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Dreaming Man

Housed in an unassuming Redfern warehouse is one of the most remarkable art collections you could ever hope to see reports Cassy Cochrane in the South Sydney Herald May 2008.

Gordon Syron is a soft-spoken man with a strong sense of dignity, an obvious work ethic and persistence in his belief in the need for Aboriginal self-respect and self-determination. In 1972 he was jailed for killing a man over his family’s land, and during that stretch in prison he taught himself to paint as a way of voicing his political stance, hopes and dreams. Gordon’s name will be familiar to many. A well-known artist in his own right, with his satirical paintings exhibited in Australia and overseas, he is also credited with influencing the work of many of Australia’s most internationally recognised young Indigenous artists, and he has, since his release from prison, been instrumental in encouraging many new and struggling artists.

Gordon and his photographer wife Elaine’s collection offers a diverse snapshot of the changing culture of Indigenous Australia. Works have been sourced from as far and wide as Arnhem Land, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

Gordon started the collection as a way of preserving an urban art movement embodying Aboriginal protest, and the collection contains examples of some of the most important contemporary Aboriginal artists working today. Among artists represented are Gordon Hookey, Tracey Moffatt, Darren Cooper, Michael Riley, Bronwyn Bancroft, Emily Kngwarreye and her family, and Clifford Possum, and the works range from oil and acrylic paintings to sculpture, body paintings, bark paintings, and an extensive didgeridoo collection.

The collection features a moving retrospective of Syron’s own work, including his controversial ‘Judgement By His Peers’ in which a white defendant is convicted by black judges and lawyers. Syron’s work deals with themes of freedom and reconciliation, and environmental issues are also prominent. Many paintings look starkly at the degradation of Aboriginal people in custody. Gordon’s own prison experience (where he was witness to terrible beatings inflicted by prison guards on inmates), and his family stories (of uncles and cousins caught up in war, fighting for Australia), inform many of the works. Lately it’s these “coloured diggers” whose stories he remembers: the thankless fighting of Aboriginal soldiers who returned to Australia only to suffer land loss and racial segregation.

But it’s not all anger and disappointment. The idea of reconciliation, of a time of peace and a return to nature are recurrent themes, particularly in the beautiful Black Fairies series, in which Syron returns to his land in northern New South Wales, and remembers the gum forests as they were before mining destroyed the flora and fauna. Here are softer, hopeful, fairytales, in which the flowers are returned to the land and hidden among them are tiny black fairies. “We’ve got to believe in magic,” Syron says.

When asked if he has a favourite, Gordon finds it hard to choose, but points out a large Gordon Hookey that hangs prominently from the rafters, a painting that depicts Canberra’s Parliament House and features a pun on the word terra-ism. The painting dates back to the late ’80s, before terrorism was so high on Australia’s political agenda. “I like his straight-up messages. And Hookey uses bad language in his painting,” Gordon says with a cheeky smile. “I thought that was brave.”

As Gordon and Elaine look to retirement, what they now want is a dedicated “keeping place” for the collection. The Syrons are calling on museums, art galleries, Indigenous organisations, politicians, corporations and philanthropists, to help. Gordon hopes that the new government might just recognise the importance of such a keeping place. His dream would be to find a big gallery space, somewhere prominent, and have the gallery run by Aboriginal people, employing Aboriginal people. “It’s important that Aboriginal people tell the stories of these paintings. These are stories that educate and keep our political history alive,” he says.

One of the last works I look at is Gordon’s portrait of an Aboriginal man who comes from the country to Redfern, seeking a better life. “Over the years,” Gordon says, “this same Dreaming Man turns up in many pictures. I always start with his eyes.” I look at the painting and see these sharp, perceptive eyes staring out, but the man looks weary, overwhelmed. He wears a T-shirt bearing the slogan: “New York, London, Redfern.” “No jobs, no money, hard times,” Gordon says. “Sometimes when he turns up he looks defiant, sometimes angry, sometimes sad.” Maybe in a few years time we’ll see him smile, I say. Gordon nods, “I hope so.”

The Syrons’ collection is available for viewing. Contact Gordon on 04210 31392, or if you are interested in being part of a working committee to support this valuable historical resource, contact Elaine at .

Photo: Esther Turnbull - Caption: Gordon Syron

Source: South Sydney Herald May 2008