Indigenous urban art collection needs a home

This program and video material was originally broadcast on ABC TV’s Stateline NSW on Friday 10-sep-2010 and can be heard at 

It is ironic that 4 years later not very much has changed for the Syron’s vision of a permament Keeping Place for their remarkable art collection.  It is worthwhile watching this video again while their network of supporters are still trying to find a permanent home for The Keeping Place,  this time at Middle Head, Mosman,  in the former buildings of the 10 Terminal Regiment.

Source: ABC TV, Stateline NSW
Published: Friday, September 10, 2010 10:24 AEST
Expires: Thursday, December 9, 2010 10:24 AEST

The ‘Keeping Place’ archive of contemporary Indigenous art and photography is under threat as artist Gordon Syron and wife Elaine Syron are evicted from their Eveleigh home to make way for redevelopment.

QUENTIN DEMPSTER, PRESENTER:   An uncertain future.  The “Keeping Place” collection has been amassed over 30 years by Aboriginal artist Gordon Syron and his American-born photographer wife Elaine Syron.  The collection contains hundreds of works, including both traditional and edgy urban Aboriginal art. It’s currently housed in an old shed at Sydney’s Eveleigh railyards.  Recently the Syrons were told to leave and make way for redevelopment. Their collection will have to be put into storage.  The collection’s many admirers say it’s a National Treasure that urgently needs to be showcased in a permanent home – but where? A warning to viewers: this story may contain images of people who are no longer living.

GORDON SYRON, ARTIST AND ART COLLECTOR:  There’s about 1,400, 1,500-plus paintings in this building. There’s more paintings on shelves put away than what you see than what’s hanging up and the smaller paintings are on shelves. And each painting tells a story, and it tells a story from each individual’s perspective. And of course each perspective is a different story.

ADRIAN NEWSTEAD, COO-EE ART GALLERY:  It’s a most remarkable collection of work. Gordon Syron is a renowned urban Aboriginal artist who’s principally exhibited within the Aboriginal community for over 40 years. And during that period he has known and worked with and been associated with a very large number of artists, urban artists with a special concentration around NSW artists, Koori artists, but also much further afield: urban Aboriginal artists from all over Australia and then traditional artists. And as many artists do, he’s swapped works with many of the people that he’s worked with and alongside of. And so over a 40-year period Gordon and Elaine have collected a most eclectic group of artworks.

GORDON SYRON:  The photographs are important. They record and show different things in history and what’s happened with Aboriginality. Some of the characters in them, some of those people are not there no more. And that’s important to people.

ELAINE SYRON, PHOTOGRAPHER AND ART COLLECTOR:  It’s a national collection and it should be treated with respect and the way that other countries treat their first indigenous people. You know, Gordon is part of the first Australians, and they deserving a keeping place for when the tourists come and then they can see the Aboriginal people working, talk the them, they can tell their stories and somehow it’s things that they choose rather than what the white people choose.

LARISSA BEHRENDT, UTS JUMBUNNA HOUSE OF LEARNING:  I think one of the things that everyone in the community’s appreciated is that this is a really significant collection, that Uncle Gordon and Aunty Elaine have been collecting pretty much over a lifetime, so the diversity of the artists, the – its reflection of the richness of contemporary Aboriginal art is really significant to us as a community, and I think also too we feel very strongly that what’s very strongly represented within the collection is urban Aboriginal experience, which doesn’t tend to always be as valued as other Aboriginal art. Uncle Gordon in many ways is a real embodiment of that struggle, and us working so hard to get him acknowledged was also part of a broader plan to try and emphasise that this kind of collection is really reflective of our culture, our contemporary culture, our contemporary urban experience and for those reasons we feel it really should be protected.

IRENE DOUTNEY, CITY OF SYDNEY COUNCIL:  This is a treasure trove for Aboriginal art and Aboriginal culture. But for me it’s so important that it is somehow put into a place where it will be safe, where the community will have access to it.

ADRIAN NEWSTEAD:  And all of this is sitting in a shed, a railway shed in Redfern. The shed is totally inappropriate for its home and they’re being moved out. And their own future and the future of the collection is uncertain.

GORDON SYRON: Course you can see the mark on the paintings being damaged because of the weather conditions in – it’s suffered in this building.

We’re about to be evicted from this building. We have to find a place for the collection and a place to live – simple as that. And that’s a pretty big task.

ELAINE SYRON: We have agreed to go now because we have to get out of this building and we were hoping that once we go the State Government and the Federal Government and the City of Sydney will help us more. And we are grateful that we had this place to live in for three years and keep the collection together and now we hope to move on and prove a point that we – it’s a struggle and now it’s time to make peace with the governments and hope that they help – we hope that they’ll help us find a benefactor or they’ll buy it themselves.

MICHAEL KIRBY, KEEPING PLACE PATRON: It would be a tragedy if we couldn’t make sure that we’ve got some facility in all of our great and glorious city where we could put together and keep together this collection and have it properly displayed, and not all at once, but bringing out examples of Aboriginal artists, from the marvellous dot paintings of the Northern Territory down to the very accurate portraiture.

GORDON SYRON: I don’t know. It’s all part of my life, I guess, Aboriginal life. It’s been part of my struggle. But I always – you’ll always see the living ships coming through the heads in my paintings.

QUENTIN DEMPSTER: Save the Keeping Place Art.

Keeping Place Network

The Keeping Place project is acquiring more energy due to a growing number of individuals, government agencies, not-for-profits and corporates who are offering their support in 2014.

We need to convert this expression of support into time, bodies and $$$ to work on various projects associated with the Keeping Place.   I have identified a number of sub-projects that need to be completed, and in some cases started from scratch.

  • updating the Keeping Place Art Catalogue
  • revaluing the Keeping Place Art Collection
  • doing a full risk management assessment on the Keeping Place Art Collection
  • completing transport and storage of the bulk of the Keeping Place Art Collection from Greenwich to a number of short-term locations
  • curating an exhibition of Elaine Syron’s photography,  which hasn’t been seen publicly for some years
  • creating a Keeping Place on Walkabout exhibition that could be touring Greater Sydney, Canberra and a number of regional NSW locations, as soon as October.

There are lots of interesting projects to be done.  We need people with all sorts of skills, literally

  • people who can run catering at fund raising events
  • people who have art curator experience
  • database specialists
  • help with creating an e-commerce enabled online gallery for selling the works of Gordon and Elaine, and help pay some of the bills for managing the Keeping Place Art Collection
  • people who can pack and load art works and boxes of documents, etc into vehicles
  • people who can drive their own vehicle to help us complete the current move
  • digital designers who can help with our WordPress based web site
  • people who can lead project teams of no more than 6 people
  • people who are happy to be “worker bees” on one of the project teams
  • people who can answer phone calls and emails on behalf of the Keeping Place Project

To take advantage of all the people and organisations out there who have offered their support we are now creating the Keeping Place Network (KPN),  which will soon have its own web site, that will have detailed descriptions on projects that are require people and resources, and ways to register the skills, experience and physical resources that you may be able to offer.

Physically the Keeping Place Project is located in northern Sydney right now.   But because we are leveraging the Internet for almost all of our activities it is possible for some volunteers to work elsewhere,  including their own home or office.

Please send an email to if you would like to become more involved with making Gordon and Elaine’s Keeping Place vision into a reality.   I can guarantee that it will be a challenging but stimulating and fun experience for you.


John Young
Director Communications
Keeping Place
m   0407 940 943

Elaine Syron-Perot – her story

Elaine Pelot-Syron (Formerly Elaine Pelot-Kitchener)

This biography was first published online at

McMullen, Syron, G+E
Figure 1   Elaine Syron with Dr Jeff McMullen and her husband artist Gordon Syron at Darling Harbour

Immigrated to Australia in 1971. Taught English for two years at Picnic Point High School, Randwick Girls High, Vaucluse Boys High. Received Diploma of Special Education from Alexander Mackie College. Marked Higher School Certificate for 5 years. Taught part-time at Randwick TAFE and Sydney TAFE.

Began documentary photography full-time by taking photos for Koori Bina (later AIM Aboriginal Newsletter), Koorier, Ministry of NSW Aboriginal Affairs, Mum Shirl, Joe Croft, Dr Roberta Sykes and Pat O’Shane. Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal & Islander Dance Theatre.

First Solo photographic exhibition at the Aboriginal Children’s Service run by directors Jenny Munro and Isabel Coe. This collection was moved to the AMS where Charlie Perkins’ encouraged, appreciated and used the photographs to the Canberra collection.

Shot cover photograph for Mum Shirl book.

In association with Mum Shirl, obtained two grants from the Aboriginal Arts Board to produce two books on “The Urban Aboriginal” and “The Aboriginal Matriarchs of Australia”. Tapes and photographs were made over the next years. Mum Shirl and I never finished these books. Being the recipient of these two grants for photographic work was significant as the Aboriginal Arts Board stopped giving grants to Whitefellas after that time.

Grant received from the Aboriginal Arts Board for another Solo Exhibition covering the Aboriginal Legal Service, Portraits, Land Claims and Aboriginal Legal Services throughout NSW, e.g., Moree, Walgett, Dubbo, Gulargambone.

Solo Exhibition at the Australian Museum, Sydney, officially opened by Gary Foley and Mum Shirl.

Exhibition at Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, Paddington. Title: “The Birth of Bangarra – A Decade of Dance” opened by Fay Nelson and the Bangarra Dancers.

Solo Exhibition at Josef Lebovic Gallery, Paddington. Title: “On The Cross” opened by ‘Carmen’.

Exhibition at NSW Parliament House. Title: “Aboriginal Deaths In Custody”, opened by Jeff Shaw, Attorney General. Co-Exhibition with Gordon Syron’s paintings of Aboriginal Deaths In Custody.

Solo Exhibition at DQ Art on Oxford, Darlinghurst. Title: “Play and Politics of The Sydney Gay & Lesbian Community”. Official Opening by Smantha Leith with Play Theme starring Ms Hillari & Guests 1986 to 1999.

Solo Exhibition at Black Fella’s Dreaming Art Gallery, Darlinghurst. Tille: “A Blast From The Past – A Photographic Retrospective of Mardi Gras Moments”. Official Opening by Clover Moore and Vanity Fair.

Solo Exhibition at Black Fella’s Dreaming Art Gallery. Title: “An Arm, A Leg, And A Coloured Man”. Opened by Arm. A Retrospective of Australian Tattoo and Tattooists, 1986 – 2005.

Biggest Achievement besides having 4 children, was winning the State of Florida’s 100 Mile Endurance Ride at the age of 16.

Figure 2 It will be unusual to see Elaine Syron without a video or still camera in her hands. here she is taking pix of Dr Keith Vincent Smith at Manly. Keith is a recognized authority of the history Eora people who lived in the greater Sydney area. His focus is on the Eora pople’s history since First Contact in 1770 and he had created many books, academic papers and exhibitions on Benelong, Pemulwuy, Bungaree and the maritime achievements of First Australians in Mari Nawi.
Figure 3 Elaine and Gordon Syron at Manly Art Gallery 23-apr-2014
Figure 4 Dr Keith Vincent Smith gave Elaine and Gordon Syron a guided tour around his “First encounters by the Aboriginal people of Manly and Northern Sydney” that ran for almost 9 months at Manly Art Gallery till June 2014.

Gordon Syron – his story

This article was written by  Vivien Johnson,  and was published at

IMG_0258Biripi/Worimi painter, educator and political agitator, Gordon Syron was born at Nabiac on the mid north coast of NSW on December 26th 1941, the eleventh of 16 children. He grew up close to the land on the family dairy farm at Minimbah. With so many children the family was never well off, but there was always food on the table. Working before and after school and at weekends helping to milk and herd the cows as well as other chores provided him with the self-discipline that has since helped him to remain focused on his painting for over 30 years.

The farm was originally purchased by Syron’s Irish grandfather, Patrick Daniel Syron, enabling his Worimi grandmother and her descendants to escape the mission environment, whose oppressiveness for Aboriginal people is a constant theme in Syron’s work. Syron’s Biripi maternal grandmother made a similar escape by marrying a Scotsman named McKinnon. Both were practising Christians and Syron’s mother Eileen owned a stack of bibles. Syron was particularly fond of his paternal grandmother, a “fine dresser” who wore a fox stole and a hat with feathers on their trips to the movies in Forster. He sat proudly beside her in what he thought were the best seats in the house (right down the front), not realising until decades later that they were the “black seats” [segregated seating for Aboriginal patrons].

In 1959 after completing his Intermediate Certificate, Syron came to Sydney where he studied Technical Drawing at Ultimo Technical College and became an apprentice electrician at the Railway Institute. He was also a Lifesaver at Soldiers Beach Budgewoi on the NSW Central Coast. Between labouring and factory jobs he pursued his passion and talent for amateur boxing. He won several NSW Golden Globe Awards before being knocked unconscious when he slipped in a wet ring on the eve of the Australia and New Zealand titles and decided to quit before he did himself serious damage. He also worked as a truck driver and PMG linesman.

Though aware of his Aboriginal parentage, Syron did not engage with his own Aboriginality until his trial and conviction for murdering his uncle’s adopted son over the inheritance of his uncle’s farm – which to this day Syron regards as a “land rights” issue. The judge refused Syron’s defence counsel’s request for an Aboriginal jurist on the grounds that his client was not black enough to be considered Aboriginal. This incident inspired Syron’s most famous painting Judgement By His Peers, in which a white defendant faces an all-black jury and courtroom. A more perfect symbolism for the failure of the criminal justice system to deliver justice to Indigenous Australians is hard to imagine. It was painted in 1978, while he was still in prison, having taught himself to paint over the preceding six years, with some pointers from a forger who was a fellow prisoner. Former Director of the Department of Corrective Services, Dr Tony Vinson, was so moved by the painting when he first saw it in an exhibition of prisoners’ art that he came and knocked on the door of Syron’s cell to shake the hand of the man who had painted it.

In 2004 Syron told an audience of inmates at Bathurst prison that art had saved his life and his sanity in prison. He shares this pathway into art with other high profile Aboriginal artists including Jimmy Pike and Kevin Gilbert.

Since his release after serving 10 years of his life sentence in some of the most forbidding prisons in New South Wales, Syron has worked tirelessly. He joined the campaign against Aboriginal deaths in custody, serving as President of the Black Deaths in Custody Watch Committee before deciding to pour his anger at social injustice and the ongoing devastation of Aboriginal society and people by colonisation into his art. Syron’s paintings express his wickedly sardonic and savagely satirical sense of humour – and a heartfelt admiration for heroic Aboriginal activists and artists such as Mum Shirl (who helped him survive prison) and David Gulpilil. The lyrical painterliness of his recent Where Wildflowers Once Grew series, commenced in 2002, recalls the happiness of his country childhood in the 1940s and early 1950s and his bitterness at the loss of his family’s land. It is also a reminder of Syron’s long-held ambition to “paint gum trees like van Gogh”.

His post-prison style has progressively harnessed the expressive properties of paint to vent his ongoing emotional engagement with struggles for Aboriginal social justice. Other major series include Coming Through the Heads, comprising more than 100 representations of Invasion Day, EmusGender of God and Black Fairies (in which he expresses his concern for the environment). In the 1990s Syron executed three variants of Judgement By His Peers: in one a white Defence lawyer represented Mr Justice Roden, who defended Syron at his murder trial; in another a flame haired caricature of Pauline Hansen stands in the dock and in a third O.J. Simpson confronts an all-white courtroom.

Syron first exhibited his work in 1972 in an exhibition of prison art at the Ball and Chain Gallery in The Rocks, Sydney. As a model prisoner, he was permitted day release to work in the gallery, spending hours studying the paintings in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in his free time. His first solo exhibitions were at Murawina Aboriginal Childcare Centre in Redfern in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His first cousin, renowned Aboriginal actor Brian Syron, encouraged his painting and from 1977-1982 he painted many backdrops for Aboriginal theatrical productions, most famously The Cakeman in 1981.

In 1982 he painted the backdrop for the Face, Masks & Costume Jewellery Pavilion at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane.

Between 1982 and 1986, he helped set up the Eora Centre, an Indigenous visual and performing arts school in Redfern where he worked as head teacher (Visual Arts). Among his students were James P Simon, Andrew Saunders, Darren Beetson, Euphemia Bostock, Peter Chester, Isabelle Coe and Terry Shewring. Others influenced by Syron’s work were the makers of the mockumentary Babakiueria (Directed by Don Featherstone ABC1986) in which Aboriginal redcoats invade an Indigenous white society.

In 1984 Syron and Judgement By His Peers had their first exposure to the contemporary Australian art world in ‘Koori Art ’84’After leaving Eora, Syron worked for two years (1987-88) as a Lecturer in Fine Arts for the Aboriginal Education Unit at the University of Sydney.

In the years following (1989-91), he devoted himself to his art, experimenting with primitivism, impressionism and surrealism . In 1992-93 he produced lithographs in collaboration with Theo Tremblay, which were included in a group exhibition of Urban Aboriginal Art lithographs at Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in 1995. Black Deaths in Custody’his first solo exhibition since the Murawina show, was held at the Balmain Community Centre in 1994-95 and gave expression to the artist’s pent-up rage and frustration at still climbing Aboriginal rates of incarceration and deaths in custody, in the raw emotion with which Syron explored his dark theme.

In 1996 the series was exhibited with photographs by Syron’s devoted friend and agent, photographer Elaine Pelot, at NSW Parliament House and the following year, the same exhibition, re-titled ‘I Shoulda Been A Statistic’ was shown at North Adelaide School of Arts Gallery.

In 1997, Syron had two solo exhibitions and a two person show with Pelot’s photographs at DQ Art on Oxford St, a small gallery upstairs from Pelot’s Doublequick Photo shop, where the following year his solo exhibition ‘My Rally Against Racism’ began to attract more interest in his work. He was also included in a group exhibition, the optimistically titled ‘Dreaming the Republic: Aboriginal Responses to the Coming of the Republic’ at Newcastle City Gallery.

In 1999 he was included in the Museum of Sydney’s ‘Bamaradbanga’ group exhibition and the Australian Museum Sydney staged a mini-retrospective of his work, titled ‘The Quiet Achiever’.

In 2000, Syron was artist-in-residence for the Australian Humanist Society Sydney. His work was included in an exhibition of Aboriginal Art staged at the Australian Pavilion for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and his massive 1998 portrait of Mum Shirl was the centrepiece of the Mum Shirl Tribute exhibition staged at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, later shown at the Powerhouse Museum. At the opening of the exhibition ‘In Ya Face: Gordon Syron and Gordon Hookey‘ at Boomalli the following year, Hookey acknowledged Syron as a key influence.

In 2002, Pelot closed her photography business after 16 years and the Oxford St premises became Black Fella’s Dreaming Aboriginal Art Gallery and Museum, a response to Syron’s anger and frustration at the exploitation of Aboriginal art by non-Indigenous interests. “I refuse to sell my paintings cheaply to white galleries who make all the profit”. The Gallery gave artists 70% of the sale price of their paintings and bought directly from the artists. Though not a commercial success, it was a source of great pride to Syron as Sydney’s only Aboriginal owned and run commercial gallery and it provided a venue for numerous Syron solo and group exhibitions including his work, notably ‘Private Clubs and Politics: Paintings by Gordon Syron and James P. Simon with Photographs by Elaine Pelot’ 2003 and the ‘Black Fairies’ exhibitions in 2004.

For much of this period, Pelot and Syron lived in the idyllic surroundings of Magnetic Island in far north Queensland. In November 2004 Syron and Pelot were married before the cameras of the SBS funded documentary ‘Our Bush Wedding’.

At the end of 2004 they moved the Museum to Bangalow on the far north coast of NSW, employing local Aboriginal people to run the gallery and ‘Talkin’ Up Culture’ tours of the Museum. In a corner of the Museum, cordoned off from the sprawling collection of bark paintings, desert acrylics, sculptures, hand carved weapons, bold political paintings, early prints, etchings, historical newspapers, books, magazines, documentary photography and Aboriginal memorabilia, and surrounded by most of his best known works, still unsold, from his prison days to the present, Syron painted doggedly on, as he put it, “for justice, self-determination and reconciliation”.

By 2006 the Bangalow venture had been abandoned and the Museum collection placed on the market. Syron returned to Sydney, taking up a three month studio residency at the College of Fine Arts UNSW before returning to Magnetic Island and later to Sydney.

McMullen, Syron, G+EKD3