This is a wonderful painting of Faith in the early years of her activism. Aboriginal rights were really not on people’s radars. Aboriginal people were being marginalised throughout the state, throughout the country, and Faith was one of those early leaders who brought attention to what was happening with Aboriginal communities throughout New South Wales.
This was done around 1957, a couple of years after Faith moved to Sydney. She was actually from northern New South Wales, up on the North Coast, a little place called Tumblegum, can you believe? Her father was a South Sea Islander and her mother was Indian, and European descent as well, which is interesting because a lot of Aboriginal people think that Faith is Aboriginal. She’s not an Aboriginal person herself but the racism that was affecting Aboriginal people she was deeply in tune with, being a dark-skinned person herself and growing up in regional New South Wales.
Faith’s dad, he was from Ambrym Island and he was a real leader in the community on the North Coast where Faith grew up. And I think a lot of her strength and her courage and determination is from him.
When she moved to Sydney, at first she was a seamstress and worked in a sewing shop. Listening to her oral history recordings, at least, you know that she’s a great follower of fashion. She loved her clothes and she had a great shoe collection as well, of course. I don’t know how it happened, exactly, but she became good friends with the wonderful Jessie Street, who was such a campaigner for women’s rights and human rights generally and involved in the peace movement. And Faith became very involved with that when she moved to Sydney as well, in the ‘50s.
And she grew aware of the way that human rights for Aboriginal people could be better achieved and part of that was the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution, which led to the 1967 referendum, where Aboriginal people were finally recognised as being citizens of Australia. And Faith was not the only but one of the key people involved in the 1967 referendum.
She obviously achieved a lot more. She was actually a world traveller, involved in peace movements, not just in Australia but around the world.
What I really like about the painting is that it shows just how alert and how in tune and how focused Faith was. You can see just by looking at her eyes that she’s determined - she’s got a vision and she’s got a goal and she wants to achieve it. But at the same time, she’s a bit cheeky. She takes it seriously but not too seriously. I think Elsa Russell, the artist, has managed to capture the vibrancy of Faith and everyone who talks about her and knew her talks about her friendliness, her warmth, and just how focused she was as an individual.
It’s interesting, actually, because this is 2018, 100 years since Faith was born. Faith was born in 1918. So this painting’s being hung 100 years after the birth of Faith Bandler. Sadly, she passed away in 2015 and her passing, of course, was a national event that saddened the entire nation, I think, because Faith was just one of those people who was always there, always there, and there to stand up for you.
And what’s fantastic is that Faith’s papers, her own personal archives and photographs, are actually here in the library. And in the late 1990s we did an oral history recording with Faith and we’ve made that available online for people to listen to. And I encourage people to, because she’s such a wonderful personality, with a story to tell. Her human rights and activism work is what people know her for, but listen to those recordings because there’s so much more to this fantastic, wonderful woman.