• Gunnai Waradgerie artist brings a splash of local history to Mission Australia's Charcoal Lane in Melbourne (J. Forsyth)Source: J. Forsyth
Down a side alley at Fitzroy’s thriving social enterprise restaurant, Charcoal Lane - a new street art installation by Gunnai Waradgerie man, Robert Young is already turning heads.
Laura Morelli

28 Jul 2017 - 5:19 PM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2017 - 5:24 PM

Located on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, lies a 21 x 8 metre Indigenous mural that embellishes not only a beautiful representation of history, culture and stories, but the true spirit of Aboriginal community. 

Gunnai Waradgerie man Robert Young has a long-reaching family history with the Fitzroy area and the iconic building that features his art, which used to be the Victorian Aboriginal Health Services.

“My great grandparents were one of the first families to live on Gertrude Street in 1930. My grandparents created one of the first Aboriginal legal services in Australia here in Fitzroy. And my Mum worked as a dental nurse on the dental bus run by the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service which was originally based where Charcoal Lane is now,” Robert explained.

Working long and hard over the course of four days, its Robert’s biggest artwork to date, but the artist says painting is in his blood.

“My grandfather would paint my Aunty using black shoe polish and tried to sell it when he was 10 years old.”

After splashing through more than 50 litres of paint and 100 cans of spray paint, he says it’s one that will educate, empower and inspire the next generation." 

“The spirit of the community back in a time when the health service first opened was one of unity and strength but also the importance of family and community was evident. You still feel that spirit when you go into the building.” 

The Aboriginal health service wasn’t the only Indigenous building on the street, in fact there was eight other Aboriginal owned businesses running and the sense of community was strong. Robert says the main message was that: ‘no matter who you are, your mob, age, you would always be welcomed into their home’.

“It wasn’t just our mob, everyone spent their time. There was the old gym there, where my grandfather taught young fellas how to make boomerangs and box. There was a food kitchen, where the aunties helped cook noodles for those who didn’t have a meal,” he said.

“There was that real proud sense of unity but also that spirit of taking care of your brothers and sisters from all mobs. Back then they knew the only people that understood our stories and our needs were each other.”

Past Present and Future

Designed by Mr Young and produced alongside Heesco and Makatron, the mural was created in partnership with Charcoal Lane, Yarra City Council and funded by the Victorian Government’s Community Crime Prevention Program targeting graffiti in the area.

Incorporating the past, present and future, the artwork - Celebration Dreaming - references Aboriginal identity, connections and culture in Fitzroy and highlights the significance of the area, and building, for the artist and for the local Aboriginal community.

“It was so much more than just the health service it was the light in the darkness. The beacon that drew people in and created events that people came to. Not only Aboriginal black fellas enjoyed the community but black people from all over the world felt a sense of community and being a part of a tribe that cared for you and understood the journey you took as a coloured person.”

The feel-good fine dining offered at Charcoal Lane unites Aboriginal heritage with the trendy Fitzroy gastronomy experience, all while providing a supported, hands-on Mission Australia traineeship program for young Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander aspiring chefs and hospitality stars.

Mission Australia’s Troy Crellin, Program Manager of the social enterprise says this mural is history in the making and enables youth to learn about their history, culture and stories.

"It’s the beginning of a story that will not be forgotten.”

“Our building was home to the Aboriginal Health Service from 1973 to 1992, and this mural recognises the important part this building has played in lives of our student’s families,” he said.

“When the mural was completed, one of our students took photos home for his Nan. When she saw them, she spent the next hour explaining the relevance of the mural and her own connection to local history.”

Troy says now everyone can proudly say ‘that’s Charcoal Lane’.

“It tells the history of the building, about Aboriginal families living in Fitzroy. It’s culturally rich and if people didn’t know it before, they know it now. As people walk into the building it catches their eye and it’s the beginning of a story that will not be forgotten.”

Communal Mural 

Robert describes hanging around the mural and hearing students from Charcoal Lane ‘claim’ the artwork as their own work. He says it’s moments like these that couldn’t make him happier.

“For anyone to take ownership of the mural is a beautiful thing because it’s about people becoming part of the story. They feel a connection and want to be part of it. Now that it’s their wall they will respect it, honour it, protect it and take care of it,” he said.

“It’s not just a visual representation - it’s a spiritual recognition as well. It has so much more than beauty, it’s the spirit of what has been done and what can be achieved, especially when young people stand up and acknowledge our past and celebrate our future as well.”

Yarra City Council Mayor, Councillor Amanda Stone says this mural is a dramatic and beautiful visual representation of the achievements, culture and history of the local Aboriginal community.

“Like many Victorian Aboriginal people, Mr Young and his family have a special connection to Gertrude Street and Fitzroy. It is wonderful to see the Indigenous history of the area through the lens of a young, contemporary Aboriginal artist.”

A Splash of History

The first image seen from the street features elders including founding members of VAHS and other Aboriginal organisations and services that were established around Fitzroy, as well as a waterfall as a nod to the past and “drawing on the well of wisdom”.

Featured in the centre of the artwork, the dental health service bus highlights Mr Young’s mother’s generation and the many Aboriginal communities who experienced a visit from the bus. The VAHS dental bus was critical in bringing much needed help to regional communities and it is depicted to acknowledge their longstanding service and the vital role VAHS―now relocated close by―continues to provide services for the community.

The imagery of a tree symbolises the future, highlighting the spiritual and cultural connection to country that local Aboriginal people have today, also reflecting interconnectedness, networking, kinships, creativity and continual growth.

Bunjil the eagle is acknowledged by the Wurundjeri Tribe as a creator spirit and features in the artwork to symbolise the future for local Aboriginal people in the area. Current students at the Charcoal Lane program also contributed their handprints to the artwork to symbolise their part in creating the future.

Between March and June 2017, Yarra City Council delivered the Charcoal Lane graffiti prevention project. This project involved commissioning an Aboriginal artist to develop and install a mural on an exterior wall of Charcoal Lane restaurant.

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