The back story of ”We Scar Many Trees” with the artist, Uncle Mick Harding
June 20, 2023
Uncle Mick is a proud Taungurung Elder of the Yowong-Illam-Baluk and Nattarak Baluk clans of the Taungurung Nation and takes pride in sharing cultural narratives through his work. He describes art as a ‘rainbow of many things’, which is fitting for someone that specialises in many different mediums including wood working, sculpture, and printmaking. He has his own family art business called Ngarga Warendj (Dancing Wombat) producing beautiful hand-made cultural items and gifts.
He likes to push the boundaries with his art practice. His most recent project called ‘We Scar Many Trees’ took an innovative approach by taking an age-old cultural practice of scarring trees and presenting it as a contemporary art form. Working alongside his sons Mitchil and Corey they expressed cultural stories within the scarred trees across the entire length of the Great Victorian Rail Trail. Uncle Mick cites this project as one of his most proud because of the opportunity to pass on cultural knowledge to his sons as part of the process.
We yarn with Uncle Mick to delve into his unique art story and find out more about his works on the recently launched Art on the Great Victorian Rail Trail.
What does Country mean to you?
Country means everything to me. As someone who does not live on Dhagungwurrung/Taungurung Country, every time I come back, I feel a sense of belonging, and often a sense of calmness. I love being around Taungurung people, doing things together to look after our Country for the next generations. Being able to teach the younger ones my same ethics and principles so that hopefully they can look after Country in a similar way. Our Country does not look exactly like it did years and years ago, and with technology always improving, I wish and hope that we can get Country back to how it used to be, or close to it. It could take 5 or 10 generations to get it back, but that is always my hope. Water is also an important thing for me. I feel connected and inspired around our waterways and this is something we need to concentrate more on.
You are skilled artisan, tell us about your art practice, your business and what inspires the work you do?
It all started back in the early 80’s, I started going over to Healesville to visit my cousins to learn more about who we were. Then in the late 80's going to Gippsland to do an Aboriginal studies course at university. Then completing an Aboriginal site officer traineeship in Melbourne, I came back to Gippsland as an Aboriginal Site Officer with a mob called Victoria Archaeological Survey (VAS). I moved around a lot, all around the State working in Aboriginal cultural heritage. Whilst meeting some incredible people. I learnt a lot about the meaning of symbols, and how they were used in the past, and connected with so many different people from all different mobs across Victoria, which really informed and inspired my art practice. ' So, I decided to do an art course at TAFE, which led me to eventually completing a masters in fine art at university. And from there I opened my own business. I started as a sole trader making artefacts, and as the business grew, I expanded my artist abilities. There have since been many commissions. My wife came on board as my business partner and soon after both my sons joined us, and eventually became full-time staff. One of their partners also works as a casual as well. My dream is for TLaWC to buy a property somewhere on the Goulburn, close to the main highways where they can build a cultural/convention/exhibition centre, and have people come to our place to experience our perspective. Also, for our community to have access to a place that belongs to us so we can have a yarn and connect, imagining what the future looks like for our people and our Country. A centre of and for Aboriginal excellence on our Country.
You’ve created a trail length series of scarred trees along the Great Vic Rail Trail, what was special about this project for you?
By far this was one of the most special projects I have been a part of, as both my sons Mitchil and Corey worked alongside me for over 10 weeks, over a 6–7-month period. Whilst we found over 200 trees we could scar, we scarred and carved 20. Being able to be on Country with my sons, teaching them how to scar a tree is something I just cannot explain. Being with each other as a family, bonding and learning, it is just something that today's society doesn’t allow for anymore, so this was really nice to complete, and at the end of the project both my sons were really confident in scarring trees. I would love to do some more and get community involved, show them how to do it. Perhaps have a tour and visit some of the trees we scarred.
Tell us about the cultural practice of scarring a tree and why this is still a significant cultural practice today.
Back before invasion, bark vessels were used for collecting foods, building rooves for homes, holding water, canoes, and as a cradle for our babies. Although we might not be scarring a tree for the same reason as our Ancestors did, the stories and the meanings are still the same. We are connecting with our Culture and Country. Although we are using modern tools, we are continuing our cultural traditions. For Culture to stay alive, we must adapt to new technology. Human beings are storytellers – it is our story that stays alive, it is not just about the axe you are using, it is the story you are telling.
Is there a particular commission, artwork or collaboration that you’re most proud of?
There is a lot I’m proud of, however I think for me the ones that stand out are the ones where my family is involved. One, being the most current one which was the Great Vic Rail Trail project, and two, my final piece for my masters. I created a song and dance piece, which was filmed. I had about 27 pieces of artwork displayed, all hung up, side by side. My two sons and myself were painted white, projecting us over the artwork – it looked like figures with moving artwork. I’m most proud of these because I have done them with both Mitchil and Corey, there is just something so special when I have achieved something with my family, it creates a warm memory. Not too many people get to enjoy that relationship in the modern world.
What advice would you give to emerging Taungurung artists?
Know and understand your copyright, it's so important. If we are connecting with Aboriginal stories and artwork, we are selling the artwork and generally not selling the copyright. “I’m just a phone call away”. A young Taungurung artist reached out to me regarding an artwork she was asked to produce for NAIDOC Week, we bounced some licence agreements around and I picked the right one for her and it turned out to be a successful licence. If we don’t protect our copyright, we are selling our stories, our symbols, and all our people out from the past, our people of today, and all our people of the future. I’m always happy passing on my advice to Taungurung artists and people.
What advice would you give to businesses wanting to commission a Taungurung artist?
I am really keen on producing an artist’s framework with guidelines for people who are interested in commissioning artwork. Everyone needs to be on the same page and there needs to be a process in place that confirms this. It’s important to know our expectations and protect our people (past, present, and future), our stories, and our symbols.
Any final words on art, creativity or culture or the congruence of them all?
Art as a spectrum of knowing, is part of the essence of wellbeing. If we talk about expression, we have been using a system of knowing who we are, how to connect with our Ancestors and our Country, for thousands of years. I think it’s the secret to wellbeing, everyone having access to some sort of creative base to be able to express themselves. I think the more we invest in that, we are on a really good road for wellbeing.
To find out more about Uncle Mick's work or to get in touch please visit ngarga warendj