Sarah Contos | Artist Statement

July 19, 2017

The Great Strike, 1917

Sarah Contos

The Eveleigh Railway Yard in the 1900s has been described as the Silicon Valley of its time and to be a part of its community was prestigious – demonstrated by the employees arriving to the sooty coal workplace in Redfern dressed in three-piece suits.

Trawling through newspapers and photographs that documented the Great Strike and listening to first-hand recordings of recollections and subsequent stories from those who worked at the railway yards since, the prevailing note that began resonating was the sense of pride the workers had – a great satisfaction from being part of a community, all working together to create something that was not in existence before. Through skill and craftsmanship, the hundreds of people involved in manufacturing and building the trains, created not only a vital piece of machinery responsible for transporting goods and people, but also an object of beauty. There is an inherent feeling of pride associated in creating something of importance.

Making a quilt could be seen in parallel terms. A group of individual parts coming together to create something needed and that would still be there long after the person who made it has disappeared. A quilt is an agent of storytelling, community, sharing and protection. And it is an object that is usually associated with women and considered ‘women’s work’.

The women involved in the strike contributed greatly to the political landscape and played an active part. Mothers, wives, daughters, women who earned their own living working in the railway yards – some several hundred – marched from around Sydney, through The Domain and stormed towards Parliament House protesting with banners and placards. The Women’s Relief Committee voluntarily held numerous fundraisers to supply aid to the thousands of people drastically affected by poverty through lack of income during the Strike and for months after it had ended.

My work created specially for this exhibition brings together the male and female aspects of the strike. The quilted and appliqué materiality of my work speaks of labour, craftsmanship and the hand-made. The imagery used gestures to the solidarity of community and stands as a reflective timepiece of a moment in Australian history.

1917: The Great Strike – daily 10am-6pm, until 27 Aug
More information on the exhibition


1917: The Great Strike, Sarah Contos, Women’s Demonstration in Front of Parliament House 2017, [detail]. Image: Zan Wimberley