Dale Harding was born in 1982 in the coal-mining town of Moranbah, Queensland, and grew up on his parents’ nearby cattle property. The son of Kate and David Harding, he is a descendant of the Bidjara, Garingbal and Ghungalu people, and also acknowledges the Gungari people of Central Queensland. Harding’s artistic talent was recognised early and he was encouraged to participate in afterschool workshops where children received painting lessons as a reward for completing homework. He learnt from local artist Mena Sebastian, who inspired him to start willfully creating work when he was in the fifth grade.
Soon after, Harding began receiving commissions for paintings, resulting from the positive recognition his work received in the Moranbah State High School’s annual art show. His practice at the time encompassed a broader Indigenous aesthetic, popular of the era, and was bought by teachers, community members and cultural visitors to the school. “That was the beginning of the boom,” he explains. “This Aboriginal aesthetic that people were consuming really heavily.” In hindsight, Harding has recognised that his naïve depictions of dots and marine life weren’t true to his lived experience. “I was a little kid and I didn’t realise the politics behind it. Everything was almost fair fodder in that context. I now know that a lot of the stuff I was painting, I didn’t have access to – that wasn’t my reality.”
Harding recalls often passing up playtime as a child, preferring an afternoon spent creating art with older locals. He was introduced to ceramics this way and undertook his first lessons on a pottery wheel at age thirteen. His preoccupation with art, rather than sports, rendered him somewhat of a social misfit with his peers in town. In his late teens Harding became heavily involved in the community radio station initiated by a local youth worker, a project he describes as “a safe place for all the kids who didn’t fit in”, an alternate venture in which interested locals could invest their energies.
Keen to experience life outside Moranbah, he left the small town in 2001 and headed to the Sunshine Coast. Throughout the next three years he experimented with oils for the first time and worked with timber. With a view to one day enroll in art school, Harding accepted employment with the Bristol paint company as a way of remaining in touch with colour and paint and continued his career in this industry after moving to Brisbane in 2003.
In 2008 he applied for the Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art course (CAIA) at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art. With Jennifer Herd as course convenor, and staff members including Bianca Beetson and Laurie Nilsen, Harding was promptly introduced to a number of influential Brisbane-based creatives. “ProppaNOW meetings are regularly held there in one of the classrooms,” he describes. “We’d be students having a cup of tea or working away and hear these fiery blow-ups and heated discussions echoing around the unit.”
Harding has acted as an apprentice to several prominent artists since first assisting Tony Albert in his studio in 2009. His graduate show and first solo exhibition, ‘Colour By Number’, was curated by Albert (also a CAIAgraduate) and held at Metro Arts in Brisbane, 2012. The exhibition introduced the public to a selection of Harding’s work and unveiled his skill for the ‘gentle arts’ and ability to extort a powerful impact from calculated simplicity.
‘Colour By Number’ explores the dislocation and discontent among the young, black and queer community through a “provocative subversion of the domestic art of cross-stitching”1. Works such as And All Who Enter (2010) and A Cock’atwo and a Kangaroo (2012) employ tongue-in-cheek visual puns to relay homoerotic connotations. Harding has described these works as offerings to the community, intended to bring some humour to a touchy topic in effort to desensitise the negative language callously used to reference homosexuality. The Griffith University Art Collection acquired his work Brown Family Values(2010) in 2012.
The title ‘Colour by Number’ is a reference to Harding’s celebrated 2009 work,Unnamed, created in response to his Nanna’s recount of growing up on Woorabinda Aboriginal Mission in Central Queensland. A system of the Department of Native Affairs in Queensland at the time had her referred to by an alphanumeric number, rather than her given name. Unnamed is a king plate with his Nanna’s identification number, ‘W38’, beaten into it. It is a likeness of the gorgets used by 19th-Century colonial authorities to identify Indigenous leaders.2
Harding works in whatever medium is necessary to convey his message and in the case of Unnamed this material choice is significant. The use of lead, an element with no precious metal value, symbolises the burden and toxicity of the demoralising alphanumeric identification system. Unnamed was Harding’s first work purchased for a major public collection, with the breastplate being gifted to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art by Julie Ewington, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2013. Unnamed has since been exhibited as part of ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ at theQAGOMA in 2013, curated by Bruce McLean.
Inspired by unwritten histories and unknown Aboriginal perspectives, Harding aims to depose convention in order to write these realities into the books. “These histories and these pieces of inherited knowledge often don’t extend beyond the family unit, or the wider Aboriginal community.”2 As a student of the CAIA course, Harding was encouraged to explore his family background and ancestry, as well as his own identity and aspirations for the future. He began formally recording the oral histories of his Indigenous relatives, and was moved by the courageous stories of strength and their associated pain. Nanna Margaret Lawton, his maternal grandmother, was named NAIDOC Female Elder of the Year in 2012 for her work in improving her community in Rockhampton and the Fitzroy Basin region. Harding’s Nanna Margaret has relayed tales of tragedy and triumph in her own life growing up ‘in service’ on Woorabinda Mission, on pastoral stations and in the homes of established families around Central Queensland.
Works influenced by the histories of Nanna Margaret Lawton and her mother, Nanna Effie Priestly, include Harding’s contributions to the 2013 exhibition ‘String theory: Focus on contemporary Australian art’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The three artworks selected for the exhibition of innovative fibre and craft-based art depict narratives of exploitation and injustices committed against young Aboriginal women who were forcibly contracted into servitude. Harding uses traditionally domestic artforms to tell tales of vile misconduct, discreetly overturning the status quo and displaying the hidden truth. White Collared (2013) comprises a selection of vintage crochet collars – the kind previously found on the uniforms of girls in service. Here Harding has tampered with the readymade by adding rawhide and saddlery hardware, comparing the supposed wearers to livestock to comment on their mistreatment and inferior social status.
Bright Eyed Little Dormitory Girls (2013) consists of a series of hessian sacks, referring to the crude dresses that Aboriginal children on the mission were forced to wear as punishment for ‘misbehaviour’. This work recalls the penalty inflicted on Harding’s grandmother when she dared try to defend herself against the unwanted advances of her employer. The sacks were coarse and abrasive and often left the children’s delicate skin mottled with sores. In an attempt to retrospectively alleviate the pain Harding has tenderly added a soft, opulent mohair neckline. In a similar line of comment, the work Of One’s Own Country (2011) also alludes to cases of hushed-up abuse within the system. A more conceptual artwork, Harding incorporates an oxidised ball of steel wool, reminiscent of pubic hair, slowly but constantly corroding away to the shelf below. Hanging precariously from it is a single needle and metallic thread, suggestive of the weight of what is left unsaid.
Harding has detailed the constant protocol attached to his storytelling, with awareness of the responsibility involved in relaying other peoples’ histories. He seeks consultation and permission and is conscious of the way in which he contributes these perspectives. “These stories, these lived experiences, they don’t belong to me,” he clarifies, “But the history and the emotion now does.”
Just like the potent verbal histories passed onto Harding – and from him, in turn, to the audience – his artistic skills were also handed down from family. His mother Kate, who is a multi-skilled textile and fibre artist, taught him exquisite embroidery and cross-stitch techniques. His father David is a man off the land who has shared his extensive knowledge of the properties of timber. Harding’s woodworking is heavily influenced by the traditional practices of artifact making in native Queensland timbers, which he learnt from family Elders and his community.
One of Harding’s greatest career highlights to date is his involvement in collaborative works with Tony Albert. In 2009 Harding was invited to participate in Albert’s collective project, Pay Attention, an installation incorporating individual works by 25 Aboriginal artists from around Australia. Spelling the words ‘PAYATTENTION MOTHER FUCKERS’, the text-based work references a lithograph by American artist Bruce Nauman, held in the National Gallery of Australia, and is a comment on the collection policies of major Australian institutions. In this work Harding created the letter ‘H’ – “for homo.”
“The work was about bringing together all the different generations and voices into the one work to make a statement of community,” he reflects. “That was the first time I’d been asked to lend my voice to a broader discussion.” Pay Attention was exhibited at City Gallery, Wellington, in 2010 and made its way to the National Gallery of Australia as part of unDisclosed (2012).
In 2012 Harding won the Griffith University Graduate Art Show Espresso GARAGEaward for the work No Blame Rests with Them. He received a Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art from the Griffith University Queensland College of Art in 2012, completing Honours in Fine Art in 2013. Harding was a finalist in the Macquarie Group Emerging Artist Prize in Decemeber 2013, and in April 2014 he was selected by Vernon Ah Kee for the Emerging Artist Finalist’s category of the Redlands Konica Minolta Art Prize.
In February 2014 Harding took part in a Cicada Press Aboriginal Print Residency atUNSW, producing a pink ‘cross-stitch’ etching. He also exhibited at The Cross Art Projects in March 2014 as part of Sydney’s SafARI program. His work punishment tree: Queensland Crucifix references a method of torture once used by authorities in the Sunshine State against Aboriginal inmates on missions. The hardwood ‘punishment tree’ on Woorabinda Mission was used as an anchor, with holes gouged through it and steel bars inserted to form a horizontal cross. Inmates were chained to the ends of the metal bars and left to perish. Harding’s reinterpretation involves wax pillar candles that delineate the concept of wasting away. At the time of writing the artist is working towards exhibiting punishment tree in a second incarnation, accompanied by the work’s powerful audio component.