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New mural shimmers in Darlington

Fintan Magee’s new mural in Darlington of Patyegarang and William Dawes is compelling.

“Lost Figures” stretches four storeys high and is located at 501 Wilson Street near Carriageworks. The shimmery portraits offer a glimpse of the connection between Patyegarang, a young Aboriginal woman thought to be from the Cammeraygal clan of the Eora nation, and British Lieutenant, William Dawes, to whom she taught the language of her people – an act which ultimately helped to preserve it. Commissioned by the City of Sydney’s Art & About program, the work is part of a new series that celebrates individuals whose stories have been lost over time and have not been represented in public art because they do not fit traditional narratives around power and importance.

What was it like to work on the mural with the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council?
They were very accommodating. It was important to me that we go through the correct channels when representing Indigenous people in public art – particularly given Patye is an important figure. Nathan Moran who heads the council right now was really encouraging and didn’t push back on my ideas at all. I was excited how it all came together.

How has the local community responded to the mural?
So far so good. It’s a funny location as it can be quiet during the week but there is a lot of foot traffic when there are events at Carriageworks. Some days I would barely see anyone. During the production of the work everyone was very supportive.

At this point Australia’s history, why is it important to tell the story of Patyegarang and William Dawes?
Because their story is important to Australia at any point. The story of Patyegarang (pronounced Pa-te-ga-rang) and William Dawes is a difficult one. William was a scientist and botanist that came out on the First Fleet and Patye was an Eora girl, still a teenager. It’s not known exactly what the dynamic of their relationship was, but it is known that they spent a lot of time learning language, translating and documenting the languages of the Sydney area. William’s notebooks became essential to the documentation and preservation of the Gadigal language. What’s amazing about the story is that the notebooks actually got sent to London and buried in the basement of a museum, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the books were found again and a language that was essentially extinct got rediscovered. The time after the arrival of the First Fleet must have been incredibly painful for the Gadigal people around Sydney but it is important to remember that, despite the violent displacement of war and colonialism, there were people working to preserve, share, learn and protect each other and culture also.

How does this mural connect with your interest in and work on political murals?
I came up with the concept for the project in 2020 when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening. I wanted to paint historical figures that didn’t fit the traditional image of power or had been forgotten or under-represented in public art. A big part of the protests happening in 2020 was iconoclast, statues were getting torn down. I was watching works in the US get pulled down, the Edward Coulston bronze in Bristol got torn down and the James Cook in Hyde Park got vandalised. A lot of conservative commentators were getting mad about it at the time and acting like history was being erased, but the reality is statues always get torn down for different reasons at different time in history, it’s always been a part of the public sphere and public art is always part of our social dialogue. Even the Queen Victoria statue now in Sydney was torn down during the Irish revolution in Dublin before it was eventually transported to Australia. I decided to paint Patye and William Dawes for this reason; I wanted to represent figures from our history that had been sidelined or forgotten by many. If I’m painting historical figures I want to represent something outside the traditional projections of power that come with many bronze statues. I think we need to have a dialogue about colonialism and why people like Cook get a sculpture when Patye doesn’t. I grew up painting graffiti so, for me, my art has always been ephemeral. Graffiti was never permanent and was also in cycle of being made and then destroyed. I think art should be about dialogue. We can’t make interesting art if we don’t pull things apart occasionally.

Where else in South Sydney might people see your work?
I have work in a bunch of spots in Sydney, Newtown, Enmore, Redfern. Just keep an eye out! You’ll see them when you see them. (Editor’s note – Two that caught my eye online were: “The riders” on the Alexandria Hotel in the shadow of the Waterloo Public housing estate and painted to question the NSW Liberal-National Party government intention to displace public housing residents; and “Caroline Chisholm” in Newtown. Chisholm was a 19th-century English humanitarian known mostly for her support of immigrant female and family welfare in Australia.)

Also, are you Sydney-based and, if so, in what suburb?
I have studio in Marrickville, but I split my time between Brisbane and Sydney.

Who else will feature in your new series that re-evaluates who gets to be represented in public art?
I like the figures to be as localised as possible – so it really depends on what locations come up. Two people I would really like to paint are John Joseph and William Buckley. Both stories are fascinating and I think should be told, again not sure if I will find the right location as both works would need to be in Victoria. I would also love to paint Joe Lycett or some of the other convict artists. Again, these projects involve research and it’s always a thrill to find stories I haven’t heard before, I’m going to keep this project going for a little while longer so who knows what I’ll find.

Fintan Magee is one of Australia’s leading public artists and has travelled extensively, completing projects in countries across the world.

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