model of how to responsibly transport artworks. In the gallery, Harding reconstitutes the saturated wool with water to make a new piece on-site, extracting the pigment for painting or pressing the felt onto the wall or ceiling over and over as a stamp of sorts. These latest permutations in the wall paintings are, like their predecessors, the result of a potent cocktail of repetition, trace, and Country—the transfer of pigment now via wool felt as well as via the artist’s own breath.

If wool felt solves some problems, it creates others. Cloven-hoofed sheep, introduced through settler colonialism, have devastated the Australian ecosystem, and wool carries this complicated history, as well as a fair bit of national mythology. A hallmark of Harding’s practice is its ability to hold in suspension both long-standing Aboriginal knowledge and the ongoing, violent impacts of colonization. In the artist’s hands, wool felt prompts an awareness of Aboriginal trade routes; an Aboriginal woman’s personal iconography is obscured by whiteness, her story thus “obliterated” and protected; and the ancient Aboriginal art form of stenciling is reperformed with a whitening agent used in Australia by women forced into domestic servitude. So far, so true. Indeed, the designation “H1” of Untitled (private painting H1) inscribes Hayley Matthew as the painting’s author, but it may also refer to what curator Hetti Perkins describes as “the policy of the Australian government to attach numbers to Aboriginal children and to grade them on the tonality of their skin.”4

D Harding, Wool blankets (detail), 2021–22, wool felt, pigment, gum arabic, ten parts, each approx. 43 1⁄4 × 70 7⁄8".

Harding’s current exhibition in Bergen—the artist’s first institutional solo in Europe—brings these new wall and ceiling paintings together with earlier works such as We breathe together, 2021, twelve panels of pure pigment on glass, and “Body of Objects,” 2016–, here represented by a pair of boomerangs cast in silicone rubber so that they appear limp and kinky and more than a bit queer. Transfer and trade are concerns throughout this show, which pays homage to the Aboriginal systems of exchange that stretched across Australia and beyond, allowing resources and ceremonial objects to be passed along vast distances.5 But more than this, the exhibition puts forward art—both the materials it’s made from and the knowledge it possesses and generates—as a shared, living thing, desiring and propagating, something to be passed along, rather than reified or held in stasis by Western ideas of what it needs and wants. 

“D Harding: We breathe together” is on view through January 8 at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway.

Tara McDowell is an associate professor and the director of curatorial practice at Monash University.

D Harding, We breathe together (detail), 2021, ocher, charcoal, and synthetic pigment on twelve glass panels, overall 8 5⁄8" × 17' 9 3⁄8".

NOTES

1. Morgan Brigg and Mary Graham, “The Relevance of Aboriginal Concepts (1): The Current Pandemic and the Importance of Ancient Wisdom,” Religion & Ethics, ABC Australia, May 24, 2020, abc.net.au/religion/coronavirus-and-aboriginal-political-concepts-morgan-brigg-and/12281304.

2. D Harding in conversation with Angela Goddard, “Collection in Focus: Dale Harding (Private Painting H1),” Griffith University Art Museum, 2020, MP3 audio, 1:09:03, soundcloud.com/user-979653628/collection-in-focus-dale-harding-private-painting-h1.

3. Conversation with the author, November 9, 2022.

4. Hetti Perkins, Dale Harding: Colour by Number (Brisbane: Metro Arts, 2012), npg.

5. This subject has been addressed by Judy Watson, a Brisbane-based artist whose Aboriginal matrilineal family is from Waanyi Country in northwest Queensland.