Monday, February 26, 2024

First Nations mural unearthed at Old Geelong Gaol

Research funded by the City of Greater Geelong has provided confirmation that a mural at the Old Geelong Gaol is the work of former inmate and well-known First Nations artist, Revel Cooper.

Mr Cooper was a prominent member of a Noongar art movement that emerged among children living at the Carrolup Native Settlement during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

He was imprisoned in Geelong from the 1960s to early 1970s. While he spent much of his life in gaol, he still sold paintings regularly and was a prominent influence on the trail-blazing First Nations artist, Lin Onus.

His work is found in several collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Holmes à Court Gallery, Fremantle Prison, and the Berndt Museum of Anthropology.

“It’s believed that Revel worked on a number of paintings while he was in prison in Geelong. Many of his works were exhibited in galleries in the 1960s while others, like this mural, were believed to have been lost,” said Old Geelong Gaol General Manager, Deb Robinson.

The mural is located in the Chapel on the gaol’s second floor and has only been accessible to the public since January this year.

Measuring 12 metres by three metres, the mural features two people looking at a sunset. Other inmates have added to the mural, including images of a reptilian kangaroo and crocodile, an early design of the Aboriginal flag, and Bungdil (a wedge tailed eagle) with a rabbit in its claws.

“This is about so much more than an artwork. It’s about building respect for First Nations culture and recognising the layers of impact and trauma suffered as a result of so many factors including the overwhelmingly disproportionate levels of incarceration of First Nations People,” said Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Corporation CEO, Paul Davis.

The Gaol closed in 1991 and the remaining prisoners were transferred to the newly constructed Barwon Prison.

Grant funding of up to $60,000 was provided under the City’s new First Nations Cultural Heritage Grants to conserve the Cultural narrative of the artwork, and to work closely with the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners, the Cooper family and broader First Nation communities as an intangible Cultural restoration project.

“I was pleased to put forward the proposal for funding for the new First Nations Cultural Heritage Grants with the full support of the Traditional Owners of our region,” said Councillor, Anthony Aitken.

“Heritage grants in Greater Geelong have always focused on European settlers. We want to start shifting the balance and draw attention to one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet.

“Revel Cooper’s work is absolutely amazing and striking to the eye; we are so lucky to add this mural to the Geelong region’s arts and culture collection.”

The second round of the First Nations Cultural Heritage Grants includes up to $100,000 for projects that recognise, restore, protect and preserve, Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.

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