Here's to you, Mum Shirl

Mum Shirl, Aboriginal leader and community powerhouse, remembered in exhibition

Art
INDOMITABALE SPIRIT: The late Mum Shirl in 1984 with an image of Truganini, the so-called "last of the Tasmanian Aborigines", in the background. Photo: Elaine Pelot Syron

INDOMITABALE SPIRIT: The late Mum Shirl in 1984 with an image of Truganini, the so-called "last of the Tasmanian Aborigines", in the background. Photo: Elaine Pelot Syron

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In the streets of Redfern and well beyond, her commanding presence remains to this day.

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It is 21 years since Shirley Smith died, but for those who knew and loved the Aboriginal leader known as "Mum Shirl", her spirit is alive today as it was when she strode the streets of Redfern, Sydney's hub of Indigenous political activism.

A commanding presence, Mum Shirl was hugely influential and possessed of an urgency of purpose in the service of people in need.

Now an exhibition by two artists who knew her well pays tribute to the woman and her work.

Mum Shirl: Black Saint of Redfern will run from July 4-27 at Cooee Art Gallery in Paddington. It will feature historical paintings by Gordon Syron and photographs by his wife, Elaine Pelot Syron.

POWERFUL: Judgement by his Peers by Gordon Syron. The work was painted in 1978 while the artist was in jail, where Mum Shirl visited him.

POWERFUL: Judgement by his Peers by Gordon Syron. The work was painted in 1978 while the artist was in jail, where Mum Shirl visited him.

A Wiradjuri woman, Mum Shirl was born in 1921 at Erambie Mission near Cowra before moving to Kempsey and eventually settling in Redfern.

There she joined the local Catholic church, where she met Father Ted Kennedy. Together they ran the Sunday morning mass and often she would stand and tell, in detail, of a family getting evicted or in dire need of help.

With the help she enlisted she often assisted all sorts of people, never discriminating between black or white.

Immersed in the struggle for equal rights for Aborigines, Mum Shirl met regularly with young leaders and activists. She helped the police to settle disputes among families and groups and to calm down situations that could end in violence.

Calls for help came at all hours and she was in such demand that she was put under great stress. Her work in the jails saw her involved in the royal commissions into prisons and Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Mum Shirl was given a state funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in 1998.

Born in the Mid-North Coast, Gordon first met Mum Shirl in 1977. "Mum recognised that I did not know much about the huge land called Australia and I became her student," he writes.

Over the years they travelled many places together, to prisons, children's courts, hospitals, protests, marches and more. Through her, he said, he began to feel a small part of the huge land rights movement.

Her favourite work, Gordon said, was his 1978 painting Judgement By His Peers - a story about the injustice of the court system, which will be on display .

US-born Elaine emigrated to Australia during the civil right movement. After seven years as teacher, she resigned to spend more time documenting the residents of Redfern and their struggles.

Mum Shirl: Black Saint of Redfern, 326 Oxford Street, Paddington. Open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm. Entry free.

Parts of this article are extracted from an essay provided by Cooee Art Gallery.

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