The side exterior wall of Newtone Betta Home Living in Footscray is well muraled.
One orange-faced character, shown in four stages of life, could be straight out of Motörhead. He goes from moustache to goatee to pencil mo then full angular styling, with a constant full black mullet as his hairline recedes. A wonderful streetscape of workers’ cottages follows, almost life size.
Then comes the pup. The Western Bulldogs’ mascot has wide, innocent eyes. They look right at you as he cocks his leg and pees on the wall. Well, now it’s just a wall. Originally, it was Pauline Hanson’s face.
Melbourne artist Van Than Rudd’s latest work has been half painted over by the local council. It took just 48 hours of complaints from snowflake right wingers for the council to act in the name of decency, labelling the mural “offensive”. It’s a whitewash, which is appallingly apt.
“It sends a very strong political message, even though the council said it wasn’t political”, says Van. “I think they’re protecting Hanson and her supporters from criticism. They claim that the artwork was ‘offensive’ because of a dog peeing on a politician. But they consciously or subconsciously neglect to regard One Nation’s politics as inherently divisive, destructive and extremely offensive toward large groups of people, including in the Footscray region.”
Across the street, there’s a disco-themed International Women’s Day mural depicting a South Asian and an African woman. “STAY STRONG”, it reads.
“I’ve been living in Melbourne’s west for about 12 years”, says Van. “I’ve grown attached to the strong presence of refugees and migrants who’ve come from Asian countries, as well as those from the Middle East and the African continent. There is also the influence of urban Indigenous activists and artists in the area.”
About 60 percent of the local population was born overseas. At the other end of the shopping district is Footscray Market. It’s a good-natured, raucous-spruiking, grab-it-while-you-can atmosphere inside. No-one seems to be talking the same language, but everyone understands the bargain of $1 kilo sweet mandarins. The stall proprietor is calling out to the world and tossing plastic bags at anyone who looks interested.
Over on Nicholson Street, men and women are more relaxed congregating outside Ethiopian cafés. The biggest migrant groups come from Vietnam and China – the people that Hanson first vilified to build her political career in the late 1990s.
Kuan Pung, who owns Betta Home Living and gave Van permission to paint on the wall, wonders what all the fuss is about. “I thought it was very humorous”, he says. “It’s free speech. She can come and say all these things and it is fine. But this was just a painting.”
Several decades ago, Kuan came to Australia as a refugee from Cambodia, “from the killing fields”. He’s been in Footscray ever since.
Van wants to highlight the unity underlying much of this diversity. “It’s a region known for its working class roots. The Bulldog’s fan base is a growing mixture of these elements. It was important to combine and contrast them to Hanson’s blatant racism and far right bigotry”, he says.
Hanson, speaking to ABC News, said she wasn’t offended by the mural, but labelled it “rubbish”. Her supporters, however, were both more precious and more vitriolic.
“Many fascists and Islamophobes, judging by their social media comments, know that Melbourne has a strong anti-racist current and that there was clearly a lot of support for the mural”, says Van.
“One could say to the far right, ‘You’ll never win in Melbourne, and you surely won’t win in Footscray!’”