Excursion and Excavation


A tyre floats like a halo above the Princes Highway. It is one of those corners of the city where time is trapped and stratified: how long it took for the paint to fade, the tree to grow, the chimneys to blacken.


Across the highway the park’s green slopes absorb our footsteps. The sky is big here and criss-crossed by the planes which skim over the city, coming here only to leave again.


The ominous feeling of impending change, undercutting the details of the present.


This month on Mirror Sydney, an excursion beyond the borders of this blog, to a story I wrote for the Sydney Review of Books: please click on through to Excavating St Peters.

This is part of a series of essays of Sydney and NSW regional places the Sydney Review of Books are publishing called Writing NSW. I’ll be speaking at an event at Bankstown Arts Centre associated with this on November 12th, New Geographies. I’ll be speaking about haunting and the urban landscape with Peter Doyle, Anwen Crawford, and Mark Mordue.


Even since this essay was published, things have changed in St Peters. Follow the Westconnex Action Group for updates on the Westconnex monster.

You can also hear me, Sydney Review of Books editor Catriona Menzies-Pike, and writer Suneeta Peres da Costa talking about the series on RN Books and Arts.


Escalating Change

I’ve been writing Mirror Sydney for long enough that many of the places I have featured have now been demolished, or changed, or transformed. On my train trips across the harbour I have been observing the start of the demolition of the Port Operations Tower in Millers Point. The tower at the top is almost gone now. Once it is fully removed the concrete stem below it will be eaten away by robotic excavators from the top down. Could there be a more sci-fi fate than to be eaten by robots?


Scaffolding on the tower at the start of demolition

Despite all the city’s changes there are places that remain stubbornly consistent, and of all the different types of city places the stubborn ones are perhaps my favourites. Stubborn places can quickly turn elusive, though, because coming into notice is usually a harbinger of disappearance. Earlier in the year I had been quietly noting that, despite all the reconstruction at Wynyard station, the trip up to York Street required a journey through the 1930s via the steep, wooden escalators.


So it was no surprise when, back in July, there were reports of their potential removal. The arguments in favour of their replacement were more than simply their age. They pose a fire risk, and the wooden slats can be dangerous, as guide dogs’ claws have become stuck in the wooden steps. But as yet the Office of Environment and Heritage are yet to give their final decision, and the escalators remain for now.

This exit from the train station gives you a triple choice: you can either enter the Concourse Bar with its lingerie-clad bar staff, turn off for a trip along the corridor of a spacecraft (the new Wynyard Walk pedestrian tunnel), or climb aboard the wooden escalators. The row of four escalators, divided by shiny, wood panels have always reminded me of furniture, a sideboard, perhaps, or a cabinet, or a piano. This early photo of them, with one of the wells boarded over, looks even more cabinet-like – and with the added bonus of “shadowless lighting”.


Now panels are decorated by thick, round studs, like the heads of giant wooden nails, no doubt to deter people from sliding down what would otherwise be an excellent slippery dip.

In 1932 when the station opened escalators were regarded as much a novelty as a piece of infrastructure, and article after article in newspapers made mention of them as the city’s latest attraction, a “source of almost endless joy” for children. School groups coming from the country to visit Sydney made certain to ride the escalators for a taste of city life. For those unaccustomed, the Broken Hill newspaper the “Barrier Miner”, described the new contraptions thus (please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know how to use an escalator):

The escalator looks just like an ordinary staircase when it is at rest, but when in motion all that one has to do in order to ascend to the top is to get on the bottom stop, take hold of the rail if desired, and stand quite still and be carried up to the top landing, just as a bucket of ore is carried up on a conveyor belt. At the top the passenger is gently slid on to the solid lauding; but as it seems unlikely at the first glance that the sliding will be as gentle as it really is there is often a bit of a jump by the inexperienced person, though those accustomed to travelling up the machine simply walk straight on as they reach the top.

Even into the 1940s the escalators were still entrancing young visitors.


It wasn’t just children who found the escalators exciting. A 1932 newspaper article describing an acrimonious failed romance between a 50 year old widow and a 70 year old travelling showman made mention of “a happy time riding on the escalators at Wynyard Station”, before the troubles began.

The trip may only take 48 seconds (or 18 if you are a “hustler”), but this is enough time for romance, thrills and altercations. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in Wynyard and choose to travel the 1930s way.



Scrap Yard Spirit

The bus zigzags through Sydenham and St Peters, going east. It travels along Railway Road, past the cappuccino bulging with froth that is painted on the corner cafe, and high up a ghost sign for a newsagent emerging from underneath faded whitewash.

Newsagent Sydenham

Then the buildings come to an end. Twenty years ago the houses here, 152 in all, were demolished due to aircraft noise from the third runway. Their front fences remain, their steps leading up to nothing but the expanse of rarely traversed lawn. Further back, behind the lawns, is a memorial to the demolished houses in the form of an oversized, exterior living room. The giant concrete sofa has tiles decorated by students from Tempe High School, anguished figures of princesses and punks with “go away” speech bubbles.

Sydenham Green_Ceramics

All of this is familiar to me. I know this west to east journey well, the zigzag along narrow roads until they meet up with the Princes Highway. The bus turns and travels along the highway, past the rug shop and the self storage place and the fence with the hole cut in it to reveal the water meter.

water meter

I thought I knew all such notable sights of the Princes Highway, but I was wrong.

I gaze out from the bus window, down past the drab landscaping surrounding the complex of car goods megastores, when my eye catches something. It’s not something I expected to see leaning up at the entrance to a scrap metal yard with a backdrop of shipping containers. The last time I saw this object it was hanging in the centre of Martin Place, glowing above a giant television screen. That was sixteen years ago. But hey, I can still share the spirit.

Rings St Peters

St Peters VB

The Campbell Street Horse

The row of 19th century buildings at the start of Campbell Street are surrounded by more recent, taller buildings, like a piece has been cut out of the modern city to reveal a past version.

Campbell Street 1

The row is a miscellany, each building different. On street level there is a string of Thai groceries with displays of pickled grapes and dried bananas, and posters for the grand opening of a new Crocodile Junior restaurant (Crocodile Senior is around the corner on George Street). Number 14 Campbell Street is a butchery, with cuts of meat laid out in the window. If you find yourself here, stand back and look up, above the butchery and the two levels of barred windows on the upper storeys. The building is painted a liverish red, with white details. It is further decorated by three entwined letters – PRL – in a crest and, at the very top, a wild-eyed horse.

Campbell Horse

The Campbell Street Horse is captured in motion, ears alert, nostrils flaring, mane tossed by the wind. Its eyes are spirals of black paint against the pale, verdigris green, and it watches the city around it warily. It looks over at the outlines of the claw machines inside Purikura Photoland across the street. The horse has seen plenty of amusement fads come and go. Beside Photoland is the Capitol Theatre, a building the horse would have known in its days first as a market, and then a Hippodrome in the 1910s. Under a retractable stage the Hippodrome, run by Wirth’s Circus, had a concrete pool for aquatic shows, sometimes featuring seals and polar bears, other times King Neptune and his attendants.

2012/104/1-3/61 Photographic print, b&w, internal view of the Hippodrome building, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, during a performance of Wirths' Circus, unknown photographer, used by Wirths' Circus family, Australia, c. 1920

Powerhouse Museum: 2012/104/1-3/61 Photographic print, b&w, internal view of the Hippodrome building, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, during a performance of Wirths’ Circus, unknown photographer, used by Wirths’ Circus family, Australia, c. 1920

The horse’s presence on 14 Campbell Street is something of a mystery. Myself and fellow Sydney scrutineer David Lever have puzzled over it again anew in the past few weeks, wondering what could have led it to be the mascot of this building. We followed the building’s previous identities, beginning around 1888 as a pub called the New Haymarket Hotel, then becoming the Nottingham Castle and then the Capitol Hotel. I found plenty of stories of interest, none of which were about horses. There were various accounts of woe and misfortune that took place at the hotel over the years: a man’s death after a fire caused by him smoking in bed, the death of a lion tamer named James Lindo, the arrests of swindlers and rogues. The heritage report on the row of terraces has plenty of information, describing Number 14 as “highly unusual” with “no comparable examples within the City of Sydney”. As compelling as this is, there is still  no mention of the horse.

The initials in the crest were of the man who’d had the buildings constructed, P.R. Larkin. Larkin was known as a publican and liquor wholesaler on George Street. There are plenty of cheerful turn of the century descriptions of the “huge casks filled with spirits fit for the gods” at Larkin’s, but no mention of horses. In those days, though, horses were everyday creatures. The streets were full of horses and carts, people travelled by horse bus, and “block boys” had the dangerous and unenviable job of dashing out into the busy streets to sweep up the horse manure. They would have been busy: at the peak of Australia’s horse population there was one horse for every two people.

Horses and carts outnumbering motor cars at Paddy's Markets on Quay Street, Sydney, ca, 1920s [Source: NLA]

Horses and carts outnumbering motor cars at Paddy’s Markets on Quay Street, Sydney, ca, 1920s [Source: NLA]

The Campbell Street horse is one of a small number of city horses, statues most of them, of the bronze, memorial kind, as well as the weirder, rooftop kind.

Hermes Horseman

Look up at the corner of King and Castlereagh Streets!

But back to Campbell Street, and our mystery horse. Campbell was once one of the boundary streets of the market district of Haymarket. In 1929, a newspaper article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in which a man named Mr Alfred Byrne remembered the days in the 1850s when wild horses would be brought in for auction. Alfred would join the crowds who clustered around to watch the men trying to catch the horses, especially if it were rainy, and “the men holding on to the horses would be dragged ingloriously through thick mud”.

So perhaps the Campbell Street Horse is the last of Sydney’s wild horses, captured in perpetual vigour, turning a fierce eye to the ever-growing city.

White Castle

The highway curves then is straight for a stretch. The road widens here and the speed limit increases to 70, so in the rush of traffic there’s almost not enough time to notice the roadside scenes. Rows of red brick houses; the last remaining city Sizzler restaurant, with its banner advertising its salad bar and cheese toast; the marble retailer with its ragged-edged slabs stacked up like huge books. Then there’s the White Castle, rising up serenely from its asphalt surroundings.

White Castle_1

Upon seeing the sign for White Castle, the difference between my mental image of a white castle and the reality of this building immediately flashes to mind. I imagine that once it was a fairytale castle with multiple storeys and turrets. Then one day it was melted down and squashed flat into this long box of a building, with only the name remaining as a memory of its previous identity.

White Castle_2

In truth the White Castle building was constructed in 1970 as a Keith Lord discount furniture showroom. At the time Keith Lord was something of an innovator in terms of display and merchandising, constructing a series of striking and capacious breezeblock and colonnaded stores across Sydney. In 1970 this building was described as “ultra modern and luxurious”, stocking everything you might need to furnish your suburban home comfortably, even including features included a “sound lounge”, where shoppers could test out “stereograms” before purchase. This was an era of furnishing and nesting, of stocking suburban homes with new appliances and items such as the “buffet and hutch”, a word combination that sends me, madeleine-like, back to listening to tv ads as a child in the 1980s.

Keith Lord Locations

The other Keith Lord showrooms have, by now, disappeared (Ashfield – burnt out then demolished for Westconnex) or been modified to the point of obscurity (Hornsby, Kennards self storage). At the White Castle, although the building is the same, the merchandise has shifted somewhat from the sofas and dining settings that used to be sold within. Outside are banners advertising oil paintings and mirrors, giftware and porcelein, but mostly the White Castle sells kitchenware. It is the place to go if you need a 98 litre cooking pot, or a croquembouche pan, or a set of Splayds (miraculously still available).

White Castle_Inside

In the 1970s and 80s Keith Lord was a place where dreams came in the form of lounge suites and refrigerators, “space age” microwave ovens and extendable dining tables. As I wander through the aisles of saucepans in White Castle, I can imagine how it would have been in here back then, testing out the brown velour couches. These couches would eventually end their life sagging in 1990s sharehouse loungerooms, but back then they were plump, their synthetic pile fresh. Shoppers moved from sofa setting to dining room package deal, from scene to scene, trialling out potential futures.

Keith Lord_Two Page Ad

Now inside White Castle it is like a city, where the roads are the narrow rows in between high shelves of kitchen equipment. The baking pan precinct adjoins whisk row, beside the zone of bulk paper napkins. There is a serious atmosphere, no music playing in the background, just the rustle of stock being unpacked and murmurs of deliberation about paring knives or baguette pans. I go in search of the oil paintings, which are arranged into narrow corridors at one end of the store. Here I am enclosed between snow and forest scenes, with a few Napoleons en garde.

White Castle_Napoleon

Staring at Napoleon, I can imagine a whole room around this one item in its carved wood frame. I’m having a Keith Lord moment, imagining Napoleon above the tan leather sofa, as I cue up an eight track and consider a glass of brandy…

AWW_Keith Lord_Ad

From Australian Womens Weekly, 12 March 1975.

I leave White Castle clutching my newly-purchased baking tray, walking out along under the colonnade, past the carpark palm trees and the corner window display of a Buddha head, telescope, and an advertisement for Chasseur cooking pots.

White Castle_Sale Entrance

Then I’m back in the real city, or at least a suburban stretch of it, with construction cranes decorating the horizon, and across the road real estate signs offering the whole block for sale, a “unique” development opportunity, the likes of which there seems to be more and more.

Edgecliff Citadel

Before the eastern suburbs railway was built Edgecliff was a place of 19th century mansions, tin-roof terraces and steep, grassy vacant lots. It was a place to look back at the city, across valleys and ridges lined with haphazard rows of houses. Then the Eastern Suburbs railway opened in 1979, and with it came the Edgecliff Centre, a hulk of an office building that presides over the hillside.

Edgecliff 1

The line of flags on its roof gives it an ambassadorial presence, although most enter the centre only to leave again. They descend to the train station or ascend to the grim, grey bus interchange.


Like much of Sydney there’s a sense of things having been ripped-up and replaced here. The streets retain their eccentric twists, preserving a sense of the topography that underlies them, but on the surface its a miscellany. Across from the Edgecliff Centre is a collection of art deco apartment buildings with names like Knightsbridge, San Remo and Ruskin.

Edgecliff 2

The courtyard between them is a domain of neatly clipped camellia bushes and warnings not to park there. Beside the apartment buildings are a set of grand sandstone gates, once belonging to the Glenrock estate, now to a school. It is 3 o’clock when I walk by and schoolgirls are pouring out like ants from a nest.

On this stretch of street are shops selling niche items for a comfortable life. Cellos, chandeliers. A pilates studio has piles of white exercise balls in the window like giant pearls. In an ex-bank on the corner of Darling Point Road is JOM photography (at its former premises, above what was once Darrell Lea in the city, JOM made a bold claim with a prescient feature photograph).


JOM in 2014

Edgecliff 3

Jom in Edgecliff

Across from the row of smiling headshots is a monumental bus shelter with columns and steps and well maintained paintwork. The shelter is atop the high side of Darling Point Road, at the edge of the wall that divides the road. At its entrance is the name “Governor Ralph Darling”, in memory of the unpopular 1820s governor whose amorous name is imprinted on suburb names and roads across the city.

Edgecliff 5

Inside a series of alcoves are recessed into the wall, like empty shrines, behind a wooden bench painted with the insignia of Sydney buses. Outside though, the bus stop sign is covered over with a garbage bag , with a message below announcing the 327 bus no longer stops here.

Now it is decommissioned the bus shelter is free to be the hilltop citadel it has always secretly been. I peer around the side of it, watching the storm clouds moving over the city in curls of grey and the traffic surging up the hill. From here the city seems a separate entity, neatly enclosed by its assortment of high-rise buildings, and the traffic an anxious, noisy river.

Edgecliff 6

The citadel was created in 1925 when New South Head Road was widened, to reduce the steep grade of the hill. The dividing of the road created a broad concrete wall, a long bunker with a recess at the corner. Here the painted lady, has been through hundreds of repainted reincarnations since she first appeared in 1991. The wall is thick with layers of paint, embedded with glitter stars and confetti. Today it asks “Will you marry me Ingela?” of the traffic passing by.

Edgecliff 7

Further along the wall is a square inset with windows and a door, the entrance to underground Edgecliff, a series of twisting caverns, a complete underground city where giant pearls and cellos and chandeliers are made… A tantalising thought, but when I stand up on tiptoes to peer in the slats I glimpse pipes and the top of a toilet tank and the true purpose of this room becomes disappointingly clear.

Edgecliff 9

The weird geometry of this corner, with its bus shelter citadel, has long captured my attention. As a child I’d look out for it as we made the long drive to visit my great aunts in the eastern suburbs. Its grey edifice seemed important, like it held the secrets of this other side of the city with its steep streets, grand buildings, and tall fig trees. There was no painted lady then, just concrete and I perhaps misremember there being a line from a Smiths song painted across the wall. Perhaps it was actually there, or perhaps I just imagined it there when I dragged my gaze across the wall, as the car passed it by.

Edgecliff 8

Big Vision: The Sydney Murals of Carol Ruff

40000 years

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.

Redfern Mural slide

The 40000 years mural in 1983. Photo: Carol Ruff

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.

Nanna Williams 100dpi

Norma Williams and her portrait (photo: Carol Ruff)

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.

Redfern Mural Flag

The mural in its current, pre-restoration state, 2016.

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 Ruff working on the restoration of the Proud of Our Elders mural in Randwick. Photo: Carol Ruff

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.

Carol Adelaide Fest 82

Carol in 1982 while working on a mural for the Adelaide Festival Centre. Photo: Carol Ruff.

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.”

Painted Walls in Australia

The Painted Walls in Australia conference, held in 1981, discussed the flourishing of murals in Australia at the time.

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.

Adelaide festival theatre (1)

Adelaide Festival Centre, ‘Aboriginals Discovered Cook’, 1982. Photo: Carol Ruff

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.


Proud of Our Elders Mural, Randwick. Photo: Carol Ruff.

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.

Proud of our Elders_Wylie

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.

Randwick Mural Detail_2

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.

Domain Mural adjusted 2

The Women on the Edge of Town mural. On the stage area in front there were daily lunch time performances while the mural was being painted. Photo: Carol Ruff.

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.

Art Network Cover

Art Network magazine cover, featuring the portrait of Ella Geia  from the ‘Women at the Edge of Town’ mural.

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!”

Domain Womens Mural Opening

Opening of the “Women on the Edge of Town” mural. Image: Women in the Arts research study 1982.

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.

Coles New World banner

Merilyn Fairskye and Carol Ruff with protest banner on the site of ‘We Are Still Here’, the banned Coles New World Mural, Tasmania, 1983. Photo: Carol Ruff

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.”

Coles New World 3

These forbidden words were painted onto the wall before the mural scaffold was taken down, and the unfinished mural was painted out by the commissioner, Coles New World. Photo: Carol Ruff.

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.

Womens Mural 3

Migrant Woman Working Overtime on the Assembly Line from “Women on the Edge of Town”, in its current deteriorated state.

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.

Ruff Murals Alice Springs

Bush Tucker Murals, Yeperenye Centre, Alice Springs, 1987. Photo: Carol Ruff.

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.