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Restoration of historic murals

REDFERN: Carol Ruff was in her 20s when she began working on the 40,000 Years Mural in 1983. The mural just outside Redfern station has become an iconic part of the suburb, showcasing its unique historical legacy and the tragedy, perseverance and accomplishment of the local Aboriginal community.
Current state of the mural in Lawson Street Photo: Claire Mahjoub
Current state of the mural in Lawson Street Photo: Claire Mahjoub

“I thought that an Aboriginal mural on that wall would be a good gateway to Redfern,” Ms Ruff told the SSH. “We tried to encapsulate the rich and powerful Aboriginal history of Redfern.” Fresh from finishing similar works around the country, including murals in the Sydney Domain and outside the Adelaide Festival Centre, Ms Ruff funded the mural with a scholarship from the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council.

She set up shop nearby, in an empty storefront on Lawson Street, and invited members of the community to drop by and tell her what they wanted to see on the mural. “We got the community involved and through much consultation we were able to gather photographs and stories to include on the wall,” Ms Ruff said.

The message that emerged, “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. With the arrival of the first Europeans, shown by a ship and Aboriginal figures dying, the tone of the mural shifts.

What follows is a deeply confronting image of a young Aboriginal boy, standing in front of the first church built in the area. 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 signs of Lawson and Eveleigh streets signify present-day Redfern, with the boomerang symbolising Aboriginal perseverance. 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.

“At that time I never expected it to last more than 10 years. It’s an historic mural now,” said Ms Ruff.

The mural has begun to show signs of deterioration in recent years, due to damage caused by weather and graffiti. Carol is one of several activists campaigning to bring the mural back to life.

The Redfern Station Community Group recently won a City of Sydney grant to assess the mural’s restoration. “What we’re doing is restoring a piece of history,” said Ms Ruff.

The group joined with representatives from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Eora TAFE, and artists and researchers from Sydney College of the Arts last month for a broader discussion about the mural’s restoration, as well as to share ideas about the histories and stories that could be represented in future public art projects in Redfern.

Desley Haas, convenor of the Redfern Station Community Group, was thrilled that “after such a momentous and enjoyable Mural Gathering Day on Friday November 13 we now have made many more contacts and connections. We have a huge array of great ideas for the current projects and for our long-term aim of more murals, public art and gardens for Redfern/Waterloo.”

But in the near future the firm focus is on the restoration of the 40,000 Years Mural with Carol Ruff and her technical advisor, Peter Day. “It was such a surprise and a thrill to see so much support for the mural,” she said. “What a day! The Rainbow Snake rumbling on high when Marlene Cummins was speaking was a fine omen. I am really looking forward to getting stuck into the feasibility study in January.”


The next Redfern Station Community Group meeting, which is open to all, will be held on Thursday December 3 at 10.30am in the downstairs room at the Redfern Community Centre at 29-35 Hugo Street, Redfern.

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