D Harding

Spanning, criss-crossing, collapsing, multi-directional – these are some of the temporal adjectives I reach for to begin to describe D Harding’s recent works.

A Brisbane-based artist of the Bidjara, Ghungalu, and Garingbal peoples of Central Queensland, Harding’s work has a kind of interlacing historical consciousness that is hard to pin down. Temporality has long been a major theme considered in relation to Australian Indigenous contemporary artists’ practices, with historians and writers reaching for terms to describe complex temporal workings – from artists working within Indigenous ontologies and connections to deep, ancestral or eternal time-spans, to forms of revitalising cultural practices, to referencing the catastrophic disruption of colonisation and new temporal orders, to the time of the archive and the artwork as surfacing suppressed histories. Yet our language on these practices can still feel somewhat linear and binary – the artist ever a kind of mediator/translator of the past, creating material resonances in the present, they are somehow tethered to a past their own practices are said to temporally unsettle. Moreover, there seems to be a growing urgency to art of late: a restlessness with the invective to re-engage the past when the present feels pressed within the on-going destructiveness of colonialism and resource extraction, losses of cultural knowledge and language, the unfolding realities of ecological collapse, as well as enlivened with the many potentialities of cultural practices to carry us forward.

Indeed, my conversation with D Harding begins with a discussion of some of the dilemmas and disruptions of accelerated mining practices. Harding grew up in the small mining town of Mooranbah, Queensland, which more recently experienced the effects of FIFO (fly in, fly out) work and property price spikes during the coal boom. Growing up, their mother had a vast network of connections to other Aboriginal families, and their father, while working in mining, imparted an environmental sensitivity and interest in agricultural sustainability. These are some of the complex conversations Harding is interested in having about Central Queensland through their work: “Focusing attention back on actual culture and material making, and families having a sense of their identity, and reclaiming their place in the cultural landscape.” For Harding, this has increasingly entailed an emphasis on thickening the lines of cultural continuums, rather than specifically re-enlivening colonial pasts. 

This isn’t to devalue important practices that have a more archival or memorial poetics. Indeed, Harding’s practice emerged as a deft and sensitive negotiation of materials to evoke traumatic stories. Their work acquired for the Museum of Contemporary Art while still a Fine Arts student in the Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art course at Griffith University, bright eyed little dormitory girls, 2013, is a series of five small shirt-like objects made from hessian sacks, with soft mohair collars and embroidered crowns, referencing their grandmother’s experiences of removal, domestic servitude, and the dehumanising punishment of being forced to wear a hessian sack in the place of her clothes.

In more recent years, Harding has expanded on this material sensibility, and a keen responsibility and interest towards family connections, with more expansively transhistorical works, often parsing different cultural references, particularly to minimalism and longstanding matrilineal practices. Wall works that have re-enacted the practice of blowing ochres onto stone walls, while also exploring the socio-political histories of materials and sites, have been shown as site-specific installations at major biennales such as the 11th Gwangju Biennale, 2016, documenta 14, 2017, and the Liverpool Biennial, 2018. Two major solo shows last year have continued to foment Harding’s interlacing of time-periods, taking their practice in an even more fulsome research-based and collaborative direction.

There is no before, 2021, a solo show at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in Aotearoa New Zealand, showed new minimal paintings and sculptures alongside a display of eighteen nulla-nulla (clubs), many from Queensland Aboriginal communities, loaned from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The project created entangled creative lineages across sculptural forms and overlapping material resonances – often each material worked with was traceable to places and stories of relevance to Harding’s family, community, or artistic affinities. Yet the title of the show also refutes a certain idea of pastness. When I ask Harding about this, they link back to Central Queensland cultural inheritances and the questions of what can be done with knowledge in the present day, saying emphatically that “there is no before, in that, it’s now . . .  it’s an encouragement not to let something just fall into the past.” As in curator Megan Tamati-Quennell’s description of Harding’s practice as “in the slipstream,” it is as though Harding’s sense of a present is abundant with the cultural practices that can be drawn out though creatively working with materials, and utilising art as an incitement for continuation and renewal. 

In this regard, we touch on ideas of using art as a platform that might not only disseminate cultural knowledge and creative innovation to new audiences, but can feed back into community practices, offering different forms of validity. Harding recounts how giving a talk with their uncle Steve Kemp at the Institute of Modern Art in 2019 offered something different than the other industries through which knowledge is often communicated, such as required cultural competency workshops – the genuine interest and conversations can be invigorating. Harding has also been critical of the spectacle of tourism, where the relationship to practiced knowledge is often extractive, something particularly evident in their recent project, Through a lens of visitation.

Opening at the Monash University Museum of Art last year, this project was a wide-ranging endeavour, bringing together a survey of many major existing works, a new exhibition made between Harding and their mother, textile artist Kate Harding, and a publication that explores different perspectives on Carnarvon Gorge, including its links to the modernist perspectives of Margaret Preston and Sidney Nolan, Harding’s families’ relationships to the gorge on their Country, and the mediating role of tourism. Desires for authentic connection to place are an operative part of what often ends in appropriation or consumption. By contrast, both Hardings’ works draw out forms of an Australian, Indigenous, and Bidjara aesthetic relation to place and materials – not of simply filling desires for authentic connection to sites through art, but of mediating forms of complex involvement – from the ancestral through to the artists themselves being entangled within Australian art histories. 

Harding’s idea for their upcoming project at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney – themed rīvus (meaning “stream” in Latin) – came from an unexpected encounter, finding a seemingly less impacted part of the Isaac River along a crossing Harding hadn’t taken before, finding thriving small water plants and banks lined with Melaleuca trees. This experience elicited Harding to ask: “How can we get families and communities back in close contact with their river systems that they have responsibility for?” As an example of an already thriving practice for this, Harding cites the Fitzroy Basin Elders Committee their grandparents have been involved in – bringing together communities related to five major rivers and igniting diaspora communities to become involved in custodial practices. Following a similar sensibility, the Biennale project will involve working with uncles Steve Kemp and Milton Lawton, who will steward a series of long walks along Mimosa Creek on Ghungalu Country, which will entail negotiating access to many parts of it. The project is already garnering excitement of connecting to parts of Country that have been rarely accessed. As Harding says, “Let’s not wait for next time.”   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artist, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Liverpool Biennial, UK, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.

Sovereign sisters: domestic work
11 October 2021 – 8 April 2022
Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide

Wall Composition on Darumbal
From 25 February 2022
Rockhampton Museum of Art, Queensland

rīvus: 23rd Biennale of Sydney
12 March – 13 June 2022
Various locations, Sydney

ARS22: Living Encounters
8 April – 4 September, 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland

Reclaim the Earth
14 April – 4 September 2022
Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France

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