Eddy Harris, Barkandji artist and story-teller, articulates the stories of his people and his connection to country with magical paintings and woodcarvings.
Words by Riley Palmer. Article published in Rex Airlines in-flight magazine February – March Edition
As a child, Eddy Harris would use a stick to draw little pictures in the burnt red sand, a layer of which coated everything in his hometown of Wilcannia, in north western New South Wales.
He saw the images as a beautiful way to express himself: to articulate and process the stories he was told, what he saw in the world and how he felt. Today, art serves much the same purpose for Eddy. “I don’t want to be better than anyone else,” he says humbly. “That’s not what I’m about. Art is about challenging myself and painting what I feel and see. That’s me, I paint what I’m about.”
Coming from a large family, Eddy was surrounded by kin who taught him about the land and his culture through art. “I’d see me old uncle carving boomerangs under a gumtree, and there’d be another one carving a shield,” he explains. Eddy recalls the men telling stories about the land and their ancestors while they carved their artefacts and this clearly had a huge impact on him and his siblings. “There’s eight of us, five boys and three girls,” he says. “I lost my oldest brother now, but all of us brothers done art work, woodcarvings and paintings. And my eldest sister done a little bit of painting as well, but she’s passed on too.”
Eddy believes it is vital for the artistic skills and traditions he and his siblings learnt through their kin to be passed on to the indigenous youth of today. “It’s very important to keep our culture alive through art,” he explains. “The kids need to know what they’re about and to understand what some of the older people in the community are doing. Seeing the artwork around is important, it sends a positive message.”
Telling tales of the land and his ancestors, Eddy is a wonderful role model and mentor to the next generation. He combines traditional practices with his unique style, to create images such as ‘River Gathering’, which features the black abdomens, fragile legs and ogling black-and-white eyes of hundreds of ants assembled in a seemingly organised fashion. Asked what story this painting tells, he says, “I went to the river to collect some timber with my brother, and I saw these ants. One was dead and the others had gathered around to carry it. It made me think that ants are just like us; they come together when one of them passes on, they come together when there’s food around and most of the time they carry over their weight.”
Displaying a sense of community much like the one Eddy grew up in, it’s little wonder that ants have become a motif throughout much of his artwork. Another motif that runs throughout Eddy’s artwork is the land of his tribe, the Barkindji people. For instance, his painting ‘Barka Billabongs’ is about the Darling River, along which the Barkindiji travels. Eddy says, “This painting shows parts of the land where the water lays in deep holes and all the birds come in. There’s also other sites, like a mussel site and old campfires that are a thousand years old.” Eddy’s description of the striking blackand- white painting provides added meaning to what is already a beautiful artwork; it is also a map of the land.
“The land is very important to us,” Eddy explains. “That’s where our ancestors are. That’s where I get my inspiration from and where I collect my timbers for woodcarvings. I try to get out there as much as I can. The feelings that you get from country, knowing our ancestors lived and were buried there, you feel their spirits with you. I guess not everyone feels it, but I do. It’s a good thing.”
Eddy’s artworks capture this connection he feels to both his ancestors and the land, which, in addition to his evident talent, goes some way to explaining how he has become so commercially successful. Despite many of his artworks being displayed nationally and internationally, Eddy’s future aspirations lie much closer to home. Asked what he hopes his legacy will be, he says, “Hopefully we get our own museum in this area with Barkindji stuff. I’d like to donate some pieces to that, to give some of my work back to community. And maybe I can help inspire some of the kids to go forward and become artists.”
This article was written by Riley Palmer and Published in Rx Airlines in-flight magazine Rexmag February-March edition.