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Author: Natasha Cantwell
Digital Communications & Public Programming Officer
When Her Place Women’s Museum Australia and the Women's Mural Documentation Project applied for a Local History Grant, they thought it seemed like a long shot, given their proposal focused on preserving a public artwork that no longer exists, from the not too distant 1986. However, they were pleasantly surprised to discover that Public Record Office Victoria shared their vision that it is the community impact, not the number of years, that makes a project significant.
And the Women's Mural: Bomboniere to Barbed Wire, a 150 by 12 metre public artwork on Smith Street in Fitzroy, certainly had impact. Penelope Lee, a Board Director at Her Place Women’s Museum Australia describes the mural’s artists, Megan Evans and Eve Glenn as “pioneers” adding that, “A lot of trailblazing happened with their project,” which was a reaction against the abundance of sexist imagery in billboard advertising at the time. Envisaged in the early 1980s, when women were being bombarded with images of objectified bodies, this enormous mural was an effort to reclaim the streets with positive, active depictions of everyday women and girls in the northern suburbs, going about their business. Sally Northfield, from the Women's Mural Documentation Project, also points out that the 1980s was a time when women were shaking off traditional gender roles. “They were entering new territory, such as trades and rock music. Eve herself was a member of two rock bands, Barbie’s Dead and Toxic Shock.” Penelope believes the inclusion of school girls was another strength of the mural, “I think that made it very aspirational for the next generation. People could see themselves in the mural and back then there weren’t many spaces for that.” But has the situation improved in the past thirty years? Sally’s impression is that, “It was rare then, but unfortunately it’s still rare now,” which is why the mural continues to have relevance to the present day. As Penelope says, “There’s never been any talk about it being outdated, or passé.”
Having stood the test of time for three decades, the local community was shocked when a notorious tagger defaced the mural in 2016. The public outcry over the extensive damage was huge, with many people calling for the mural to be repainted. However, no one had asked the mural’s artists what they wanted, which was where Sally Northfield and Danielle Hakim stepped in. They started the Women's Mural Documentation Project while working together at the Women’s Art Register. As Danielle explains, “Colin Mowbray had started the Refresh the Smith Street Mural Facebook group to get the community together. He asked for suggestions from the public, but we thought we could be advocates for the artists and help them to be involved in the process.”
They quickly discovered that Eve and Megan were strongly against repainting the mural or even salvaging the surviving panels. Sally recalls, “They didn’t want to have a bar of it!” So, with the artists feeling like it was time to leave the physical mural behind, Danielle and Sally began collating an archive of documentation material. They recorded the public’s reactions, photographed the wall in its various states, and as Danielle explains, “We did a lot of letterboxing to get the community to share with us anything they had about the mural and ideas about how it could be remembered and celebrated.”
In 2018 the Women's Mural Documentation Project joined forces with Her Place Women’s Museum Australia, as both groups were keen to ensure a wide audience had the opportunity to connect with the growing archive and learn more about this significant piece of local feminist artwork. They successfully applied for a Local History Grant from Public Record Office Victoria in order to take this next step. Creating and sourcing new content, they worked with Digital Heritage Australia to design a digital platform that brings together photographs, music, audio interviews and written text in a ‘virtual tour’ of the mural from 1986 to 2019. The web-based format is ideal for accessibility and also makes it easy for content or additional platforms to be added if new material becomes available in the future.
There is plenty of scope for more voices to be included, and they are still keen to hear from anyone with a story to tell about the mural. In particular, they would love to hear from anyone who was painted for the mural, as the individual stories of the women and girls depicted in the artwork have proven difficult to track down so far.
Finding music from the mural’s launch party was another challenging aspect of the research, so Danielle and Sally were thrilled when Barbie’s Dead guitarist Jane Cottrill came forth with two unreleased tracks. These feminist rock songs, which had been hidden away since their recording in the early 1980s, help to provide a context for the local scene in which the mural was created, and the Women's Mural Documentation Project could not wait to share them with new audiences. As Sally says, “We think one of them is a hit waiting to happen!”
While the music was an exciting discovery, it was Megan and Eve’s memories and personal archive of photographs that provided the heart of the digital project. The story of how hard they fought to create something they believed in, and the way they encouraged the whole community to be a part of the process is truly inspiring. Penelope remembers listening to their stories in the recording studio and, “recognising that this was gold. This was something worth everybody hearing. Their tenacity was unreal. You couldn’t do what they did today!”
Danielle considers the artists to be co-collaborators in the digital project too, “They’ve been really supportive, sharing their time, stories and images, and trusting us to create a virtual tour. They’re both amazing women with such interesting stories and careers.” Megan and Eve were also still in touch with many of the mural’s early allies, from unionists through to artist collaborators. Their interviews, when played alongside those from more recent supporters, enabled Her Place Women’s Museum Australia and the Women's Mural Documentation Project to tell the well-rounded story they had hoped for, one that encompassed all the different perspectives.
Throughout the past three years, the mural wall, Women's Mural: Bomboniere to Barbed Wire, has been an active space, as the community took a stand against the tagger, filling the void he created with documentation from the 1980s, feminist graffiti, rainbows flags and messages of hope. In 2016, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, there was even an Art Tram paying homage to the mural that ran on the 86 route along Smith Street and past the site. Her Place and the Women’s Mural Documentation Project had originally hoped that their digital project would be a companion piece to the evolving physical mural, but the site was slated for redevelopment, and demolition happened much quicker than they anticipated. However, the complete loss of the original mural has confirmed to the team just how important their project is, ensuring that the many stories behind Megan Evans’ and Eve Glenn’s artwork will be celebrated for years to come.