Restoring Redfern’s 40,000 years mural

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In 1983, Redfern residents created the iconic 40,000 years mural. Thirty years later, the paint is peeling and graffiti blemishes the cracking wall. But recently, residents have united in a movement to rejuvenate the historical artwork.

Artist Carol Ruff played a key role in planning, designing and painting the 40,000 years mural in 1983. She explains how the now faded original images pay tribute to Redfern’s powerful Aboriginal history of abundance, tragedy, perseverance and accomplishment.

The salient message, “40,000 years is a long, long time/ 40,000 years still on my mind …” is inspired by Joe Geia’s song, “40,000 Years”. “We were trying to say that even before Redfern, Aboriginal people have been there, have been in that area, have known this country, this place,” Ms Ruff said.

The story begins with two Aboriginal feet, symbolising the first feet to ever step on this continent. The following images of spear-hunting, fishing, footsteps, the boats, the woman with a coolamon on her shoulder and the hunter all represent 40,000 years of Aboriginal people walking this country.

With the arrival of the first Europeans, shown by the ship and Aboriginal figures dying, the tone of the mural shifts. “Redfern to The Rocks were probably the first and worst hit areas in Australia of white settlement and people very quickly died from smallpox and other diseases that Europeans brought,” Ms Ruff said. “The Aboriginal community was decimated.”

What follows is a deeply confronting image of a young Aboriginal boy, standing in front of the first church built in the area. “That little boy represents the stolen generations and children being institutionalised,” Ms Ruff said. The image was a particularly powerful statement in the 1980s when many people had not heard of the stolen generations.

But the story does not end there. The street signs of Lawson and Eveleigh Street signify present day Redfern with the boomerang symbolising Aboriginal perseverance. “We’ll never go away, we’re here, we’ve come back, we haven’t lost our culture and we have survived,” Ms Ruff said. Featured in this section are Nana Williams surrounded by land rights colours, the 1983 Redfern All Blacks and an Aboriginal cheerleader. At the end is the tail of the Rainbow Snake, which weaves throughout the whole mural as a symbol of the long surviving history.

Over time the mural has been a significant part of the Redfern landscape. “For years, it was in immaculate condition,” Ms Ruff said. “Everybody respected it and knew if they went near it or made a mark on it that they’d be in big trouble.” It was the weather that started to take its toll on the mural. In response, “people used to go out there with pale blue paint and yellow and black paint and touch it up, not very well, but that was a really nice thing to see,” Ms Ruff recalled.

Now, residents are working to officially refurbish the fading mural. The movement started early this year when the pop-up Redfern Station Community Group (RSCG) set out to beautify Redfern with a community garden and two new murals at Gibbons Street and Redfern Station Platform 10.

Upon approaching NSW RailCorp, who owns the land for these projects, RSCG was told that RailCorp wanted the existing Lawson Street murals rejuvenated before any new murals could be created.

Key RSCG organiser, Desley Haas, accepted the reasoning of RailCorp as “common-sensical”. Residents must consider: “Why are you asking for something new when there’s something old there that you haven’t looked after properly?” she said. RSCG is currently formulating a proposal and seeking funding, preferably from Council.

Though the paint fades and the wall cracks, Aboriginality lives on in Redfern. Now, many South Sydney residents are hoping the iconic 40,000 years mural will also live on as a profound symbol of an ancient and living culture.

Published in the South Sydney Herald, p. 4, November 2013.

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