Harris mural: who is listening to the survivors?

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It is nine months since Rolf Harris was convicted on child sex charges, but the official debate over the future of his council-owned mural in Warrnambool is yet to begin. Image: sbs.com.au

Analysis – Carol Altmann

I must admit that I thought it would have happened by now: that the Warrnambool City Council would have asked survivors of sexual assault what they thought should be done with the Rolf Harris mural at the Lighthouse Theatre.

Especially given that the council met last night (23/2) for its briefing – which is closed to the public – and was asked to adopt a recommendation at its meeting next Monday (2/3) that the mural be kept, but covered by black perspex, as it is now.

It is nine months since the council knew it had a problem on its hands, when Harris was convicted and sentenced in the UK on a string of sexual offences against young girls.

It is three months since his avenues of appeal lapsed.

But as of today, Tuesday February 24, only one person from within the entire council and its elected officials had bothered to contact the South Western Centre Against Sexual Assault or Emma House Domestic Violence Services to ask their opinion. (That was Cr Peter Hulin).

In the meantime, in light of his conviction, Harris’s works have been removed from public galleries around the world, his impromptu mural in a Melbourne paint shop has been painted over, he has lost his place in the Australian Recording Industry Association hall of fame, he has been stripped of a fellowship in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and, as of earlier this week, was no longer an Officer and Member of the Order of Australia.

In Warrnambool, however, the council has apparently made up its mind to keep the mural without consulting anyone.

Rolf Harris mural
The Harris mural in the Lighthouse Theatre loading dock has been temporarily covered with black perspex. Image: Warrnambool City Council.

We contacted SW CASA manager Mary Clapham today for her thoughts on the mural.

This is Ms Clapham’s written response in full:

“Previous comments by the South Western Centre Against Sexual Assault as part of the public discussion of whether or not the local mural painted by Rolf Harris should be removed, have highlighted the very real possibility of this mural causing significant additional distress for people who have previously been impacted upon by the sexual abuse of children by paedophiles.

Many people, if not necessarily a victim themselves, may have been a parent, brother, sister, friend or relative of a child who was sexually abused and bear witness to the devastating impact it has upon individuals and families.

With sexual assault being as prevalent as it is within most communities (1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are abused before the age of 18 years), the community discussion currently being generated will include the voices of people who have been impacted upon by sexual assault and these are the people who have a right to be asked and listened to regarding the next steps for the Rolf Harris mural.

Regardless of the assigned artistic virtue of an art installation, an integral part of the public display of art is the honour associated with having that work displayed.

The Warrnambool City Council has rightly negated the honour previously afforded to Rolf Harris by covering up the Warrnambool mural. The South Western Centre Against Sexual Assault supports no community honour being afforded to any perpetrator of sexual violence against children, including Rolf Harris.”

rolf mural
The mural painted by Harris in 1986 – the time some of his offences took place. Image: Jeremy Lee, ABC South-West Victoria.

We also contacted Emma House manager Pat McLaren to ask her opinion.

“We would like to see it painted over. It needs to be painted over so that it is obliterated forever, just like Frank Penhalluriack did in Melbourne without any problems whatsoever,” Ms McLaren said by telephone.

“This not censorship: this is about taking a stand against pedophilia.

“It is a piece of art on council property. It is not a piece of art that is bought and sold. Council needs to take a stand against sexual assault and grooming and all of the other things that Rolf Harris has been convicted of: these are not allegations, these are crimes proven in a court of law.

“The Australian Government has taken a stand, we need to do the same,” she said.

Ms McLaren said the council had quite rightly waited for any appeal before taking any permanent action, but now that the appeal had failed and Harris’s conviction stands, the council needed to renew the conversation about the future of the mural.

“It is not just a decision for the council to make, but one that the community must make. The council needs to be talking to people across the community.”

None of this matters, however, because the councillors, it appears, have made up their minds already.

The vote next Monday – and the arguments put forward – will no doubt be fascinating, but if anyone other than Cr Hulin claims to have consulted with those who support survivors of sexual assault in making their decision, they are wrong.

9 thoughts on “Harris mural: who is listening to the survivors?”

  1. I wonder if Neil Mitchell on talk back radio would like to take this to his listeners for their thoughts on the matter ?

  2. I totally agree with the views from Mary Clapham & Pat McLaren……Tis a sad refection on W’bool City(with City needing to be underlined) that this matter has not yet been dealt with. Can only imagine what the victims of sexual assualt can be feeling with regards to Rolf Hariss painting still hanging in the public eye!!!!! When will the non-thinking councillors let the forward thinking councillors get on with the job they have been elected to do…..To represent their community, for the betterment of their community.
    Tis a shameful blank on Warrnambool……and seeing the perspex is indeed a serious & sad joke.

  3. Well done Carol!! Takes courage to pursue this. Gosh..I’m so wimpy about saying anything after the response I got in the Standard. Why are people so resistant to making changes that will perhaps instigate an effort to say no to violence of all kinds. I’ve had time to process a lot of emotion over this issue. I don’t wish to be vindictive towards anyone..including perpetrators, as they were not born abusive and were probably violated themselves as children. I dont wish to damage any “Art”..Even crappy stuff. Nobody would really want to create on such a despairing, un- hallowed surface. I would hope this city would have the courage to paint over this mural..Leave the space white and put up a plaque explaining that this mural has been removed as a mark of respect and assurance to everyone who has been sexually abused. That Warrnambool has the fortitude to take a small step towards eradicating violence would be both heartening and inspiring. Congratulations Bluestone on providing a “Safe Place” for people to form and express opinions.

  4. On reflection, I firmly believe this issue will have to go to the media…….Will be contacting the correct personal tomorrow……..This will NOT be shoved under the carpet. This lack of representation by the people of Warrnambool will be shown up on a national media coverage…… Warrnambool City Council will be made to answer some adult questions, rather than hiding behind perspex. This matter MUST be dealt with on a public & national forum………Watch the national news boys!!!!!!!

    1. Bluestone Magazine is the media Jen! But all power to you for wanting to take the issue beyond the boundaries of south-west Vic – we will watch this space.

  5. Whilst the community debates this issue, the block out Perspex is I think appropriate. Painting over the wall is one solution. But there is an opportunity here to create a new artwork which conveys a positive expression of hope for victims, and for all of us – and this could be truly a work of art.

  6. Wrong again Bluestone…I contacted SWCASA and local FProject artists the day after Harris was first convicted to seek their views. I then contacted The Standard to broaden the discussion across the community to include the feelings and experiences of local women and children who are survivors of family violence. I do believe I told you that Carol Altman. As a former councillor at CASA in Warrnambool for seven years, I have an accute understanding of the feelings of local survivors, and I find your one dimensional portrayal of the so called ‘Council view’ to be unfortunate and not of value to the discussion in the community. I also support the views of SWCASA manager Mary Clapham.

    1. Not sure about the ‘wrong again’ comment Cr Ermacora, but we spoke to both organisations yesterday and this was their response, not mine.
      CASA was very clear that, as far as they could recall, they had been contacted only by Cr Hulin.
      I certainly don’t recall you telling me this earlier. Perhaps more importantly, given where the discussion is up to, you can tell our readers what you intend to vote for on this issue: removal or covering with perspex?
      I am still trying to clarify with Mary Clapham if her statement supports removal or covering with perspex.

  7. Oh, Councillor Jacinta Ermacora, now is your big chance to be very clear. Please continue the discussion, so we are all very clear what your words mean. As a person who worked in counselling, you must know the importance of good communication. It would also be good if you could convince your fellow councillors to speak to the Bluestone community. Especially those who cannot attend open council meetings.

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