Public art has the power to express ideas and stories that we might not otherwise be exposed to. And it's with this sentiment that Sydney-based artist and researcher Astra Howard created her Surry Hills installation Village Voices. Part of the City of Sydney's public art collection, the work was first installed in the tight alleyway between Crown and Wilshire streets in 2016. Having volunteered for many years with a variety of homeless and community organisations within the suburb, Astra focused on incorporating the voices of those within the community who often go unheard. She held workshops in the suburb, where people came together to tell and craft their stories. Using signage inspired by the marquees of bygone theatres and church messageboards, the interactive project displays excerpts of these writings, which share histories and experiences through poetry and prose.
Here we talk to Astra Howard about her artwork and the importance of giving a voice to all who live in our city.
PAINTING A PORTRAIT
Astra has been involved with public art for the better part of two decades. Initially studying graphic design at Queensland College of Arts, she relocated to COFA (now UNSW Art & Design) and soon began positioning her design work around public spaces. Conducting guerrilla-style public art projects — like a 24-hour performance project inside a Randwick telephone booth and an entire week at a dilapidated Kings Cross tobacconist — Astra's work has generated great interest from the public.
Using her affinity for public art to give a voice to marginalised communities within Sydney, the artist held writing workshops in Surry Hills, alongside organisations such as the Mission Australia Centre, Northcott Community Centre, Milk Crate Theatre and Oasis Youth Support Network, for those in need from the local community. The workshops helped craft the prose that now features in Village Voices. With contributors either writing specifically for the artwork, dropping work in Astra's submission box or adapting longer texts for the condensed format, the essence of their stories explores the lived experience of Surry Hills.
Changing every two months or so, the words come from people aged 15 to 95 and from various walks of life. Showcasing the sentiments of all those who reside in the area — on the streets and in residences — each text contributes to an intimate portrait of the suburb.
SOUNDS OF THE SUBURBS
Village Voices gives viewers an opportunity to reflect on their immediate surroundings and the people they may rarely hear from. With the installation providing a space for people to come together and discuss issues, Astra says it creates important dialogue among residents and businesses.
"Often there's a statement that one person might not agree with, but it creates a catalyst for discussion between people who wouldn't normally be having that conversation," the artist says. "So in that way, I think the work is important as a way to communicate ideas that you might not otherwise see in a public space because of advertising or the dominant voices of any area."
Having discussed the work herself with many passersby, Astra says that while people might start at polar opposite ends of an issue, by the end of their conversation, a greater sense of understanding is often achieved.
OPEN FOR ART
Active in the Sydney art scene in the late-1990s, Astra remembers the difficulties of producing public artworks in the city. But 20 years later, she believes the city has grown by leaps and bounds, encouraging and supporting would-be public artists. While Astra's guerrilla projects in Kings Cross and Paddington attracted negative attention from both the police and government rangers, these public works have prompted the City of Sydney, alongside many other Australian and leading international cities, to adopt the thinking of prominent urban theorists like Richard Florida and Charles Landry who argue creativity is crucial to cities. Helping to draw out the aspirations and creative thinking popular throughout Sydney's suburbs, Astra believes these public projects have a variety of positive impacts — from a cultural, tourism, as well as a business standpoint.
"There's been a real turnaround since many of my early projects that I was doing in a sort of guerrilla fashion," explains Astra. "It's fantastic that there are many opportunities across Sydney and Australia for people to experiment with artwork."
See Astra Howard's Village Voices in the laneway between Crown and Wilshire streets.