A 40-metre mural by one of Australia’s most sought after artists may be destroyed before anyone gets to see it, thanks to Sydney’s lockdown.

Wendy Sharpe’s epic painting at the Sydney Jewish Museum depicts scenes, memories and impressions from the artist’s recent visit to her ancestral hometown of Kamianets-Podilskyi in the Ukraine.

But the work taking shape across the walls of the museum’s empty temporary exhibition space was only meant to be shown for a couple of months and is due to be destroyed at the end of August. It means if the current lockdown is extended for just a few weeks more, the public will not get a chance to see it in the flesh.

The exhibition’s opening has been postponed indefinitely due to the lockdown, but viewers can watch the mural’s creation via Sharpe’s Instagram account. The mural features the artist’s signature vibrant colours and generously rounded figures, a sensuous counterpoint to the deep note of loss that reverberates through the work.

It’s about trying to find a place that’s gone. And it’s also why, at the end of the exhibition, it has to disappear.

“Some of what I’m painting are places that you would recognise, but I’m also putting in what I call poetic images, which give the idea of how I felt about it as well,” Sharpe said.

The exhibition Vu iz dos gesele (where is the little street)? is named for the Yiddish folk song the artist’s grandmother used to sing after fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe for London.

“It was a song that obviously meant a lot to her and would have meant a lot to that whole community in the east end of London,” Sharpe said. “The words are extremely simple and that makes it even more moving.”

While the song captures the loss and longing central to the Jewish experience, for Sharpe, it is relevant to anyone who has had to leave their home.

“If you substitute the word ‘synagogue’ [which appears in the song] for ‘mosque’, or ‘temple’, or ‘church’, then it is the story of every refugee,” said Sharpe, who is an Ambassador for the Asylum Seekers Centre in Newtown.

“It’s about trying to find a place that’s gone. And it’s also why, at the end of the exhibition, it has to disappear.”

Old Yiddish song

Head curator of the Sydney Jewish Museum Roslyn Sugarman said some people have really struggled with that aspect of the exhibition, especially after watching Sharpe at work each day.

“You can see how much energy she has put into the mural so far; she’s producing the kind of painting that she would if it was on a canvas that would last forever,” Sugarman added.

“It [has been] a challenge to explain that the whole idea is that it is destroyed afterwards, and that’s part and parcel of the concept. It will disappear like more than 23 and-a-half thousand Jewish communities in that part of Europe disappeared.”

Sugarman said that although Vu iz dos gesele tells a personal family story, it has a much wider resonance.

“What she is doing has so much synergy with the work that we do at the Sydney Jewish Museum, because we are really all about documenting Jewish communities that no longer exist and commemorating and remembering them,” she said.

Sharpe agreed. “Even though [the exhibition] is specific because it is my family and it’s my experience of going to these places, I am hoping that it is open enough to resonate with other people,” she said.

“If your family had to flee, it’ll resonate with you, but even as a human being, I hope there is enough in there for you to empathise with and to imagine something of that world and how that felt,” says Sharpe.

Wide shot of the gallery with mural

Wendy Sharpe at work in the Sydney Jewish Museum. Photo by Jarrod Bryant supplied by SJM

For Sugarman, there is contemporary resonance in the creative ways we continue to grapple with history. The Hebrew word ‘to remember’, zachor, also means to act, she explained.

“The process of creating this mural – the very act of painting it – is an act of remembrance,” she said. “And [so is] the very act of painting over it or seeing it destroyed. It’s a very poignant way of universalising something that was very particular.”

Vu iz dos Gesele (Where is the Little Street)? will open to the public if COVID-19 restrictions allow. Otherwise, you can watch Wendy Sharpe create the mural on Instagram @wendysharpeart and check the Sydney Jewish Museum website for updates.

Main image: Wendy Sharpe creating her 40-metre mural on the walls of the Sydney Jewish Museum. Photo by Jarrod Bryant supplied by SJM