Macquarie’s (Threatened) Murals

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Words || Angus Dalton

A few storeys down from the clinical creativity of the new MAZE student space, in a semi-outdoor area seldom visited by students that currently resembles a loading dock, an important part of Australia’s art history unfolds on a huge wall.

Planet Earth is being pumped with industrial waste by a factory with a skull-and-crossbones logo. Star Wars-style jet fighters soar over a version of the old library that looks more like an Aztec temple, with books taking flight from it and flapping into the sky. There’s an army of men with TVs for heads, beetles crawling underground that look vaguely radioactive, and an eye with marijuana leaves for lashes staring up at a tightrope walker spanning a wire cast between a lighthouse and a palm tree.

This epic tapestry was painted 40 years ago by David Humphries, who pioneered the public mural movement in Australia and has worked overseas in London and New York.

‘There’s several theme-areas to it,’ David says of the mural from his studio in Rosebery. ‘There were images of Truganini [an Indigenous activist from the 1800s], and that was to do with Aboriginal culture, going through the desert – it was at a time when there were lots of protests against uranium mining. The library building and books were about knowledge and the destruction of knowledge by war … there were lots of political messages in it.’

David doesn’t consider his murals political in a Labor vs. Liberal sense, but rather as an opportunity to empower downtrodden communities and for use as vehicles of social change.

‘It wasn’t political in the way that others are, painting Tony Abbott as a bride to himself … But politics were different in those early days, they were much more naive. I think if we were at it now, I couldn’t resist doing something very nasty about Tony Abbott, and I’m very proud that people have developed the mural tradition to make those statements. Because in the beginning, nobody knew what murals were, and it was actually very pioneering work that was being done. Nobody had ever thought or heard of doing it until we started – from that point of view, that Macquarie mural is quite significant and important.’

David’s ideology of using murals as opportunities for instigating solidarity and social change grew out of his time in the ghettos of New York, before he came to Macquarie.

‘I was working in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and you wouldn’t even get a taxi to take you there back then … now it’s the fashionable place to live,’ he says. David united desperate communities there through mural painting, and saw how encouraging people to paint in public spaces could legitimise the experiences of disadvantaged people and draw much-needed attention and aid to the city’s most vulnerable residents. When he returned to Australia and began working at Macquarie as Artist-in-Residence, he sought the same collaborative and street-style approach.

‘It’s not ever meant to be a sleek, fine art mural that’s perfectly rendered. That wasn’t really the point of it,’ David explains. ‘The point of it was to make a fairly spontaneous but structured statement about issues that were coming and floating around campus at the time. And the campus was very different in those days – a lot smaller, a lot more intimate, and there was a lot more obvious activity – accessible activity – of the students. It wasn’t like what it is now, which appears to be to be a sort of sausage factory.’

David is renowned as the pioneer of mural painting in Australia, and over his career has painted such famous works as the Peace, Justice and Unity mural in the CBD, which depicts a dove taking flight and hands bound with rope being freed by a sharpened quill. Fortunately, his Macquarie mural is safe, for now.

Other artworks at Macquarie aren’t so lucky. In the space below the old Co-op Bookshop, in the strange labyrinth area where a lone Commonwealth Bank ATM stands, another idiosyncratic artwork plays out across the walls.

Bizarre, birdlike gargoyles leer out of corners, a six-armed skeleton guards a vending machine, a scarlet whale frolics in a lake, and real banknotes, leaves and sticks are glued to the wall. Commissioned by the Macquarie University Union in 1991, this mural holds a more critical streak; it shows ducks and turtles being shipped into the university lake from a factory, a criticism of the university’s increasing concern with its image and marketability. 

It’s called L’amour de la Terre, which translates to ‘Loving the Earth’.

But this mural is all but doomed. The Campus Hub is being slowly expunged of tenants in preparation for its demolition, and the mural will go with it. Tim Guider, the artist who oversaw the mural, is currently exhibiting art at the Florence Biennale and is difficult to get in contact with. But after a quick email exchange, it was unclear whether he has been notified of the impending deletion of his work, which is a violation of usual development protocols. Usually, Guider told Grapeshot, local councils must write to the artist that will be be affected by any planned development before they go ahead. 

Since our contact with Guider we have been assured that the Macquarie University Art Gallery have made contact with Guider and documented the mural on his behalf before the building’s demolition on December 4.

Curators are also organising a re-touching of David’s mural, which will thankfully be around for at least a few more years. For David, it will be a rare dip back into the paint tin.

‘I’m seventy now, so I sort of deserve to retire and be gardening,’ he laughs. ‘And physically I’m not really up to scaling the side of an oil tank or climbing scaffolding with buckets of paint all day. Those days were fun, but they’re young people’s games.’