Sally Harrison: Connecting the Dots


Australian artist Sally Harrison depicts the natural world with vivid strokes and dots, but there hasn't always been such colour in her life. The widely exhibited artist uses art to heal historical pain by reconnecting with her Aborigine roots.


Sally Harrison's oil and acrylic paintings look like vivid depictions of the natural world. Behind them is the story of aborigine children who, from 1910 to 1971, were forcibly removed from their families and communities to be "culturally assimilated" into Australia. Harrison was part of "the Stolen Generation," and she was one of many children with an Aborigine background who were told that their parents had died.

"Many early days at the United Aborigines Mission Home at Bomaderry (South of Sydney) were relatively happy because I had other children to care for me and play with, " said Harrison, who was taken away from her family to a Mission Home that revealed the dark reality of this "assimilation" as Aborigine children became trained to serve white Australians. "Most of the missionaries were kind, but they would mete out harsh punishments if any of the strict rules of behaviour were broken."


Harrison describes a world that was regimented and where people had to "earn their keep" in line with the government policy of the time. "This meant that all of the children, from toddlers to the eldest, were put to work helping with the washing, cleaning, collecting firewood, and, for the girls, helping take care of the babies."


"I was taught to change a baby's nappy and feed it when I was three and half years old. I must admit that fear of punishment played an important part in our lives, but if we did the right thing and behaved as were expected, then life was relatively happy considering the draconian standards of the days."

Harrison's relatively rosy account may be recollections, through her childhood innocence, of the reality of her situation at the time, but her memories take on an unusual form of nostalgia.

"As a small child with no concept of normal family life, I did not know any different," she said. "We were a family and were lucky to have Sister Kennedy as our Matron and other fine young missionaries who instilled the best of our family values in us. My problems really started after I was adopted, but the less said about that, the better."

But, like many of the Stolen Generation, the pain became immeasurable when reality did sink in. Harrison states that painting, which she started as a way to reconnect with her Aboriginal roots, has been an integral part of the healing process. She has held two successful exhibitions at the Bomaderry Mission Home, where she was brought up. She has opened people's eyes to a side of mission life that many are not aware of. In doing so, she has reflected on the only real family she ever had.

"Life has taught me that it is very unhealthy to dwell on the enormous negative impact of abuse, trauma, and loss." She said. "You have to find a way to stop the past from dominating your life and move on so that you have some hope for the future. Painting is the tool I use to help myself move on."

The loss that Sally Harrison felt when she was forcibly removed from her family has been addressed in artwork that reconnects her with "the land." To the Australian Aborigines, artwork is about more than just paintings. According to Aboriginal tradition, artists are engaged in a sacred dialogue with "the land." This creates a bond between man, nature and the Aboriginal "Dreamtime" – a spiritual dimension in which they believe ancient spirits created the Earth.

As one of the Stolen Generation, Australian artist Sally Harrison wasn't nurtured with the same skills that Aborigine tribes used to educate their children, but it was through a quirk of fate that she became reconnected.

"In 1992, I took 12 months' leave without pay from Public Services in Brisbane and traveled to Carnarvon in Western Australia with the intention of working as a deckhand on the scallop trawlers," Harrison said. "Unfortunately, I suffered from extreme sea sickness and was forced to re-evaluate what I was going to do for the next 12 months."

"At that time, I had not come to terms with myself as an Aborigine, and knew nothing at all about Aboriginal culture, simply because I was forced to deny it in my childhood and early adulthood. I decided it was time I addressed the issue, so I enrolled in an Aboriginal skills course, where I was introduced to dot painting for the first time,"

Within a few years old, her paintings became discovered by Creative Native Art Gallery in the Western Australian city of Perth, and they were sold within a few weeks. Her popularity may be the result of a nation reflecting on its past, but Harrison's work is a unique mix of Aborigine tribal art with a wide oeuvre of styles.

Harrison feels as though she belongs to neither culture, perhaps because she was deprived of the opportunity to mix with either group as a child. Her story is also a proof of the sublime nature of painting as an art form.  "Painting is like magic - it happily disconnects you from the past, the present and your consciousness with all its thoughts, beliefs, ideas and attitudes. You are reduced to being a non-judgemental, silent observer with no ego; nothing more than an eye that sees and is aware of everything you need to do to create a successful painting."

Words Remo Notarianni

ProfilesDaryl Mitchell