In July 2021, Archibald-winning Australian artist Wendy Sharpe took over the walls of Sydney Jewish Museum’s gallery space, using a large-scale painted mural to tell her family’s stories from their Ukrainian hometown of Kamianets-Podilskyi.
The artist painted directly onto the Museum’s walls, depicting a colourful installation of streetscapes and snippets of her own nostalgic memories from her recent trip to Ukraine. While it was intended that for just 8 weeks visitors would be able view the mural until was to be painted over, COVID-19 restrictions meant the mural was unfortunately never to open to the public.
The title of the exhibition, Vu iz dos Gesele (Where is the Little Street)?, is a song that the artist’s grandmother used to sing in Yiddish and Russian. Though Wendy never met her grandmother, this song links to her and also has resonance with Jews and displaced people more widely.
Wendy Sharpe is the only child of British parents who immigrated to Australia in the 1950s, settling in Sydney. Her mother, Marjorie, born in Yorkshire, wasn’t Jewish, but her father, writer and historian Alan Sharpe was of Russian Jewish heritage. His parents were Ben and Bessie Cohen (née Fishman). Ben died at a young age leaving Bessie a widow with two young sons. Bessie eventually married Dave Shapavitch (Sharpe). In the early 1900s, Bessie Fishman’s relatives escaped pogroms, fleeing Kamianets-Podilskyi, then part of Russia, now Ukraine, settling in London as refugees.
Kamianets-Podilskyi has a dark history, extending beyond the early 20th century pogroms. The town was the site of the August 1941 massacre where the Nazis massacred 23,000 Jews on the outskirts of the city.
“My ancestors’ escape from their homeland is just one of many thousands of similar stories of chance survival or planned migration. No words can describe their bravery in the face of intense antisemitism.”
In 2019 the artist visited Kamianets-Podilskyi with her cousin Ruth Fishman to learn more about their family history. During the trip Wendy made extensive sketches, drawings and paintings in notebooks, which will be transformed onto the walls of the Museum’s gallery.
Wendy Sharpe is one of Australia’s most acclaimed and awarded artists.
She has won and been a finalist for long list of prizes, including winning the Archibald Prize (7 times a finalist) the Sulman Prize and many other prestigious awards and prizes, including a commission as an Australian Official War Artist from the Australian War Memorial (the first woman since WWII).
Wendy has held over 60 solo exhibitions around Australia and internationally.