On one of the busiest spots in Australia, Bondi’s iconic beach, there’s a wall with a colourful mural. The social justice mural on Bondi's Wayside Chapel portrays five Aboriginal activists who initiated significant change in our history and continue to inspire Australians.
Laura Morelli

29 Sep 2016 - 3:27 PM  UPDATED 4 Nov 2016 - 1:59 PM

It’s become a popular spot for tourists to snap pictures and a local meeting spot for regular surfers but the mural has become a learning point for everyone to understand the Aboriginal people who were at the front line of the fight for human rights and social justice in Australian history.

Initially commissioned as a Reconciliation project by the Uniting Church and painted and designed by Wiradjuri man and renowned Aboriginal artist Edward Paul Davis along side Etienne Cohen in 2013, the mural in Roscoe St will now be stripped down to nothing more than a glass window.

This work of street art features portraits of Indigenous activists Eddie Mabo, Mum Shirl, Faith Bandler, Charles Perkins and Vincent Lingiari. 

Plans to remove the artwork come as part of a redevelopment for the Wayside Chapel building, which has sparked outrage amongst the community.

The mural removal is part of a $630,000 renovation of the building but formal plans have yet to be lodged with Waverley Council.

Waverley Greens councillor Dominic Wy Kanak says he and other Aboriginal people have a special cultural connection to the Aboriginal Rights mural and to watch it be removed would be heartbreaking.

"It's beyond me why anyone would want to remove this culturally significant work of art, there is so much importance surrounding it and now a bunch of developers dressed in church clothing want to tear down the mural of our Aboriginal Saints."

Aboriginal painter Paul Davis has described the news as disappointing.

“So from go to woe I find myself in the middle of mixed emotions. Woe is not me but this is a simple example of the temporariness of progress. Within newsworthy projects I believe is the revisiting of information,” he said.

The mural was painted in 2013 and Davis said it took a solid three months of work for a simple sum of 800 dollars for work that he thought would last a lifetime.

“My influence was as a result of those five people in the mural and thousands of others who marched for rights and died for equality, social justice, human rights and against a system which constitutionally doesn’t recognise Indigenous people as complete citizens yet.”

In its statement, Wayside Chapel said the mural’s memory would be preserved “with professional framed photographs to hang in the redeveloped chapel space.

“Wayside looks forward to engaging and consulting more with the Bondi community including the Aboriginal community in the area in the future,” the chapel statement read.

As a local artist who spent time in rural Aboriginal communities, Etienne Cohen said the mural has so much more to offer than just a pretty picture.

“This is a prominent, significant and inspirational mural. All of the activists portrayed and many more have so much to teach us that from little things big things grow.”

The mural was produced for Reconciliation week and has left many people baffled trying to understand why the Church would want to remove it after it had gained cultural significance. 

“For me it was an honour to work with Paul on this reconciliation project and I can’t comprehend why it would be torn down, this should be recognised as State Heritage listed.”

change.org petition to Save our Bondi Indigenous mural has generated more than 170 signatures and has welcomed several significant comments about its importance to the Bondi community. The mural has already been nominated to be State Heritage listed.

On Saturday 1 October, artist Etienne Cohen plans to visit the mural from 10am onwards. Her aim is to encourage more people to sign the petition and help them understand the significance behind the picture.

“When I was making the mural someone came from the church and said to me ‘why didn’t you just do flowers, why did you have to do this’”?

"My true belief is that artists are supposed to be mirrors to the world, we are supposed to reflect back what’s happening in our society… and that is what this mural does."

“Out of everything I’ve ever done in my career, and I’ve worked internationally for huge projects - this mural is the most important thing I’ve done in this whole world. For me, this was an honour to do this mural, it is so much more than just art.”

The five people selected to be painted on the mural have been labelled as more than just political activists, but as the 'saints' of the Aboriginal community.

Towards the bottom of the mural are the hand prints of a group of Aboriginal school children from Gaduga, in far Western NSW who visited the beach and the mural for the first time in 2013. The students placed their hand prints along the waterline of the mural on Harmony Day, the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Who are the five Aboriginal 'saints' painted on the Bondi mural?

Vincent Lingiari

Vincent Lingiari became a symbolic figure of the land rights movement after he led the Wave Hill Walk-off in 1966. 

In an emotional ceremony in 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured local soil through his hands, symbolising the return of Wave Hill to the Gurindji people.

Gough Whitlam's words at the ceremony: "Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever."

It wasn't until 1986 however, 20 years after their battle for land rights began, that the Gurindji people were handed inalienable freehold title to Daguragu, on what was formerly Wave Hill Station.

The songs ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and ‘Old Vincent’, by Ted Egan, honour his memory.

Mum (Shirl) Smith

Shirley Smith was a prominent social worker, humanitarian and activist committed to justice and the welfare of Aboriginal Australians. She began to visit Indigenous people in prison when one of her brothers was there and found other people also enjoyed having someone to talk to.

She devoted her life to looking after Aboriginal children and helped children to reunite with their families. By 1990 she had brought up 60 children and she began to be known as 'Mum Shirl' because she acted as a mother to all.

She was a founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern. During her lifetime she was awarded an Australian National Living Treasure.

Eddie Mabo

Eddie Mabo was known for his campaign for Indigenous land rights and as the Plaintiff in the landmark decision of the High Court of Australia which overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius – ‘nobody's land’ which characterised Australian law with regard to land and title.

Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander from Mer (Murray Island), off Australia's north-east coast. While working as a gardener at the James Cook University at Townsville in Queensland, when he began chatting to historians at the University and realised that the Torres Strait Islands were land belonging to the Crown. Mabo refused to accept this and became a Plaintiff in the 10 year long legal sage which challenged the very foundation of Australia. 

Faith Bandler

Faith Bandler is well known for promoting the rights and interests of Indigenous Australians particularly her 10 year campaign for Aboriginal rights leading to the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution and included Aboriginal people in the census. 

Her involvement as an activist started when she co-founded the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship in 1956. This group led the campaign to abolish the NSW state government-controlled Aborigines Welfare Board. Through the powers granted to this Board, Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to missions, schools, farm stations and reservations.

The National Trust listed her as a national living treasure in 1997 and the Sydney Morning Herald, in 2001, included her among the 100 most influential Australians of the 20th century. 

Charles Perkins

Charles Perkins led a life of exceptional achievement, from soccer star to university graduate, though he is most well known for his role as an Aboriginal activist. In 1965, he became famous as one of the leaders of the "Freedom Ride", a bus tour around NSW protesting against discrimination towards Aboriginal people. 

Charles Perkins was also active in the 1967 referendum campaign, working as a manager for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs which advocated a "yes" vote.  The referendum became the most successful in Australian history, with 90.77% of the Australian community voting "yes". 

In 1981 he was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the first Aboriginal person to become a permanent head of a Federal Government department. He also served as Chairman of the Aboriginal Development Commission between 1981 and 1984.

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