The London-based 78-year-old artist and performer made the comments to the media last week after watching a documentary about a Northern Territory Aboriginal community. "You sit at home watching the television and you think to yourself , 'Get up off your arse and clean up the streets your bloody self, and why would you expect somebody to come in and clean up your garbage, which you've dumped everywhere,' but then you have to think to yourself: 'It's a different attitude to life,'" Harris said last week.
He went on to argue that Aboriginal children would wreck all their possessions and that the disorderly state of Aboriginal communities was a result of cultural traditions.
At yesterday's opening of the National Portrait Gallery, designed by architect Richard Johnson, Aboriginal public administrator and former Australian of the Year Lowitja O'Donoghue, whose portrait hangs prominently, confronted Harris over the remarks privately in the gallery's upstairs area.
"She said, 'How could you say that?' … You think you're talking quietly off the record about things that you feel, and then you see it printed up and you think, 'God, did I say that? Did I mean that?' I didn't mean that. I would just like to apologise for any offence that I've caused and put it behind me," Harris told The Age yesterday.
He attempted to qualify his comments, saying he was trying to explain problems of dysfunctional Aboriginal communities.