Today, on the anniversary of his birth, NAISDA celebrates a pioneering figure in the Australian arts, Harold Blair AM. A talented artist, educator and activist, Harold helped pave the way for the many Aboriginal artists who have followed in his footsteps and exemplified the power of perseverance in the face of adversity.
We were lucky to hear from two people about how this remarkable man impacted their lives – NAISDA Board Director Deborah Cheetham AO and Harold’s own daughter, NAISDA Board of Studies Chairperson, Dr Nerida Blair.
We are thrilled to have an opportunity to share these stories with you.
On Harold Blair, by Deborah Cheetham AO
In 1949, a 25 year old Aboriginal tenor emerged from the cane fields of Queensland. After gaining his diploma at Melba Conservatorium, he began a career that was to span almost 30 years. His name was Harold Blair.
In 1973, he sang in the Aboriginal-themed opera, Dalgerie, at the Sydney Opera House. He made numerous concert appearances.
Harold Blair was the first. It is never easy to be the first. He was a leader at a time when Australia wasn’t sure what to do with Aboriginal or Indigenous leadership. But Harold could sing. With his voice and dedication to his professional development, he far transcended the status of non citizenship imposed on Aboriginal people prior to 1967.
He remains an inspiration to many including myself and I am honoured to be doing my part to continue his legacy in the realm of classical vocal music.
– Deborah Cheetham AO
An Interview with Dr Nerida Blair
Tell us a little bit about your father in your own words
Dad was a larger-than-life sort of person in so many different ways. He died in 1976, which was a very long time ago now, but still has a large presence in my mum’s and my life. He had one of those big belly laughs – the kind where when he laughed, you laughed with him.
I had a strong relationship with him and often got to go along with him to the important events and conferences he was involved in. At the time, it was amazing. In retrospect, I was so lucky to be a part of these forums that changed the way we looked at Aboriginality and included so many influential people.
Your father was an inspirational man to many, how would you say he inspired your career path or any other aspects of your life?
We were both involved in Aboriginal education, but I would say that I wanted to be a teacher from day one. There was something in me that always wanted to do that, even before he got into it.
My father was the first Aboriginal music teacher in Victoria. I remember when he was studying at Melbourne Teacher’s College and invited me to come along with him one day. On the way, we passed the cinema and Sidney Poitier’s To Sir With Love was playing so we went in and watched it. There’s two times I’ve seen him cry in his life, that was one of them. I think it’s because the movie really resonated with what he was trying to achieve and what he was experiencing.
He was teaching at a school in a low socio-economic area so the students he was working with were quite disengaged, they weren’t really connected to music. He was passionate about education and worked hard to connect with his students. Eventually, he ended up with a choir that won eisteddfods.
Through him, I also developed a passion for music and the arts, which is one of the reasons I started my relationship with NAISDA so many years ago.
Of the many accomplishments that your father achieved throughout his life, are there any that particularly stand out or resonate with you?
I’d say his survival.
He went from a mission to Melbourne to New York in a matter of years, and from illiteracy to literacy in a matter of years. Not to mention the role of activism that he took on in a time of immense change and significance for Aboriginal people.
Although he was relatively young when he passed away, it is so impressive to me that he survived through all of this.
NAISDA would like to thank Dr Nerida Blair for sharing her fond memories of her father on this special day.