The monochrome images on the wall are wry, almost deadpan. It’s as if a walker has decided to capture subtle shifts in Sydney’s topography. The gnarled roots of a fig tree, a rogue branch suspended midair. A break in the forest floor that reveals a small clearing, marked by a smattering of sandstone rocks. I circle them again. There is something in the tone of the pictures, their sense of observing rather than exposing, that hints at a subtext I might be missing. What lies beyond the frame? And is it for me to know?
Untitled (The Point) (2023) is a series of medium-format photographs by Newell Harry. When he made them, he was experimenting with a new camera at Callan Park overlooking the Parramatta River’s Iron Cove. Later, Harry learnt the site played host to rock carvings by Māori twin brothers who accurately predicted the rise of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, the founder of the influential Rātana Church. In 1879, the twins were incarcerated at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, their clairvoyance misread by colonial society as mental illness. At first glance, Untitled (The Point) makes a case for ways of knowing the world that have been maligned, half buried. But to me, the work speaks equally to the limits of our own seeing. The sense that the truths that rise up in an aftermath can alter the truths we understand.
Untitled (The Point) hangs on a back wall as part of Esperanto, Harry’s largest solo project to date. Curated by Michael Moran at the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), it’s the regional gallery’s biggest major presentation by a single contemporary artist. Untitled (The Point) is sold as the show’s new commission but it’s maybe best understood as a coda. If our cultural moment anoints us all armchair experts, Esperanto asks us to suspend our presumptive logic. I’d forgotten how much pleasure there was in not being told what to think, in inhabiting a freer mode.
Esperanto takes its name from a language invented in the late 1800s by Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, an amateur linguist who longed for a universal form of communication that could cross borders and cultures. Harry, an artist of South African and Mauritian descent who grew up in Perth and Sydney, has spent nearly 20 years moving between South Africa, Australia, Vanuatu and the Indo-Pacific. Esperanto, a roving, shifting constellation of artefacts, photos, objects and stories, doesn’t just speak about dislocation or displacement or mobility. Its prevailing mood is itinerant, provisional. It’s that of the traveller in motion, sifting through ephemera. Holding on to souvenirs others might discard. Finding meaning retroactively.
I’m beguiled by Sul Mare (2022), the centrepiece of Esperanto, which first showed last year as part of the 17th Istanbul Biennial. A room in the middle of the space houses a row of vitrines. Behind the glass, a sequence of personal artefacts traces Harry’s family’s migration from apartheid-era South Africa to Australia in the 1970s. His mother, Virginia, arrived on an Italian liner. The work is named after a magazine titled Sul Mare, or “on the sea”, which was published onboard.
The vitrines hold material drawn from his family archive interspersed with 19th-century etchings depicting African “Cafres” people, a poster published by the Southern African Liberation Centre in Sydney, or Nelson Mandela on the cover of Time. The family ephemera includes a picture of Virginia wearing go-go boots in ’60s Durban, and an article, published in South Africa’s Drum, describing her potential as a promising gymnast who was prohibited from representing the country by virtue of being “coloured”.
In a corner of the room, footage from the National Film and Sound Archive is on a loop: scenes of Australia in the ’70s, blond children playing, the obsession with drilling the earth for resources. The population’s romance with the landscape, ignorant of Indigenous sovereignty, is narrated with the amused curiosity of David Attenborough.
Harry has long worked with wordplay, with the strange clues to how we understand the world inherent in how we communicate. Entering Esperanto, I’m struck by a series of gift mats, woven by senior women from a Vanuatu community out of pandanus leaves and emblazoned with anagrams. They function as a form of legal tender and – nodding to Harry’s interest in concrete poetry – incorporate rows of words in cryptic arrangements: “JOHN FRUM / DRUM DRUM”; “KOFFIE MOFFIE / SHEBEEN DRONKIE”. In Vanuatu, home to more than 120 languages, the national language is Bislama, a type of Melanesian creole conceived when ni-Vanuatu people were enslaved on Australian plantations. English is subsumed, remade. The vernacular merges with the formal.
Sul Mare too dissolves these taxonomies. It’s become fashionable to adopt the cabinet of curiosities, the Enlightenment-era means of display, as an attempt to critique colonial legacies. But can you truly tear something down by re-creating it? In Esperanto, Sul Mare is labelled a “quasi-archival installation”. A leaflet, designed to help navigate the work, includes the artist’s lengthy addendums but intentionally misses information. Esperanto gleefully breaks with narrative authority, according history and memory equal value. Harry’s family’s trajectory, as told by this circuit of mementos and curios and snapshots, is entwined with the rise and fall of social forces, the changing currents of policy and power.
It took time to connect with this show. It draws on material that is personal, even diaristic, yet the viewer is held oddly at a remove. In Sul Mare, a yellow photo album inscribed with Harry’s name remains closed. Colonialism gave way to capitalism and neoliberalism, systems that incentivise people of colour to reveal more, to “tell their story”. Esperanto isn’t buying it.
In the tradition of conceptual artists such as Joseph Beuys, the narrative particulars of Harry’s life are deployed playfully, unsentimentally, as bricolage. The details matter less than the connections between them. Near a front corner of the room, Esperanto screens Agnès Varda’s film Black Panthers (1968), which chronicles the mission of the Black Panthers and the world they were fighting for. It didn’t arrive. The narratives of progress failed. Here, time doesn’t run in a straight line. The past repeats and returns.
Outside Sul Mare, a banner spun out of Tongan tapa cloth reads, “FEET / FEAT / FETE / FATE”. In a nearby installation, one of two addendums to Sul Mare, Harry presents deadpan travelogues, stories within stories, that narrate rogue family connections, odd turns-of-event – a missing goat, a boat trip – that later reveal themselves as symbols and portents. Esperanto revels in chance encounters, in randomness and play. In showing the knowledge systems we stake our lives on as absurdist.
To make White/Conundrum (2021), Harry salvaged Kodachrome film found on the streets of Annandale that captured a European “grand tour” taken by a white dentist in the ’60s and ’70s. He pairs these images with excerpts of the notorious dictation test engineered to keep migrants of colour out of the country as part of the White Australia Policy. I walk through the installation, reading obscure lessons on the evolution of the eel, the mythology of the swagman, the properties of water, paired with canals and bridges and mountains – and just for a moment these incongruent elements work a strange kind of magic. They create a leap in my understanding, as if I am learning that a language I’d once known was only make-believe.
Esperanto is showing at Murray Art Museum Albury until November 26.
Neha Kale travelled to Albury with the assistance of MAMA.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Making meaning".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription