DARLINGTON: Annandale-based artist Sharon Billinge has been collaborating with Darlington and Redfern locals to create a vibrant new mural to be completed in early May.
It’s her most satisfying project to date, she says, partly due to its “serendipitous nature” but also because of all the hurdles she’s had to overcome – like working through Covid, finding a new wall when the first site became untenable, getting the development application approved, battling days of torrential rain when she should have been painting, and suffering a death in her family while racing to complete the mural on time.
In 2020, Covid threw Billinge a curve ball. Like many artists whose work is community based and involves face-to-face contact, many of her projects were put on hold.
At this critical point, she received funding for the mural project from the Sydney City Council Creative Fellowships Fund, established last year to help keep arts and creative professionals working during the pandemic.
Billinge’s grant application was based on her trying to find ways of connecting to community, that wouldn’t be face-to-face and would therefore be Covid-safe.
This meant she used a suggestion box, letterbox drops and social media to make contact and to learn from locals about who and what makes Darlington special and what should be incorporated into the final work.
Her suggestion box yielded some quirky ideas, including featuring Barbie’s Dream House and painting a “big wombat” on the wall, but other responses aligned more smoothly with the project’s purpose to highlight the history, stories and relationships surrounding the site.
“It was serendipitous to get a contact for a person at Sydney Uni who had a huge history of the area,” Billinge says. “That was it then, it all opened up like a box.”
Billinge got to know Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo and the women who’ve lived for 20 years in the house where the new mural is now situated. She also met one of their neighbours, an Indigenous artist* who helped her with scaffolding and other storage – “another beautiful part of the project, just to get to know him”.
The final design of Darlington Incorporated pays tribute to the range of youth support and education available in the suburb including The Settlement Neighbourhood Centre, Sydney University and Yaama Dhiyaan hospitality training college, previously located across the road from the mural site.
It does this by featuring three main portraits. Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo who set up the hospitality courses that operated out of Yaama Dhiyann and which specialised in Indigenous culture and cuisine, and who currently works at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence; Dame Marie Bashir former Chancellor of Sydney University and Governor of New South Wales; and students from The Settlement Neighbourhood Centre, which provides a range of programs for children, young people and families.
Billinge ran a workshop with some students from The Settlement to design personal symbols to be included in the work.
“A large part of my practice is trying to give people ownership of public space,” she explains.
“As part of that, I wanted to be able to give these kids at The Settlement the chance to walk past part of the neighbourhood and say, ‘That’s my idea. That’s what I did. And someone thought it was important enough to put there.’ So, there’ll be lots of those symbols hidden in the mural.”
Much of Billinge’s work is female-based and disrupts the “vacuous, staring-off-into-space, female faces” found in many murals. Her aim is to put character back into women’s portraits – showing women “in possession of themselves” and not subject to the male gaze.
Aunty Beryl and Dame Marie Bashir embody such self-assurance as do the three girls from The Settlement featured.
“In all of the pictures I took of them, they were totally in possession of themselves. There was a spark in the pictures. The lads were amazing too, but it just felt right to have an all-female wall.”
Working on the mural has been a great experience for Billinge because the Darlington community is so genuine, vocal and inquisitive.
“As soon as Beryl was on the wall, people were shouting her name as they were going past. They were coming up and saying, ‘It’s Beryl.’ And they’re like, ‘Wow, yeah.’
“So many people actually recognised Dame Marie, and would then say, ‘Well, if she’s up there, then who’s this lady next to her?’
“With a lot of my work, I try and work with community, and sometimes it falls horribly flat.
“With this one, because of the community that is there and their connection to both of these very strong female figures, it has been really lovely.
“It’s been nice to tap into a genuine community. Lots of people know each other, lots of people know the ladies that own the house [where the mural is]. There’s that real history. And they’re really involved in the community as well.”
In these last few weeks, as Billinge has been putting the finishing touches on the mural, the weather has been perfect.
For the women who let her use their wall she has incorporated an image of their beloved westie terrier, Billy, who is the true boss of their house.
At 8am each morning a small rainbow has appeared on the wall above Aunty Beryl’s head. Is it a sign that the mural was meant to be, and that it will be called “Aunty Beryl’s mural” from here on in?
The launch of Darlington Incorporated is at 372 Wilson Street, Darlington, on May 8 at 1pm along with an art exhibition by *Mark Trewhella.