Big Vision: The Sydney Murals of Carol RuffPosted: May 11, 2016
The mural stretches across the long wall of the railway bridge across from Redfern train station. It is a reminder to all who pass that this is Aboriginal land with its figures and footprints and the two curving lines of text, lines from a song by Joe Geia of No Fixed Address.
The 40000 years mural, as it has come to be known, was designed by artist Carol Ruff in 1983. Ruff collaborated with a team of artists and locals to create a mural that would mark a sense of place and identity for Aboriginal Redfern. Carol and fellow artist Tracey Moffatt set up in an empty shop on nearby Lawson Street, inviting people to drop by with their suggestions for what to include in the design. The mural came to life as people contributed ideas, and Carol met with prominent members of the community such as Mum Shirl (Shirley Smith), and Norma Williams of the Aboriginal Medical Service to talk with them about the project. Norma Williams’ portrait is included in the mural beside the Aboriginal flag, a flag that was at the time only a little more than ten years old.
That the Redfern mural, and many of her other murals from that period, have survived, is a surprise to Carol. “I never expected them to last,” she says, “they were painted with acrylic house paint, and then I would guarantee they would last about 5 or 10 years and if it looked rubbishy after that, well, maybe you should put something else up.”
But nobody put anything else up on the Redfern rail bridge wall. From the start locals loved the mural that pictured Aboriginal culture, history, and connection to the land. They kept an eye on it to deter vandals and as the mural deteriorated over time did “guerrilla repair work”, fixing it up and repainting bits and pieces. Even now in its faded state the images can still be read as you walk along it, following the rainbow snake that links the image. Soon the mural will be bright again. Plans are proceeding for its restoration, involving the complete repainting of the original design.
The persistence of the Redfern mural, and other murals from the early 1980s, is the persistence of the energy and ideals of that time in public art. Carol Ruff was one of a number of mural artists working at the time whose work can still be seen around Sydney, including Peter Day of the King George VI mural in the Rocks, Merilyn Fairskye and Michiael Dolk of the Green Bans murals in Woolloomooloo, and David Humphries and Rodney Monk of the Public Art Squad, responsible for the Peace, Justice and Unity mural of hands and doves on Pilgrim House in central Sydney.
I went to meet Carol at her gallery in Clovelly, among a row of 1920s shops a few streets back from the ocean. The gallery was exhibiting the final show for the year and we sat surrounded by paintings, some on canvas and some on ukuleles, as the gallery hosts a triennial exhibition of ukuleles hand-painted by Australian artists. It was late afternoon and as we spoke magpies sung in the trees outside, and people walked slowly past the windows, returning from the beach.
Carol is a painter, filmmaker and performer, in addition to her mural work which spanned the 80s and 90s. Before working as a mural painter she had studied fine arts and then worked a children’s theatre performer, travelling Australia telling stories at libraries and for arts festivals. After moving to Sydney in 1980 she joined the burgeoning mural-painting scene and became known for her figurative and narrative work which captured the communities within which they were painted.
The Redfern mural was painted at the height of a mural fervour that dominated the public arts in Australia in the early 1980s. The 1970s and 80s were an era in which art and activism were strongly linked in popular forms such as murals, or the posters produced by Earthworks or the Tin Sheds. Of murals Carol describes how “we were very into art for the people, getting the art out of the galleries, putting it on the public walls, so that everybody could access it.”
Carol’s first mural project was in 1979, painted on the walls of the pedestrian underpass at Mount Druitt train station. It was a school holiday activity for local kids, who included in the design an object of primary importance to the life of a child in 1980: a Space Invaders Machine. After another school holiday mural project in Hobart, she moved on to community murals that linked ordinary people and everyday experiences with broader social struggles.
Of the murals Carol worked on in Sydney and beyond – including Alice Springs, Townsville, Adelaide, and Port Moresby – many had a message of social justice, be it land rights, women’s rights, rights and recognition for older people, and community diversity. “We took the murals really seriously,” Carol says, “developing what would go into them and what wouldn’t, what was the right political position, and what people wanted.” This process varied from mural to mural, depending on the theme and the location. In Redfern the Lawson Street shopfront was the base for the mural artists. For the Randwick “Proud of Our Elders” mural it was the Coogee women’s baths.
Carol with Eve Glenn, Sarah McNamara and Barbary O’Brien, formed the “La Loop” mural group for the Randwick project, named after the former Belmore Road tram loop nearby. They would start their day doing laps at the McIvers Baths, the women’s pool built in 1886 at the southern end of Coogee beach, and it was here their ideas for the mural took shape. Pictured in “Proud of Our Elders” are two women connected with the baths, Doris Hyde, president of the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Swimming Club, and Alice Gundry who guarded the entrance, ensuring everyone paid the 20 cent entrance fee. The namesake of Wylie’s Baths Mina Wylie, swimmer and Olympic medallist from the 1912 games, is also present in the mural, depicted as a young woman, her bathing costume decorated with medals.
After their morning laps the La Loop group went to the Randwick and District Historical Society at Sandgate Cottage, the sandstone house next to the wall where the mural was to be painted. “We were in and out of there all the time,” Carol remembers, “we went through a fortune on tea and finger buns”. Tea and buns fuelled their afternoon tea research trips and the cast of the mural took shape: Harry Read, an ex-jockey who once rode at the nearby Randwick Racecourse and was now the university gatekeeper; Ollie Simms, then the oldest Aboriginal woman in the La Perouse community; and at the top of the mural Greta Fyson, a woman from the nearby nursing home who spent her days sitting feeding the pigeons in the square.
When Carol restored Proud of Our Elders in 2012 she was surprised how many people came up to her with stories about the people in the mural. “These were ordinary people, not famous people, but people came flocking down to say ‘oh we knew Harry Read’ or ‘we knew Doris’.”
While the murals in Randwick and Redfern have been candidates for restoration, the “Women On the Edge of Town” mural on the side of the Domain Parking Station has deteriorated. It was painted throughout October 1982 as part of the inaugural, state government-funded Women and Arts festival.
Carol describes the wall as “shaped like a piece of cake”, a long wedge extending down from the Domain to Wolloomooloo below. It was designed by Carol with Jan MacKay and Marie McMahon, who were later joined by Hellen Sky and Barbary O’Brien. The end closest to the city was painted by the artist Nora Bindul, who had travelled from the Northern Territory to work on the mural. At the far end Ella Geia, a friend of Carol’s from Palm Island, is painted standing in a kitchen, a Torres Strait Island handkerchief painted with flowers in one hand. The mural also included Judy McGee, the singer, synthesiser and saxophone player from postpunk band Pel Mel, and dancer Sylvia Blanco, who went on to be a leading member of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. Although the mural had a broader scope than those painted within specific suburban communities, it was like all of Carol’s murals populated by real people and their stories.
The mural was launched with a stage set up for bands, dancers performing on the surrounding lawn, and speeches reflecting on the Women and Arts Festival. Throughout October, as well as celebration, the festival had attracted a fair amount of criticism from those who believed it to be tokenistic. During the mural launch members of the Arts Workers’ Union stood up with placards protesting the premier, Neville Wran’s, “cosmetic job” and “festivile”, with one placard declaring “Wran farts on women and arts”. This moment Carol remembers with some chagrin, as she had been unaware the protest was to occur. “I got into a lot of trouble for that!”
A mural painted in Tasmania the following year also became a site of controversy. On this project Carol was working with another Sydney muralist known for her political work, Merilyn Fairskye. They designed and painted a semi-abstracted landscape on the side wall of a Coles New World supermarket in the Hobart suburb of Kingston, the first in a proposed series sponsored by the supermarket chain.
During their time in Hobart working on the mural Merilyn and Carol discovered the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. It came as a surprise: a few years earlier the documentary film “The Last Tasmanian” had come out, with the story of Truganini, purportedly the last Tasmanian Aboriginal, who had died in 1876. At the centre Carol and Merilyn met Tasmanian Aboriginal writers and activists fighting for recognition. They decided to paint into the mural a newspaper text they had seen at the centre: We are still here. There are over 4000 of us, we have an unbroken link with the past. We are a people. We are survivors.
The artists approached Coles New World with their proposal to add the words to the mural, but were refused. “We basically graffitied it into our own mural,” Carol says, describing how they worked stealthily in the dark to paint the words into the design. The next morning, with the Aboriginal flag raised on the scaffolding, they were removed by security. The mural was then painted over. Despite its brief existence, “at the time it was the mural I was most famous for, the mural that never actually stayed on the wall.”
Many of the murals Carol has designed include text, like the “40 000 years” lyric of the Redfern mural, or the brief biographies of the people featured on “Proud of Our Elders”. Even on the much deteriorated Domain women’s mural many of the words painted into the design are still visible through the grime and spraypainted tags: we are our history, we are our culture, we are our land, we are now. The mural included messages about domestic labour, factory labour, and the health effects of increasing computerisation of office work. On the mural the slogans are presented amid the coffee cups, vinyl records and apartment buildings of everyday scenes.
As we talk at the gallery Carol shows me through folders of photographs of her many mural projects. Here are the Mount Druitt kids and the Space Invaders machine in the underpass mural. And Alice Gundry of the women’s baths cutting the ribbon in front of “Proud of Our Elders” on the opening day of the mural. “She was blind,” Carol tells me, “so we had to put the ribbon in the scissors”. Across the black and white photograph the ribbon is hand-painted pink.
Looking through the photographs of the murals is a window into a time that Carol describes as brief and vibrant, “part of an intense political craze for public art that meant something.” She notes that while murals have returned to popularity they tend towards the decorative, rather than the political, and don’t have the detailed community involvement in the designs that was so important to her public murals.
It is the political messages and the power of community memory that has become the legacy of these 1980s murals, presenting an activism bound up with everyday lives and places, and a time of optimism for art’s role in social change. As Carol works towards the restoration of the 40,000 years mural, writing up its history, it is the history of the mural but also the history of the Redfern community.
While in some ways it is surprising the murals have endured for so long, in others ways it isn’t, for they are product and part of their environments. Along with the poems, stories, or songs that become important in popular memory, these murals create a connection to places and times, to communities, and to struggles that are still ongoing.
Thank you to Carol Ruff for talking with me about her work, and generously sharing images from her archives. Thank you also to the Space, Place and Country research group at Sydney College of the Arts, who hosted the Refern Mural Gathering in November 2015.