Sydney’s indigenous street artists are the source of some of Sydney’s best street art. Urban indigenous street art tells the stories of individual and cultural resistance, political dispossession, and resilience. There are no euphemisms here – Aboriginal peoples are survivors of a brutal conquest – but their traditions and cultural values live on, at least 40,000 years after first settling in Australia.
It can seem as if Sydney’s concrete, asphalt, and commercialism have erased the Aboriginal presence in the city. But once you know where to look, you can find a proud and dignified record of indigenous visual art, political resistance, and hope.
40, 000 Years
40,000 Years is a mural located on Lawson Street, just across from Redfern Station.
First painted in 1983 by a team of artists led by Carol Ruff, 40,000 Years is a mixture of traditional Aboriginal design, photorealistic depictions of local icons, and two lines of text, taken from the lyrics of 40,000 Years by singer-songwriter Joe Geia.
“40,000 years is a long long time… 40,000 years still on my mind…”Joe Geia
The mural was designed to ground Aboriginal history within its modern living heart. Over later decades Redfern became notorious for a wide range of social ills, this reputation only fading with the area’s increasing gentrification. Mirroring this decay was the decay of the mural itself, as the elements and neglect took their toll on the paint and brickwork.
But in 2018 a team of students, conservationists, and indigenous artists complete a careful and loving restoration of the original mural, which once again stands as a proud reminder of Aboriginal Australia’s 40,000 years of living history.
Welcome to Redfern
Another newer but no less striking Redfern mural sits at the corner of Caroline and Hugo Streets.
Painted between 2012 and 2013 by a team of local artists led by Reko Rennie, Welcome to Redfern covers the outside of a Victorian terrace house inside the Block. Long the cultural hub of Aboriginal life in Sydney, the Block was a group of terraces purchased by the Aboriginal Housing Company in 1972.
Falling into disrepair and later gentrification, the terrace on which Welcome to Redfern is painted is now one of the few still standing. Welcome to Redfern, therefore, stands as a defiant monument to the area’s importance.
The black, red, and yellow zigzags of the Aboriginal Flag draw the eye of visitors and commuters to historical icons like Pemulwuy and contemporary Aboriginal leaders, while the big-block text gives the mural its name reminds us of where we are, and what that means.
I Stay (Ngaya ngalawa)
I Stay (also known as Ngaya ngalawa) was installed by American artist Jenny Holzer in 2014.
Situated on a column supporting the Mirvac Group building in 8 Chifley Square, this installation electronically animates the words of a wide variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, poets, songwriters, and artists.
Holzer’s aim was to create a work that integrated and honored the personal, using first-person voices informed by Aboriginal history but appealing to universal human themes.
Its alternate title, Ngaya ngalawa, means I stay or sit, in the Dharug language once spoken throughout the greater Sydney region, and I Stay sits as a reminder of Aboriginal Australia’s defiant and compelling survival in heart of modern Sydney’s CBD.
Portrait of Jenny Munro
Stretching up ten stories of the Novotel building on the corner of Goulburn and Harbour Streets in Haymarket is a giant portrait of Wiradjuri elder and activist Jenny Munro.
Painted over just five days by mural artist Matt Adnate in 2016, the portrait attempts to capture the larger-than-life personality of Munro in a much larger-than-life format. A co-founder of the Aboriginal Housing Corporation, Munro has been at the forefront of the struggle against the government and big business to socially cleanse the inner city of poor and especially Aboriginal people.
Now, with her stern gaze overlooking the Chinese Gardens in the middle of Sydney’s crowded tourism district, Munro hopes the portrait will raise awareness for her fight.
“If I’m making enough noise for mainstream Australia to take notice of me, maybe the Government should start listening to me before I come knocking on their door.”Jenny Munro
Installed in 2014, Mana ngurang (meaning gathering place) is a creation of Gadigal elder and Redfern stalwart Uncle Charles “Chicka” Madden.
Situated on the first floor of the Redfern Community Centre, Mana ngurang is comprised of around a hundred lengths of plywood, fixed to a black wall. Madden carved and arranged each piece of wood so that it represented the style of traditional Gadigal rock art.
As described in the plaque below, this rock art would have been created in an older but no less intricate way, with numerous holes drilled into the face of the rock along a pre-drawn outline until coherent and connected lines were crafted. The modern installation depicts wildlife that once flourished in the now-Sydney area, including, the nation’s totem, the goanna.
Mana ngurang was created to acknowledge and honor the Gadigal people and foster a spirit of harmony among those living in their land.
United We Stand Divided We Fail the Future
Installed in 2008, United We Stand Divided We Fail is a mural along the back of Hugo Street Reserve in Redfern. Artists Bronwyn Bancroft and Dale Jones-Evans collaborated closely with the local community in the piece’s creation.
Bancroft, with the assistance of local kids, painted an array of multicolored figures along the reserve’s back wall, figures that represent the area’s custodial spirits in all their diversity. Jones-Evans dedicated his efforts to the crafting of the mural’s screens, black, and laser cut in the style of bush foliage, and placed over parts of the painted wall.
Serving as a backdrop to a much-loved community space, United We Stand Divided We Fail reminds us of the power that unity in diversity brings, and the protective love that that power has brought communities over countless generations.
Bibles and Bullets
Bibles and Bullets is not a single sculpture, but rather a triptych, a collection of three individual pieces arranged together in Redfern Park by artist Fiona Foley.
Installed in 2008, Bibles and Bullets comprise a kind of imaginative and thoughtful playground for children of all ages.
The first piece, Intuitive Play, is an array of metallic seed pods derived from the local flora, along with constructions including a wooden boat and a 3D textual representation of creator deity Baiame. Next is the Lotus Line, a row of bronze and stainless-steel lotus flowers emerging from the pavers and acting as fountains. With the water lending an onlooker to contemplation, an excerpt from Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech is inscribed nearby. Lastly is Possum Play, a playscape for older children that includes basketball courts and a skate park and incorporates the story of a traditional possum hunt into its design.
Bibles and Bullets is not so much artwork as an environment, taking culture and infusing it into our everyday lives from the earliest of ages
Meaning “Thou Didst Fall” in English, Yininmadyemi has caught eyes in Hyde Park ever since it was installed by artist Tony Albert in 2014.
A very striking piece, one that some have even called heavy-handed, Yininmadyemi is a series of seven-meter-tall bullets, arranged in a boomerang pattern: with four of them standing and three spent casings lying on the ground.
The bullets themselves are modeled on the .303 rounds that Australian soldiers used in combat throughout the 20th century and were inspired by a part of Albert’s own family history. The artist’s grandfather, Eddie Albert, was an indigenous soldier during the Second World War. After being captured by the Italian Army in Libya, after a group, including Eddie Albert, attempted to escape from their POW camp three were executed, and these are represented by the piece’s three spent casings.
Yininmadyemi is a reminder of the harsh sacrifices Aboriginal people have made throughout Australia’s history, both fighting against the army and as part of it.
Edge of the Trees
Completed in 1995, artists Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley’s sculpture Edge of the Trees can be found in the Museum of Sydney’s forecourt. Consisting of 29 pillars, all made from various materials, Edge of the Trees takes its name from a quote by historian and archaeologist Rhys Jones.
Describing the first contact between Europeans and Indigenous people Jones described “…the ‘discoverers’ struggling through the surf was met on the beaches by other people looking at them from the edge of the trees.” Laurence and Foley’s sculpture attempts to capture and represent that moment, a moment that took place very close to the museum’s modern location.
The ethereal pillars are accompanied by a soundscape of Aboriginal voices that recite the traditional names of the country that was taken from them.
Here, Laurence and Foley have created not just a monument, but a feeling that Jones described later in his text:
“Thus the same landscape perceived by the newcomers as alien, hostile, or having no coherent form, was to the indigenous people their home, a familiar place, the inspiration of dreams.”
Veil of Trees
Situated within the Royal Botanical Gardens, Veil of Trees was installed by Janet Laurence and Jisuk Han in 1999.
The installation is a series of 21 glass panels, placed alongside and amongst over a hundred red forest gums, integrating the natural and the artificial in an eye-catching manner that aims to center the indigenous botanical history of the site.
The panels encase natural elements like native honey and grass seeds and feature poems from famous Australian writers such as Les Murray and Judith Wright, through which the brilliant light of the Australian sun reflects and refracts.
The installation is effectively a work in progress, as the trees and bushes around the panels continue to grow, and regenerate what was until recently a barren knoll.
I Have a Dream
One of Sydney’s best-known pieces of street art, the I Have A Dream mural was painted in August 1991 by Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken, a now-convicted murderer who painted the piece after fleeing Britain.
Its dark origin story, aside from I Have A Dream has become a part of the landscape of Newtown’s King Street in Sydney’s inner west and was recently heritage listed by the local council.
With the Aboriginal flag girding the bottom, a portrait of African American Civil rights leader Martin Luther King is at the center of the piece, his half-silhouetted face alongside a depiction of the Earth we all share.
Even though street art (especially graffiti) is not legal, I Have A Dream is now preserved by law. The mural underscores the international dimensions of civil rights struggles of the 20th Century and the feelings of solidarity and similarity that Australia’s Aboriginal people have shared with African Americans throughout the ages.
The last entry on this list is not so much an artwork as a place where the artwork is created. The Work Shop sits on the grungy and post-industrial Cope Street, Redfern. The facility, established in 2013, styles itself as a multi-medium and multi-format artistic collaboration place, serving as a venue where artists can learn and create.
The building itself is surrounded by murals. On one wall stretches the sorrowful face of an Aboriginal child, painted in sepia by renowned muralist Guido van Helten. On the other, a mural with a very different tone: former South Sydney Rabbitohs player, rugby league immortal, and Aboriginal icon Greg Inglis, painted triumphantly in his red, black, and green by Sid Tapia.
Whereas much of the art in this list is a tribute to a community largely swept away by gentrification, Work-Shop styles itself as a place where that community’s artistic tradition might go on.
Where to Stay
Aboriginal art in this post is clustered around Sydney Harbor, Redfern, and central Sydney.
It makes sense then to stay in the inner city and/or on the harbor. Here’s a small selection of my favorite places where I’ve stayed many times over the years.