The Trouble with Harry

Harry James Wedge (25.05.1957–08.11.2012)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s surrealist film “The trouble with Harry” a man from a small country town is mysteriously found dead in a field one morning. In the ensuing chaos the townspeople’s reactions range from guilt, remorse and then blame as the people who knew him best question their own possible involvement in events that might have caused ‘Harry’s’ untimely death. In the story that takes place, there are multiple versions and accounts of the man’s character and divergent accounts of very different histories with very different people over many years.

The Trouble with Harry (1955) (Original Trailer)

I was reminded of this film when attending the funeral for Harry J Wedge in November 2012. This plotline is an appropriate introduction to telling the story of the life and work of artist Harry James Wedge. Harry’s work as an artist could easily best be described as polarizing — many loved it, many hated it — some liked it but could not understand why others would love it so much — some celebrated the fact that others hated it so much.

Harry’s artistic career remained an enigma to those closest to him throughout his life and in many cases his work is an exemplary case of an Australian outsider art although not in the conventional definition.

“Self-Taught ad Outsider Art is art produced by people somehow excluded from ‘the art game’ — not by choice, but by circumstance.”[ii]

Harry was often baffled at the serious critical reaction that would accompany his exhibitions. Harry was known as ‘Big H’ by those in his home community of Cowra and it is a fair character assessment to say that he was not shy of a drink or a smoke and a gamble.

I met him very late in his career when he was rarely producing new work and was relying on a catalogue of around 50 unsold works that would be often acquired by astute collectors visiting the Boomalli Aboriginal arts Co operative in Leichhardt in Sydney. I often had the task of ringing him to tell him that he had made another sale and more often than not this news would be followed up with a phone call the following day, and the day after — asking if he had made any other sales, as his overly generous nature and reliance on the assistance of his friends would often leave him broke again very quickly.

I never begrudged Harry his tendency to ‘humbug’[iii] — there was no shame in it really as I could well understand why he would do it but also understood how this could be very off putting for any one not accustomed to it. Aboriginal people were ‘outsiders’ by government design well into the late 20th century and in the short time that I knew him Harry’s health and welfare circumstances grew gradually worse. I knew some who thought he was crazy for not just pushing lazy art through the system — ‘Why don’t you just do some more paintings’ but any serious artist will tell you that it is not just as simple as that, without undermining their long term artistic viability. Harry seemed to know how the art world worked better than most and had been around long enough to know when to hold and when to fold.

Harry grew up in the town of Cowra in regional NSW — a place with its own fascinatingly contradictory histories relating to its displacement of the local Aboriginal community — the Wiradjuri, but also popularly known in Australian history as being the location of a Japanese internment camp in WW2 and the infamous Cowra breakout depicted in the 1984 miniseries directed by Phillip Noyce. That Noyce had also directed the 1977 Film ‘Backroads’[iv] that begins its narrative trajectory on the Brewarrrina mission known as ‘Dodge City’[v] is interesting and another filmic parallel to the beginnings of Harry’s artistic journey from a regional town in NSW to the city and the bypasses and backroads that shaped his life’s journey.

In 2012 the urban aboriginal art movement of Australia lost two of its most successful proponents in Ian W. Abdulla and Harry J. Wedge. Harry and Ian forged personal expressive visions that are instantly recognizable in the oversupply that has come to define so much government funded remote art centre ‘traditional’ aboriginal art today. Harry and Ian had first exhibited together at Boomalli Aboriginal artist’s co operative in 1991 and both came to define a first person, naïve style of storytelling and painting that overtly displayed a unique perspective of their own personal life experiences.

They painted with wholesale bought acrylic paint, large bottles of primary colors that were often poorly blended together. Most artists these days would not have not touched these types of paint since primary school but for the emerging Aboriginal artists from South Eastern Australia their work was largely defined by an unschooled, deliberate and willful ignorance of ‘the rules’ of the art world and this is what made their work so shocking, vibrant and visually refreshing.

The story of Harry’s artistic Career is intertwined with the growing sense of identity politics that from the 1970s onwards transformed the modern Australian society profoundly. In an era dominated by the anthropological and ethnographically sanctioned ‘traditional’ art of the remote art centre’s, artists such as Harry J. Wedge, Robert Campbell Jnr., and Ian W. Abdulla were south east Australian Aboriginal people that navigated their way into the Australian contemporary art world to great acclaim through using a fresh artistic approach that rejected the conformity of many other Australian schools of art.

The unschooled ‘neo-expressionist’ work of urban Aboriginal artists was far more in tune with the international aesthetics of contemporary international painters of that era such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sandro Chia or Phillip Guston where formal painterly qualities are secondary to the primacy of the subject and its expressive emotional qualities. Many significant Australian artists of that time such as Davida Allen or Jenny Watson worked in this first person diacritic narrative and Harry’s work hung proudly in Many of the best Australian art survey shows of the 1990’s. It was also through the dedicated work of Aboriginal curators Hetti Perkins and Brenda Croft that Harry reached national exposure through participating in exhibitions such as Australian Perspecta 1993, Biennalle of Sydney 2002, Culture Warriors 2007 as well national surveys of Australian and Aboriginal art at NGV and AGNSW .

The success of artists such as Harry and the work of artists in this era has provided the groundwork and inspired other Aboriginal artists from across other regions of Australia such as Jimmy Pike and Ginger Riley and more recent artists such as Trevor Turbo Brown, Billy Benn, and Elaine Russell who have continued this tradition of an unschooled, colorful and modern culturally influenced subject matter that in some ways could be described as a post modern distortion of the beautifully naïve, bold, bright colours of the muted landscapes in the watercolor painting of Albert Namatjira in the 1950’s.

Many non Indigenous artists from Harry’s generation would be set for life with the resumes that he accumulated in his relatively short career but sadly it’s hard to show how Harry profited in any significant way from his involvement in this historic artistic movement of Aboriginal artists. During his successful decade of his career (the 1990’s) Harry would have conservatively sold a few hundred thousand dollars worth of paintings, however When Harry Passed away in Sept 2012 he had little to show for it — in the weeks before his passing he had recently been the recipient of clothing from the Cowra St. Vincent De Paul society and was on a managed income arrangement with the nursing home that provided comfort for him in his last days[vi].

Harry’s story is a sad example of the social spaces that Aboriginal people moved through in the late 20th century. The drastic social change that affected Aboriginal people and communities in South Eastern Australia from the late 1960’s onwards deserve closer historical scrutiny if these times are to be explained to future generation’s Aboriginal people with any sense of authenticity.

The transitions that shaped the old missions and reserves of regional NSW through a self determinationist approach towards community ‘management’ in some cases divided many communities irrevocably along generational and gender divisions that are the cause of much intergenerational angst among today’s communities.

In 1984 Historian peter read published “Down with me on the Cowra mission”, this book is a fascinating account told through the documentation of oral histories of around 40 people who grew up on the Eurambie mission at Cowra and their recollections of the social and cultural history of life on a mission in a NSW country town. Reads book was to galvanized many historians in Australia to understand the power of Aboriginal oral histories and the need to respectfully engage with those with living memory of the experience of missions and reserves. Many members of these communities often lacked the educational opportunities to actively create their own histories in formats that would be recognized by dominant cultures. In the past, historical accounts of mission life relied on the written accounts — old style historical narratives produced by self serving mission managers and held by government archives as a biased historical proof of the experience that favored the government’s version of events over the peoples.

One story that reoccurs in many of the oral histories is the radical changes in the social life of the mission that are brought about in the early 1970’s when the era of mission managers ended and missions and reserves started being managed by outsiders who were not members of the community. On Australian missions and reserves it is been documented that the role of the father was replaced by that of the manager. Fathers did not have the authority over their families in the same way that people in non indigenous communities did and subsequently over several generations the role of the father in the family became gradually eroded and disparaged to the point where it has become almost a cliché to describe the experiences of Aboriginal men as a ‘crisis of masculinity’.

Much was promised but little had changed in the period between the 1967 referendum campaign and the 1972 tent embassy protests. Employment opportunities were scarce, access to a quality education was prohibitively expensive and culturally respectful health services were nonexistent.

The success stories of the self determination movement were the Aboriginal owned and operated medical, legal and education services that were formed at this time. The self determinationist movement also helps explain the desire of many Aboriginal people to leave the small town rural communities that they grew up on and move to places like Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne and this was rarely understood by non Aboriginal administrators charged with providing services to meet the needs of these new arrivals in urban centers. Harry described the feelings of helplessness associated with the lack of employment and the social isolation in numerous artworks throughout his career — one thing that remained constant was his belief in the Wiradjuri spirit and the sense of identity and purpose that this gave him.

The late 1970’s until the late 1980’s was a particularly formative in Harry’s life in that his freedoms also brought his first brushes with the police shaped much of his perception of authority in general as an adult and this was often depicted in his later work such as ‘Police Child livestock squad” (1996) and “Tresspassing” (1998). In Peter reads book, Harry described coming to Sydney in 1976 after a short time spent in a juvenile detention facility as a teenager and this history being used against him through being targeted by police looking to boost their arrest rate[vii]. By 1991 Harry was in his mid thirties and the prospect of becoming a professional artist would likely have been the furthest thing from his mind as he absorbed the growing political consciousness that formed in opposition to the ‘celebration of a nation’ and the bicentennial ‘celebrations’ that had many historically significant aboriginal cultural precedents centered in the inner city of Sydney.

Aboriginal people moving to the city would often rely on informal networks of family and friends to find work or learn how to navigate public transport and social services. Small town racism of excluding aboriginal people from restaurants, pubs and even swimming pools was brought to national prominence by the ‘students for actions on Aborigines’ in the 1965 Freedom rides and although the 1967 referendum had in theory given Aboriginal people rights equal to any other members of the Australian community most Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Queensland knew that in day to day life, equality was the exception rather than the rule.

Dr Gaynor Macdonald is an anthropologist who has worked extensively with the Wiradjuri community for nearly 30 years and is the author of the most definitive academic work on Harry’s artistic career[viii] she recorded the following in an interview with Harry in 2004.

“I wasn’t interested in painting at first, I was interested in photography. When you start at Eora you do camera work, painting and screen printing. Then you had Maths and English as well. Then after six months you have to do the Maths and English but you can pick out a course that you want to do. So I picked out mine and there was only Drama and Painting. And I said, there’s no use in taking drama ‘cos I can’t bloody read, so I did painting…

Then one day these figures came up. When I looked at it I thought, this is kid’s work, nobody would buy this shit. I thought my work wasn’t that crash hot. Then in 1989, there was the exhibition at the Eora Centre and I think I had about 13 paintings. People came to price our work. This teacher came and said to me, “They’re goin’ to keep an eye on you” and I said, “Who?” … The people pricing, they think your work is good. I just stood and looked. They ended up selling 12 — there was only one left. I just looked and thought, “These people are crazy.” [ix]

In Dr MacDonald’s essay ‘The soft knife’ is a descriptive term that refers to the process of deliberate under resourcing of the Indigenous self determination movements that was specific to Australia, the United states and Canada. It is a process that that disempowers communities when they are challenged with the beuracratic process of a dominant empirical society, the ‘soft knife’ is a process that indirectly shifts the blame of responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim and is often the cause of what many have described as “lateral violence’ that is specific to Indigenous communities in many places around the world today.

One of the most drastic social changes was the right to purchase alcohol that had been highly regulated and arbitrarily used to punish and control Aboriginal people up until 1967. This was an issue that had seen Albert Namatjira sentenced for two months in prison 1958[x]. A legacy that Harry has left is his documentation of his personal battles with the ‘demon grog’ as he had described in his work. He has described his painting of this often unpleasant subject matter as a responsibility associated with creating awareness of excessive alcohol use and the negative perceptions of this that has been associated with aboriginal people in Australia.

Like many regional people faced with poverty and boredom the struggles earning a decent income it was under the influence of alcohol that Harry to committed petty crimes as a teenager that eventually saw him institutionalized in juvenile detention facilities. In the year 2013 the statistical over representation of Aboriginal juveniles in NSW correctional facilities is still an unresolved issue and art such has Harry’s attest to the importance of this as a social justice issue for many people today.

Many older generation people saw the changes coming and in many ways the problems of young Aboriginal men and alcohol abuse become symbolic of the modern Aboriginal situation — problems of responsibility and leadership. However, it is also important not to underestimate the role that arts projects designed to increase participation by Aboriginal people in the Australian arts community in the late 70’s played the prison system played.

These initiatives encouraging Aboriginal men to develop alternate careers in the arts Kevin Gilbert, Gordon Syron, Jimmy Pike not to mention numerous unknown Aboriginal men who served time in prisons fashioning crafts to pass the time developed skills that would offer any chance of an alternative to recidivism. Participation in the arts offered an alternative to the bleak menial work that was often the only available option to a convicted felon in their post sentence society.

Recently speaking to Gordon Syron he recalled how he first met Harry teaching prisoners at Long Bay correctional centre in Sydney in the 1980’s and then later bumping into him at an exhibition in the mid 1990’s Gordon recalled — “I said what are you doing at this fancy art gallery” Harry replied cheekily “what are you doing here — that’s my bloody work up on the wall!”

Memories of the hardships and victories that Aboriginal people shared through growing up on and living on missions and reserves are shared with pride among many in the modern aboriginal community and will forever be a fascinating account of the lives of people who would not have been known otherwise. It is an artistic device used by many to choose the subject matter of their work. Many artists such as Roy Kennedy, Ian W Abdulla and Elaine Russell have all created a body of work that documents aspects of this life for families on these missions and reserves in the spirit of “telling it like it is” that Harry pioneered.

As it turns out the death of “Harry” in the 1955 Hitchcock film is underwhelming explained by entirely natural causes, the townsfolk who rushed to condemn others and explicate themselves from the imagined circumstances are left exposed for the vindictive and nasty little townsfolk that they have always been. I think this is a perfectly apt analogy to some in the some in the wider Aboriginal arts community who never knew the man or his art but who are quick to condemn his art as inconsequential in recent years.

In the long run Harry’s artistic legacy is a manuscript of the life of a proud Aboriginal man who lived through the highs and lows of one of the most significant moments of change in modern Aboriginal history.

Captain Cook Conman

[ii] SELF-TAUGHT AND OUTSIDER ART RESEARCH COLLECTION (STOARC)

http://sydney.edu.au/sca/research/projects/stoarc.shtml

[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Aboriginal_English#Humbug

[iv] Backroads http://aso.gov.au/titles/short-features/backroads/

[v] Dodge City, Brewarrina http://www.dodgecitynsw.com/

[vi] Personal correspondence Jan Harper, Harrys personal carer at Weerona Nursing home, Cowra

[vii] Peter Read ‘Down there with me on the Cowra mission’ pp 39–40

[viii] Dr Gaynor Macdonald “painting the soft knife” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/var.2005.21.1-2.98/abstract

[ix] Dr Gaynor Macdonald ‘Encountering Harry as “Artist” ’ p.4 “painting the soft knife” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/var.2005.21.1-2.98/abstract

[x] Albert Namatjira bio http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs145.aspx