H.J. Wedge was born around 1958 on Erambie Mission, Cowra, in New South Wales. He proudly acknowledges his Wiradjuri heritage in many of his paintings. The experience of the colonisation of the Wiradjuri was different to other Indigenous experiences in Australia and is expressed in their own aesthetic forms; historically, painting was not as widely used in the Wiradjuri culture as it was in other regions of the country.
H.J. Wedge is an artist who has had the most unusual of careers. Although currently living on the borderline of poverty in the Cowra mission, where he has been for around thirty of his fifty years, his art has been seen by thousands of people and, for many, represents exemplary contemporary art.
What separates Wedge’s work from that of other Aboriginal artists is his bold use of colour and contemporary subject matter, which deals with social and political issues more relevant to Aboriginal people living in an urban context than the traditional cultural information that defines many other styles of contemporary Indigenous art. He has produced hundreds of images documenting his experiences and memories as an Aboriginal man, observations that are sometimes quotidian and sometimes shockingly confrontational.
Being illiterate, H.J. Wedge uses his art as a way of communicating his stories and perceptions as an Indigenous person in contemporary Australia. Many non-Indigenous Australians appear interested only in the traditional and ancestral themes of Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal people from New South Wales in particular have faced community perceptions that they were assimilated long ago, and that the only Indigenous culture that survives is in remote areas.
Wedge bypassed the cultural baggage associated with many other Australian artists’ art education by studying art history at Eora College, an Aboriginal institution. Traditional cultural information informs most Aboriginal art, but for a long time Aboriginal people lost or were denied access to, and expression of, their own culture; they lost a basic human right. Contemporary art allows them to speak to the wider Australian community. Contemporary art does not need the English language to explain itself, and perhaps this is another reason for the huge interest in Aboriginal art internationally.
It is a sad fact that for many Aboriginal artists lack of education is a serious barrier to the contemporary art world. For some, an even greater barrier is the fear of being perceived by other Aboriginal people as ‘acting white’. To achieve equity and balance in the representation of Indigenous art as contemporary art is an ongoing issue; the inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in Australian art displays following the major bicentenary survey exhibitions of 1988 is an unresolved aspect of the ‘history wars’, currently being played out in Australian political, social and academic circles.
After Wedge first showed his work with Ian Abdulla at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney in 1991, a new aesthetic of Aboriginal art seemed to emerge, where the subject matter rather than artistic technique was of primary concern. Other Indigenous artists, such as Elaine Russell, Leonie Dennis and, recently, Roy Kennedy developed a bold, naive style to illustrate their memories of growing up in rural Australia, in many instances focusing on the defining factors of poverty and discrimination, but also on how Indigenous people made the most of their lives and experiences. This graphic, naive style of making art has allowed many Aboriginal people with local histories and stories that challenge the one-sided historical record in Australian museums and libraries access to contemporary art. And it is a way of making art that suits older artists who lack the formal education most non-Indigenous people take for granted.
H.J. Wedge has suffered many personal setbacks, which have inevitably shaped his art, including alcoholism, hospitalisation and imprisonment. Many other Australian artists represented in our state and national art collections have also lived outside mainstream society and rejected society’s dominant values, yet they have ultimately had acceptance in wider society.
For Wedge, his outsider status has affected his relationship with his family, his community and other Aboriginal artists. He is an outsider within his own community and is outside the Australian art establishment. His lack of education is the barrier, but it is also what makes Wedge’s art unique. And this duality in his paintings is evidence that what can give a work of art its power is that its very status as art would be vehemently disputed by some.