Thursday, January 1, 2009

Harry J Wedge

Harry J Wedge
Quiet Sunday afternoon
acrylic on canvas 2006

H J Wedge was born in 1958 on Erambie Mission, Cowra, in New South Wales. His Wiradjuri heritage is proudly acknowledged in many of his paintings. The experience of the colonisation of the Wiradjuri was different to other experiences of colonisation in Australia and is expressed in its own aesthetic techniques. Historically, painting was not as dominant in the Wiradjuri culture or as widely used as it was in other regions in Australia [perhaps expand on what visual culture was dominant for Wiradjuri people].

Although currently living on the borderline of poverty on the Erambie Aboriginal Reserve, more commonly referred to as Erambie Mission, where he has lived for around most of his life , H J Wedge's art has been seen by many in the flesh and in his 1996 monograph and stands out for many as an exemplary example of contemporary Indigenous art.

What makes HJ Wedge's work distinct from other contemporary Indigenous artists' work is the graphic use of color and subject matter, dealing with the social and political issues more relevant to Aboriginal people living in an urban context as opposed to the traditional cultural information which defines many other styles of Indigenous art.

Sometimes everyday observations and sometimes shockingly confrontational - H. J. Wedge has developed a body of work of hundreds of images documenting his memories and experiences as an Aboriginal Man. Some Aboriginal people may find his painting and drawing techniques simplistic and his lack of formal art training limiting.

However, having learned and studied art history within the (then) Aboriginal-focussed educational institution Eora College for Aboriginal Studies in Redfern (later relocating to Chippendale, in inner-Sydney) among other Aboriginal students, H. J. Wedge bypassed the cultural baggage associated with many other Australian artists' art education.There is traditional cultural information that informs most Aboriginal art, because for so long Aboriginal people were denied this basic freedom of expression; contemporary art allows them to use to speak to the wider community. Contemporary art does not need to use the English language as a means of explanation and perhaps this is another reason for the huge interest in Aboriginal art internationally.

Curatorial influences and encouragment helped advanced H. J. Wedge's artistic career more than a desire for artistic innovation by the artist – he was simply documenting his life and observations of life around him. The push for inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives into group exhibitions during many visual arts events of Australian culture following the becentennial in 1988, coincided with the rise of Wedge's profile.

H. J. Wedge received a minimal European educatioon and he has used his art to find a voice to communicate his stories and perceptions of being an Aboriginal person in modern Australian society. Too often there is only interest in the traditional and ancestral themes of Aboriginal culture, from the desert or northern regions the continent. Aboriginal people from New South Wales (and the southeast) especially have faced community perceptions that they were assimilated a long time ago and the only traditional culture that survives is in remote areas – remote from the southeast.

After his first exhibition with Ngarrindjerri artist Ian W. Abdulla at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney in 19912 a new aesthetic of Aboriginal art emerged where subject matter was of primary concern rather than artistic technique. Other south-eastern artists such as Elaine Russell, Leonie Dennis and more recently Roy Kennedy also developed a bold naïve technique to illustrate the memories of life growing up in rural contexts and in many instances focused on the defining factors of poverty, discrimination, and making the most out of what was allowed for them by the authorities at the time.

This artistic style gave to many Aboriginal people access to the art world, whose local histories challenged the one-sided history that had been recorded. This also suited older artists who did not have access to the education that many non-Indigenous people took for granted.

H. J. Wedge has suffered many personal setbacks, which have unsurprisingly shaped a lot of his artistic output: hospitalization for severe illness, imprisonment and deaing with the impact of alcohol. Yet, many many Australian artists who are represented in the National Gallery of Australia and other public galleiries around Australia, have lived lives outside the mainstream and rejected society's dominant values.

For H. J. Wedge this is an issue which has affected his relationship with his family, the community he lives in and sometimes with other Aboriginal artists. H. J. Wedge's art is Outsider art as he is himself is an outsider in his own community and in the Australian art establishment. A lack of education is what hinders but also what makes H. J. Wedge art so compelling. This dichotomy produces another aspect – that sometimes what makes an artwork so 'of the moment' is the fact that certain people reject its existence and reception as fine art. However, all the issues H.J. addresses in his prolific output are issues which many Indigenous people have faced in urban, rural and remote communities- a sad aspect of our shared lives.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matt I just came across HJs painting down in the Law foyer the other day. I'm researching artists in the public collection on campus at the moment for a program for the Art Gallery. So its good to read your older post on him. I vaguely remember a doco on tele about Harry. So I was shocked to hear he died last year. Hope you are well and sorry to hear about Harry J Wedge. Alan