Rolf Harris sketch removed from regional theatre to take a stand against sexual assault
A number of Rolf Harris works have been fiercely debated since his conviction in 2014. (Photo: Supplied)
A sketch by convicted sex offender Rolf Harris has been painted over at a theatre in regional South Australia, four years after the performer was convicted of indecent assault and a week after a picture of the sketch appeared online.
Harris sketched two images onto a signature wall backstage at Port Pirie’s Northern Festival Centre in 1984 and 1989 at the height of his fame.
The sketch of his head on the body of a kangaroo featured prominently on the wall, which is seen by professional and community performers who use the space.
The disgraced performer was convicted in 2014 in the United Kingdom of indecently assaulting four girls.
Cities across Australia have grappled with the issue of keeping or removing his works since his conviction.
In 2015, the Warrnambool City Council voted to obscure a Harris mural at its Lighthouse Theatre.
A stand against sexual assault
Chief executive officer of Country Arts South Australia (CASA), Steve Saffell, said he had only recently become aware of the sketch.
“I have been wandering the back passages of the Northern Festival Centre for 25 years and I’ve never seen it,” Mr Saffell said.
“Clearly it is in a spot that’s not accessible to many people but performers in the centre do walk past it.”
He said removing the work took a stand against sexual assault and aligned with the organisation’s values.
“There are arguments either side whether it should be kept there or not. On balance I have taken the view that more people would rather see it go than not, and so I have instructed that it be removed.
“It reflects that as a society we’ve moved on markedly and whist we have many talented individuals, I think we have a responsibility to be accountable for actions and take the necessary action ourselves.”
Mr Saffell said no formal consultation with the local artistic community took place before removing the work and confirmed no other Rolf Harris works were in any other regional theatres CASA managed.
“We’re not going to waste too much time on it but when the public bring this to us we have to act and that’s what we’ve done.”
‘An exciting and different step forward’
Local performer Dil Simmons said he fully supported CASA’s decision to remove the work.
Gone: Country Arts SA removed the Rolf Harris sketch to take a stand against sexual assault. (Supplied: Country Arts SA)
“It is a really exciting and different step forward — it’s outstanding,” Mr Simmons said.
“It will still really impact me knowing that it was there, but for CASA to make such a bold statement in defence of victims is something I really stand by.
“I was very confident in the theatre that they would do the right thing in the essence of the theatre.”
He said there were many options that could be explored to commemorate the sketch and the reasons for its removal.
“It’s a great opportunity to perhaps present that spirit of legacy because that wall does represent the legacy of that theatre,” Mr Simmons said.
“Because they have made such a strong statement in defence of those who have lived with sexual assault, there could be some creative input … but it could be difficult to find something to adequately replace it.”
An end to a complex discussion
Chairperson of local production company Southern Flinders Players, Rennae Vincent-Heylen, said CASA was “quick to take action” but was not concerned about the lack of formal consultation.
“Being that it is done I don’t feel as if the arts community need to be offended or upset that they weren’t consulted,” Ms Vincent-Heylen said.
Rennae Vincent-Heylen says the removal of the work brings a complex discussion to a close. (Supplied: Rennae Vincent-Heylen)
“I feel that a lot of the public voice maybe came from people who didn’t understand the context and the purpose of the wall.
“While it doesn’t matter in hindsight, it might have been interesting to hear more from the local arts community and get that sense of whether it was as big of an issue as it seemed to be.”
She said promoting the safety and wellbeing of performers was an important message to send and removing the work did just that.
The Rolf Harris painting of Uluru hanging in the foyer of the Moncrieff Theatre in Bundaberg in 2014. (ABC News)
But she said some might not see it that way.
“On the other hand, it could be seen as a mistake because as we erase history we don’t learn from it as much and by removing it, it’s not a conversation starter … even though I’m not sure if it ever was,” Ms Vincent-Heylen said.
“At the end of the day, I think that most people felt that committing ourselves to safe practice as artists and being careful about actions and the values that we have is more important than the work.”