The black saint of Redfern
Please note, this story contains the name of a person who has passed away.
An exhibition celebrating the life of Wiradjuri community activist Shirley Smith is running until this Saturday at Australia’s oldest Aboriginal fine art gallery, Cooee Art Gallery.
Affectionately known as Mum Shirl, friends of the celebrated activist Gordon and Elaine Syron opened the exhibition entitled Mum Shirl: Black Saint of Redfern at the Paddington-based gallery in Sydney.
The exhibition displays paintings of historical significance by Aboriginal artist Gordon Syron and photographs of social significance by documentary photographer Elaine Syron from their gallery, The Keeping Place Museum.
The couple were both profoundly affected by Mum Shirl, and Ms Syron felt Mum Shirl was a “second mother” to her.
Mr Syron first met Mum Shirl in 1973 while he was in maximum security prison because he “fought graft and corruption and went to prison for it.”
“Mum Shirl didn’t cut no ice. She didn’t care which uniform you had on, she didn’t cop it,” Mr Syron said.
“She was a strong woman and she was fair … straight. She fought for reform.”
Mr Syron said Mum Shirl was motivated by prisoners’ rights and everyone, including the prison officers, respected her.
“She had principles,” Mr Syron said.
Ms Syron first met Mum Shirl in 1977 and she immediately recognised that Ms Syron lacked knowledge about Australia.
“I wanted to learn more about the Aboriginal community, and she took me on,” Ms Syron said, adding that she became like her student.
“Mum Shirl told me about how Aboriginal people had great warriors who fought to their death against the taking of their land. She described the Frontier Wars. She said there were great Aboriginal heroes and heroines – the Black Trackers; the Matriarchs who held whole tribes together after their men were massacred.”
Ms Syron said Mum Shirl particularly loved the artistic side of Aboriginal culture.
“Aboriginal artists, the dancers, the performing artists and the storytellers,” Ms Syron said.
“Her heroes were verbal ones and visual art was a way of keeping a true history and culture.”
Ms Syron recalled that she was one of Mum Shirl’s favourite artists because of her 1978 painting Judgement by his Peers.
“[It’s] a story about the injustice of the court system … she renamed it The Real Australian Story,” Ms Syron said.
Raised in Cowra, NSW by her grandparents, Mum Shirl could neither read nor write and suffered from epilepsy—it was this that prevented her from receiving a Western education.
Despite this, she learned 16 Aboriginal languages and became Redfern’s face of Indigenous activism.
Mum Shirl had a significant role in establishing the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Legal Service and Canberra’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy, among other services and organisations for Indigenous Australians.
“Keeping the culture was her priority and land rights was the way to do it,” Ms Syron said.
Ms Syron also played a large part in documenting Mum Shirl’s political activism and community leadership.
After immigrating from the United States during the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, Ms Syron came to Australia as a history and English teacher and immediately identified the enormous hole in Australia’s history.
“I saw such a distortion – a huge gap from 1971 to 2019 in Australian history – Aboriginal people were just missing – as the land was cleared and colonised and the urban movement of land rights was just ignored,” Ms Syron said.
“After seven years of teaching … I resigned to spend more time documenting the people of Redfern and Aboriginal people struggling to take their rightful place in Australian history.”
The products of Ms Syron’s career change are rare photographs of Mum Shirl at protests or with family and are displayed in the exhibition alongside Mr Syron’s paintings – including a large portrait of Mum Shirl herself.
The last time Mr Syron saw Mum Shirl in the late 1970s, she was very ill.
“I had to struggle with the way I [remembered] her and then the way I saw her so sick,” Mr Syron said.
“Nobody can replace her.”
After her death in 1998, Mum Shirl was given a state funeral at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral.
Cooee Art Gallery has been “honoured to host this important exhibition of historical and social significance and welcomes everyone to attend.”
Mum Shirl: Black Saint of Redfern is on at Cooee Art Gallery in Paddington, NSW until July 27.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misattributed some quotes and has been updated accordingly.