Warning: This page contains mention of elders who have passed on.
Trigger warning: This page contains mentions of rape and murder
The National Art School stands on Gadigal land, which was never ceded. Gadigal were one of a number of clans, collectively known as the Eora Nation, living in what is now called the Sydney Metropolitan area.
In Aboriginal People and Place on the City of Sydney’s website Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History, Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson describe Gadi (gal) country stretching along the southern side of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) from South Head to around what is now known as Petersham, while the southern boundary is unclear.
It is thought the hill where NAS now stands was a significant Gadigal site with pathways running through it and possibly used for ceremony, with good views of the harbour to the north and an abundant supply of water from Yurong Creek that ran from Darlinghurst to Waalamool (Woolloomooloo), and Rushcutters Creek to the east.
Darlinghurst Gaol was built on the ridge between Waalamool and Kogerrah (Rushcutters Bay), a place of sandstone and dry sclerophyll forest with many Sydney redgums, as well as banksia and coastal heath plants such as hakea.
North of where NAS now stands, the valleys leading down to Waalamool (Wooloomooloo) and Wahganmuggalee (Farm Cove) gave way to Swamp Oak Forest. To the east and on exposed headlands were pockets of coastal heath forest. To the south the dry forest turned to grassland, swamp and wetlands.
The harbour including Warrane (Sydney Cove) was an important part of Gadigal country and culture. The coastal people gathered shellfish including badangi (Sydney rock oysters), gadyan (Sydney cockles) and mussels, shown by the many middens that remain in the Sydney area. They also used nawi (canoes) for fishing, during the day and at night, building fires onboard to cook their catch.
The 2022 public artwork bara by Waanyi artist Judy Watson was inspired by the shell hooks Gadigal women used for fishing, kept in the Australian Museum’s collection in Sydney. Of her sculpture, which sits high on a lawn near the Sydney Opera House facing the Harbour Bridge, Watson said: “My concept for bara re-imagines ancient gathering spaces where people sat by fires on the headlands and feasted. bara provides a quiet space for ceremony, reflection and contemplation in a busy and ever-changing city.”
With the invasion of the country in 1788 by the British First Fleet, the impact on Indigenous people, their country and culture, was catastrophic in the short and long term. Early colonists estimated 1,500 Aboriginal people were living at that time between Broken Bay in Sydney’s north and Botany Bay to the south, but more recent estimates range from 3000 to 5000 people. Within a year, it was reported that around half these local people had died from the smallpox epidemic of 1789.
At the same time as this terrible loss of life, there was also resistance to the invaders, such as the guerrilla war waged from 1788 to 1802 against the Sydney Cove colony by Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man from the Botany Bay area.
As Sydney historian and lecturer Alana Piper notes in her research paper exploring the history of Yirranma Place in Darlinghurst near the National Art School, Aboriginal presence, culture and history did not end in Sydney with the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788, but has continued, disrupted but unbroken, to this day.
By 1822, when building began on the Darlinghurst Gaol walls, the First Peoples who had lived here and cared for their country for countless generations had largely been dispossessed in this area, but more than 200 Aboriginal people lived nearby in Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay), (Derrawunn) Potts Point and Waalamool (Woolloomooloo), which remains an important site for Aboriginal people today.
After the so-called ‘assimilation’ of Aboriginal people into the British colony, many were interned in Darlinghurst Gaol after it opened in 1841. At least five were condemned to death and four were hanged for murder or rape: Mogo Gar in 1850, John McGrath in 1875, Jimmy Governor in 1901 and Thomas Moore in 1903. Others had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment, often with hard labour.
According to Sydney historian and archaeologist Paul Irish, First Nations people lived nearby while the gaol was in operation, including at Barcom Glen just below the gaol until the 1860s, and elsewhere around Kogerrah (Rushcutters Bay) until around 1900. While some were inmates at Darlinghurst, usually interned for minor offences, most Aboriginal prisoners came from elsewhere across NSW.
Sydney was the centre of the colonial justice system, and Darlinghurst Gaol came into operation when colonial expansion across the state was underway. Aboriginal people were arrested for offences such assault, murder and spearing cattle on the colonial frontier, and for a range of other crimes as they were forced to adjust to life under colonial rule.
Irish says poor conditions in the gaol contributed to the ill health of prisoners, and many inmates died. As Darlinghurst Gaol was primarily a manufacturing gaol, some First Nations prisoners received training in stonemasonry in the 1850s and 1860s and in 1876 several skilled weavers at the gaol had their mats displayed at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Irish says it is not known how many Aboriginal prisoners served time in Darlinghurst Gaol, as their heritage was not always recorded in admission registers, particularly in cases of mixed ancestry. Prison photos and records are sometimes the only archival evidence of these inmates, and historians are now beginning to examine these records more closely for a more detailed understanding of the lives of Indigenous prisoners.
Wiradjuri man Jimmy Governor was the most renowned First Peoples inmate in Darlinghurst Gaol. As NAS archivist and historian Deborah Beck notes in her book about the gaol, Hope in Hell, Jimmy’s life was recorded in detail and was the basis for Thomas Keneally’s 1972 book, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, later made into a 1978 film by Fred Schepisi. After committing murder and rape with his brother Joe, Jimmy eluded the police and Aboriginal trackers for 14 weeks. Joe was killed after an extensive manhunt. Jimmy was captured on 19 October, 1900 and taken to Darlinghurst Gaol where he was photographed for the Entrance and Description Book.
He was convicted on 23 November 1900, given the death penalty, and was hanged at the gaol on 18 January 1901, aged 26. His story has seen a resurgence of interest recently, including the 2021 book On Thomas Keneally by Wiradjuri man, journalist and writer Stan Grant, reflecting on Governor’s life and Keneally’s rewriting of it. Grant visited the former gaol site as part of his research:
‘I went in search of a ghost: the ghost of Jimmy Governor. I went to the place where he took his last breath. The old Darlinghurst Gaol is now the site of the National Art School. The gallows are gone. But behind the high sandstone walls, it is not so hard to imagine what it was like, back then. I was taken through the time-worn corridors, past what once were cold prison cells. I turned a corner and stopped suddenly, like something – or someone – had grabbed hold of me. I looked up and my tour guide said, that’s where it happened. Exactly there, she said, where I was standing, is where Jimmy was hanged. Above me was where the trapdoor would have been, and where the hangman would have placed the noose around Jimmy’s neck.
‘… Jimmy was executed less than three weeks after Federation, and here I am searching for him still, looking back into the past to try to make sense of who I am. More than a hundred years later, Jimmy Governor still casts a shadow over this nation. Jimmy Governor haunts me and he haunts Australia.’
Kudjla/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd made two paintings of Jimmy Governor for the 2016 exhibition in the NAS Gallery, Sixth Sense, and generously donated the works to the NAS Collection. Painted on small canvasses using oil, acrylic, pastel, charcoal and glue, they hung in the gallery on either side of Boyd’s site-specific work, an untitled window piece with many pinholes, which transformed the exterior into a dotted vision.
NAS students have also responded to the story of Jimmy Governor. In 2016, printmaking student Kirtika Kain made some large prints outside Building 24. Using text and enlarged photographs, the interactive prints were displayed for a few months, and students were encouraged to place their thumbprint onto one of the panels.
Overall, NAS has had relatively few First Peoples students, however many of those who studied here went on to successful careers as artists. These include the late Thainakuith woman Thancoupie, recognised today as a ground-breaking Australian ceramicist, who drew inspiration from her cultural stories, translating them into contemporary three-dimensional forms. Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative founders and artists Euphemia Bostock, Fiona Foley, Fern Martins and Jeffrey Samuels also studied at NAS.
Wiradjuri woman Karla Dickens has spoken about how her time studying at NAS helped save her life, before she went on to build a career as one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. Most recently, Dickens took part in the 2022 Sydney Festival with her show Return to Sender at Carriageworks, and was commissioned to create the artwork To see or not to see for the façade of the Art Gallery of NSW. Embracing Shadows, the artist’s 2023 survey exhibition at Campbelltown Arts Centre, spanned 30 years of practice, and Moby Dickens, the portrait of Dickens by artist Blak Douglas in the wake of the Lismore floods, won the 2022 Archibald Prize.
Badtjala artist and NAS alumna Fiona Foley’s solo exhibition and installation, Who are these strangers and where are they going?, was shown in the NAS Gallery in January 2020 as part of the Sydney Festival, including a Q&A discussion with Bandjalung man and curator Djon Mundine. Foley is a highly respected contemporary artist, academic and writer, with her 2020 book Biting the Clouds uncovering the little-known colonial-era practice of paying Indigenous workers in opium.
Tony Albert (Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku–Yalanji peoples) created a site-specific artwork for the NAS campus as part of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney in March 2020. Inspired by the original 1873 stained-glass window in the NAS Chapel building depicting the prodigal son parable, Brothers (The Prodigal Son) was a life-sized stained-glass work set in sandstone, installed at the art school’s entrance with the Chapel behind it.
In February 2021 NAS graduate Rubyrose Bancroft was featured in the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative group show Loom at Carriageworks. Rubyrose was one of the emerging artists presented by NAS at the 2021 Sydney Contemporary art fair.
In February 2022, NAS welcomed John Waight as the new Head of First People’s Programs. Originally from Darwin, John is descended from the Mangarayi people whose country is just outside Katherine. He joined First Peoples Program Coordinator Georgia Mokak to develop and coordinate programs, policies and curricula at NAS for First Peoples students, prospective students and the broader community.
In 2023 NAS’s public exhibitions program includes Occurrent Affair: proppaNOW, from 24 June to 5 August, showing works from Queensland’s leading Indigenous arts collective, proppaNOW, which began in Brisbane in 2003 to give urban-based Aboriginal artists a voice. Together Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and Laurie Nilsen present a unique perspective of black Australia, at once confronting and thought-provoking, which won the 2022–2024 Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice, a prestigious US prize.
Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson, ‘Aboriginal People and Place’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History
Dr Alana Piper, Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney, Yirranma Place research paper, 2022
Dr Paul Irish, ‘Darlinghurst Gaol’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/darlinghurst-gaol/
Deborah Beck, Hope in Hell, third edition 2020
‘Jimmy Governor’, New South Wales Capital Convictions Database http://research.forbessociety.org.au/record/2767
Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally, 2021
Aboriginal place names from ‘Language’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History, https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/language/