Dale Harding

The Leap/Watershed


In Tate Modern

Level 3: A Year in Art: Australia 1992

Level 3: A Year in Art: Australia 1992
Dale Harding born 1982
Pigment and acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1802 × 2402 × 32 mm
Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, with support from the Qantas Foundation 2015, purchased 2019


The Leap/Watershead 2017 is a large-scale work by the Aboriginal Australian artist Dale Harding. It is executed in coloured pigment on linen, fixed with a clear acrylic binding agent. The image appears to be abstract, with a concentrated area of dense brown emerging from the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas. The remainder of the image is more fragmented, reminiscent of dust particles and airbrushing techniques. Although given the designation of ‘painting’ by the artist, the work was created using a device through which ochre pigment was blown onto the surface of the canvas. The two types of ochre used, Ghungalu red and Garingbal light, are historically associated with the two Aboriginal Australian groups in central Queensland from which Harding is descended, having been used by these communities for hundreds and thousands of years for both practical and artistic reasons, including rock and bark painting, body decoration and mortuary practices.

Harding has described how the work was initially an attempt to completely cover the surface in a single block of colour, in the manner of abstract colour field painting, but blowing the pigment onto the canvas. He began by creating a foundational under-layer of light ochre onto which the red ochre was intended to be laid as a blanket top colour. The final fragmented form was a consequence of the artist being prohibited by physical exhaustion in completing his original objective. He explained: ‘Working in close succession of days, and simultaneously working on the white ochre canvas also, the red came to a natural endpoint far from achieving a complete red field. I’d stressed and injured my body in an attempt to cover so much surface area by breath, and the red could not be completed.’ (Dale Harding, informal notes on the artwork, correspondence with curators at MCA Australia and Tate, October 2018).

Upon seeing the angular form that emerged from the haze of pigment, Harding was reminded of the form of Blackdown Tableland – a dominant landform in the heart of Ghungalu country, and the headwaters of numerous creeks including the Mimosa Creek that supplies water to Woorabinda, in central Queensland. The title of the work refers to a nearby geographical location in the Mackay Region of Queensland that carries historical significance in being the site of a massacre of a large group of Aboriginal people in the 1860s. Fleeing certain rifle assault from a fleet of the Queensland Native Police, the group leapt to their deaths from the cliff edge of Mount Mandarana. There was purportedly one single survivor – a baby whose blanket became caught on a protruding branch, breaking its fall.

The Leap/Watershead was originally conceived as one panel of a triptych. In the event, the artist decided that all three parts should be individual works in their own right. The other two paintings, both made in 2017, are titled White Ground and Associative/Dissociative, and are respectively coloured with solid white ochre and solid Reckitt’s blue. They are in two separate private collections in Brisbane, Australia.

Although the work diverges from the stencilling technique of the site-specific commissions with which Harding made his name – such as those he completed for Documenta 14 in 2017 and the Liverpool Biennial in 2018 – The Leap/Watershead shares the same thematic concerns of the artist’s wider practice. This includes the desire to highlight the ways in which stories and artistic techniques are passed down through generations, beyond written texts and mainstream narratives. Harding identifies himself as a descendant of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples of central Queensland and his work is informed by this heritage. Stencilling, for example, forms a core part of his practice in allowing him to perform the same techniques undertaken by his ancestors. Harding’s multi-layered practice gives visual expression to the complex and often painful hidden histories of violence and discrimination enacted against aboriginal communities. His work also addresses the wider legacies of colonialism and globalisation.

Further reading
Clive Moore, ‘Blackgin’s Leap: A Window into Aboriginal-European Relations in the Pioneer Valley, Queensland in the 1860s’, Aboriginal History, vol.14, nos.1/2, 1990, pp.61–79.

Katy Wan
October 2018

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Display caption

The Leap/Watershed was made using coloured ochre (clay pigments) from Ghungalu and Garingbal country, which Harding blew directly onto the canvas. The technique is used in the ancient rock art galleries of Carnarvon Gorge in Ghungalu country. After making a partial form, Harding was reminded of Blackdown Tableland, a plateau overlooking Ghungalu country. Many of the creeks in the surrounding area flow from there, hence the title Watershed. The Leap refers to a nearby rock formation in the Mackay region where, in 1867, around 200 Aboriginal people were forced to jump off a cliff to escape from the Queensland Native Police Force.

Gallery label, July 2021

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