Would you like to add an editable biography for Gordon Syron? You can add one here.
Biripi/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, Emus, Gender 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 ABC 1986) 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.