Sally Harrison: Aboriginal Artist

by Susan Jacobs

In last week’s blog entry, I talked about my personal experience with DePaul’s Study Abroad Program.  We joined our son, a DePaul student, on his Study Abroad trip to Australia.  In this entry, I want to introduce you to Sally Harrison, an Australian artist with whom I have enjoyed a rich correspondence as a result of  a chance connection during our journey.

Much of the Australian tour literature warns shoppers not to buy knock-off Aboriginal art, but to look for the certified works, which can only be found in a small number of galleries, shops and cultural centers.  In all of the tourist venues, there’s plenty of “stuff,” but we saw the wisdom of the advice— you can buy bad t-shirts, fake tree bark art, and even (gulp) bottle openers made from various kangaroo parts in every tourist kiosk.  In Melbourne’s Victoria Street Market, we found a small shop that sold certified Aboriginal art, with all of the profits going to the artists and various cultural centers.  That shop proved to be a portal first to images, then a rich correspondence with artist Sally Harrison.

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We bought a small reproduction of Sally Harrison’s  painting “The Legend of Chirra,”  but the shopkeeper had no information about the image’s significance.  When we returned home, I tried to identify the image through online sources, and finally found the Lorraine Pilgrim Gallery website that was exhibiting Sally Harrison’s work.  I tried the “Contact Us” button on the website.  Lorraine Pilgrim emailed me that Sally Harrison was a willing correspondent who would welcome my inquiry.  I wrote, she answered, and another world opened up.

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“In the time of creation, Chirra was a handsome young warrior.  One day, as he knelt beside a shady pool  to slake his thirst, a leaf fell down on him.  Looking up, he saw a young maiden hiding in the tree above him.  Chirra asked why she was hiding there and she told him that an evil sorcerer had pointed his magic spear at her, and she knew she would be his next victim.  Chirra persuaded her to come down from the tree and asked her name, but she did not have one, so he named her “Pretty One.”   He decided they should find the great rainbow serpent to ask for his help, and they set off at a run.  Sadly, they were too late, because already the sorcerer’s magic spear was winging towards Pretty One.  At the last minute, Chirra threw himself in front of the spear, which hit him in the chest.  Already dying, he collapsed on the ground.  Pretty One threw herself down in despair across his body, smearing his blood on her breast.  The Rainbow Serpent was aware of what had happened and decided to punish the sorcerer.  He changed Chirra into a robin red breast and Pretty One as his mate …… and the evil sorcerer?  He was changed into a little grey moth, which is the favourite food of the robin.” -The Legend of Chirra, as retold by Sally Harrison, 2010

You can read Sally’s history in her June 12, 2009 address to college students during Reconciliation Week when she spoke as a representative of the Stolen Generation. If you’ve seen the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, you know Sally’s personal history.  As an Aboriginal child, she was taken with her mother and put into the Cumeragunga Mission in far western New South Wales.   At 13 months of age, she was separated from her mother and placed at the United Aborigines Mission at Bomaderry, 100 miles south of Sydney.  In accordance with the mission’s assimilation policy,  she started learning to be a domestic servant before she was three years old.  Sally has spent a lifetime overcoming the challenges imposed by the loss of her identity and Aboriginal heritage.

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This is not ancient history; Sally was born in 1950.  She uses her art to link the varied worlds she inhabits and to speak for the Stolen Generation— her visual voice, her articulate speeches and written communication are remarkable for their positive energy and for her connection to the natural world.  In one of Sally’s addresses, she says “My earliest memory was the Sun warm on my skin. I am a child of Nature, it is part of my being, my Aboriginality…”  “All In The Same Boat II” was chosen by the Alternative Law Journal in Melbourne for the cover of an issue of its magazine in 2008 when they ran a story on the stolen generation.

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Now, thanks to Sally Harrison’s rich email correspondence and her generosity in sharing her images with me, every aspect of our travels is enhanced.  Study Abroad doesn’t end at customs; it’s just the beginning of many journeys.   In my family’s case, our son’s Study Abroad journey and our shared experience in Australia created significant  life-altering links that we otherwise would never have experienced.

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To see more of Sally’s work, please visit our Flickr Photo Set.

Note:  All images in this post have been used with the written permission of the artist.