Show of determination

Wednesday, February 19, 1997

Guwanyi
Redfern Aboriginal Community Exhibition
Museum of Sydney
Until May 4

Review by Kellee Nolan

Guwanyi is Aboriginal for "to tell". The exhibition tells the positive side of the Redfern story and reaches into the daily lives, expressions and achievements of Aboriginal people who live in an area around Eveleigh Street known as "The Block".

Two themes assert themselves throughout the collection of photographs and commentary. One is the positive sense of community, the core of Redfern. The community is seen as strong, proud and vibrant, with a distinctive culture. The second is the many positive achievements made by the community over the decades. Conditions of oppression and discrimination form a backdrop to the celebration of these achievements.

Covering the back wall of the exhibition is a photograph of Eveleigh Street taken from atop the Aboriginal Housing Company, which depicts the life of the street. Towering behind this is Sydney city, complete with sky-scraping buildings and an ornamental gold tower. The photograph imparts a sense that life on the Block unravels continuously under the ignorant and indifferent nose of Sydney.

One section of the exhibition is headed: "The 'Fern holds a special place in the hearts of Koori people". This is shown in the photographs which depict life over the past 40 years. Children playing and people interacting on the street show the sense of community which is so important to the Aboriginal lifestyle and heritage. Smiling families are at ease with their environment despite its material impoverishment.

The sense of ownership and belonging is captured in the graffiti printed on eroded walls of houses. Scrawled there are hundreds of names of people who for years have called Redfern their home.

Expressions on faces vary from the resilient, downtrodden and distraught to the cheeky, serious and smiling. A determination to survive can be seen in them all.

Painted on another wall of the exhibition are the words: "Redfern is a buzzing political hot spot". This highlights the numerous protests, rallies and progressive actions made by the community throughout the past four decades. Few suburbs of Sydney could boast such a history of sustained community action.

Photographs depict Redfern residents as they protest against asbestos mining and Aboriginal deaths in custody. On National Aboriginal Day, July 14, they can be seen celebrating 20 years of the Aboriginal tent embassy, a Redfern initiative, outside federal parliament house. Posters produced by the Aboriginal Legal Service compare police brutality in Australia to that of South Africa.

The community's determination to improve its conditions has led to the establishment and expansion of numerous progressive organisations. Many have been important not only to the Redfern community, but to Aborigines throughout Australia.

The Aboriginal Legal Service began in response to police harassment in and around Redfern in the late 1960s. The Aboriginal Medical Service pioneered community controlled health services, provided accessible medical resources to Redfern residents. The Black Theatre gave urban and rural artists a stage to express their stories, feelings and spirituality. Murawina, meaning "black woman", was established in Redfern in 1972, initially as a breakfast centre for school children. It has since expanded to assist children of low-income families.

Norma Ingram, a long-serving Redfern community member who helped establish Murawina and other services in Redfern, spoke at the official launch of the exhibition. The sense of community conveyed in the Guwanyi exhibition, she said, "shows a balance between the negative publicity transmitted to the public by media". Such publicity promotes fear, anger and misunderstanding among people who have no other contact with Redfern or its residents.

The more recent media assault on Redfern as government, private property developers and the police threaten to separate and relocate the community, makes Guwanyi even more relevant and important.

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