The Tin Sheds – An Incomplete History

Delving into the activist history of the Tin Sheds Gallery and the 1970s-80s art collectives of USyd.

Art by Yasodara Puhule-Gamayalage

For as long as it has existed, art has remained an important medium in showcasing various perspectives towards social and political issues in our society; the arts – whether it be visual arts, music, dance, theatre – has proven to be the lifeblood of social movements. Moreover, artistic spaces have helped to sustain the social role of art in building and promoting activism,  directly influencing how we view the world. Sydney University’s Tin Sheds Gallery is no exception. 

Established on our University’s campus as an autonomous art space in 1969, the Tin Sheds are still operative today as an exhibition space within the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. Having played an instrumental role in providing an on-campus space to collaborate, exhibit, and politically organise, the Sheds have an extensive student-led history, through artistic activism. 

Throughout the 1970s, the Tin Sheds operated as an independent art studio where established artists, students, academics, activists, and art-based political collectives met and created. The original site for the Tin Sheds was located where the Jane Foss Russell building now stands. As written in a 1979 edition of Honi Soit, the Tin Sheds workshop “consists of four tin sheds, situated next to the Wentworth Building and charmingly titled ‘Bottom Shed,’ ‘Middle Shed,’ ‘Long Shed,’ and ‘Top Shed’.” According to the Tin Sheds’ website, during the 70s the Sheds were used as  “a creative space for artistic experimentation and the development of studio based contemporary visual arts practice, to complement (or possibly counter) the theory-based visual arts teaching of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney.” 

Indeed, from the time of its establishment, the Tin Sheds has aimed to provide a dedicated space for artists. In a 1979 special edition of Honi dedicated to the Tin Sheds, it was noted that the development of the Tin Sheds was “organic” and “dictated by the demands of the people using the facility… NOT set up to fulfil the aims of bureaucrats, planners and so on.” Thus, through having this space to create, social and political artistic activism was incubated and nurtured on University grounds. Existing outside the bounds of University administration or their oversight, the Sheds were akin to the autonomous collectives we know today, such as the Enviroment and Queer collectives, who often stand in direct resistance to the University.  

It was in the 1970s that the Tin Sheds housed numerous poster collectives —  political groups formed by artists who concentrated on promoting awareness of social issues through art —  that were a part of the broader counter-cultural revolution that shaped the social and political landscape of Sydney and USyd in the 1970s.

Notably, in another 1979 Honi article — ‘10 Years at the Tin Sheds’ — the writer reaches into the heart of the space’s ethos, and makes clear why it was so successful. Describing it as “free of the worst excrescences of the art world… it provides some kind of refuge [from traditional approaches to art].” It operated as a space for activist groups, but also regular students interested in art: “as an access centre, where people may come and use the facilities, get free tuition, enrol in structured or unstructured classes, or take up self-directed work.” 

In this decade, poster collectives were highly popular amongst University students, informing the zeitgeist of the 70s. These postering collectives, including the Tin Sheds Art Collective, the Lucifoil Poster Collective and the EarthWorks Poster Collective, were foundational to the  propagation of  activist messages through political posters; both inside and outside of the University grounds. These underground organisations employed art as a means to inspire and generate activism around social issues such as Queer rights, pro-choice movements, prison reform, and Land Rights. 

According to a university spokesperson, the Tin Sheds “spurred a pivotal historical movement in Australian art, nurturing cross-disciplinary experimentation and politically oriented practices for several decades.” The success these organisations achieved out of the Tin Sheds, and the ways in which they contributed to the political movements of Sydney in the 70s points to the dual power of art and politics. 

In particular, the EarthWorks Poster Collective, an art collective aiming to distribute activist messaging around social issues such as feminism and Aboriginal Land Rights through screen-printed posters, played a major role in the art-as-activism sphere of USyd during this era. Founded by the counter-cultural advocate and artist, Colin Little, this collective was associated with the Tin Sheds from 1972 to 1980. Other activists involved in EarthWorks included Jan Mackay, Marie McMahon, Pam Ledden, Di Holdway, Loretta Vieceli, and Toni Robertson, to name a few. Many EarthWorks artists were not only visual art students at the University, but were also involved in other areas of activism; namely feminism and environmental political groups. 

The collective also made posters for political groups, including the 1983 Pine Women’s Peace Camp — a feminist camp held outside the Northern Territory’s Pine Gap protesting the location of an American intelligence base on Australian soil —  and Sydney Women In Music (SWIM). Archives of these posters and posters from other Tin Sheds art collectives can be found in the State Library of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia, and here at Sydney University.

A trail-blazing artist operative within the EarthWorks Poster Collective was Toni Robertson. An active feminist during the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, Robertson’s artistic aim was to showcase one’s “individual politics.” 

“If you’re going to spend much of your life battling against the status quo,” Robertson stated in an interview with Julie Ewington and Nancy Underhill, “you may as well find ways of getting a great deal of pleasure out of it.” As a visual arts student at Sydney University in the early 1970s, Robertson largely employed the medium of screen printing to play with ideas surrounding Australia’s feminist history. Her artworks, including her 1977 History I – Writing on the fence is better than sitting on the fence (Figure. 1), inspired other women to get involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, highlighting the power of art to inspire change.

Unfortunately, the collective dissolved in 1979 due to a lack of funding. However, EarthWorks nevertheless remained an integral institution in Sydney, facilitating the creation of Australian political posters well into the 1980s. This history of activist postering reflects the early origins of ‘banner paints’ which USyd political collectives still conduct today in preparation for protests and strikes both on and off campus. 

Another such activist working within the Tin Sheds was Pam Debenham. Debenham completed a Diploma in Visual Arts from the  Sydney College of the Arts in 1979 and a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts) in 1982, and was prolific in the Tin Sheds community throughout the early 1980s. 

Debenham is most well known for her 1984 artwork, No nukes in the Pacific, highlighting the melding of art and activism at the University. Mirroring the anti-Vietnam War protests of the previous decade, the anti-nuclear movement gained significant attention within USyd’s campus politics during the 1980s – Debenham’s artwork echoes the calls for anti-nuclear peace during the Cold War. This is also echoed in Leonie Lane’s poster announcing the 1979 Uranium Action Day, reinforcing the point that the work created at the Tin Sheds was deeply political. Debenham was an active member of the Artworkers Union, also teaching visual arts at the Tin Sheds from 1982-89. In her time at the Tin Sheds, Debenham contributed posters under her own name and with the Lucifoil Poster Collective. The Lucifoil Poster Collective grew out of the group Cockroach Posters in 1980, setting up in the ‘Bottom Shed’ of the Tin Sheds. It was active until 1983, and, like EarthWorks, focused on creating posters around political and social issues as a form of activism. It also made posters for the SRC and NUS elections. During her role as print workshop coordinator from 1982-89, Debenham maintained the Tin Sheds Poster Archive; artworks of Debenham’s and the Lucifoil Poster Collective can now be found in the USyd archives. 

By the end of the 20th century, the  activist and artistic work carried out at the Tin Sheds was incorporated into coursework as part of Sydney University’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. However, the Tin Sheds remains a space for all Sydney University students to create – whether this involves architecture models or paintings – and exhibit their art to the public, albeit being no longer under autonomous student-led control. 

When contacted for comment regarding how Sydney University views the role of the Tin Sheds in campus life today, a spokesperson for the University stated that the “Tin Sheds Gallery remains both a physical and intellectual space that contributes to the broad discourse of national and international art, architecture, design and urbanism.” 

Importantly, the University also noted that the “the gallery does not make a profit,” and is funded by the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. Hence, the original aim of the Tin Sheds —  to be a space for artists to create, not accumulate profit – is sustained today. 

Excitingly, the university has announced some exhibitions for the coming year which “maintain the original spirit of the Tin Sheds with cross-disciplinary shows that are the product of research and experimentation, involving new commissions and works and supporting new voices.” 

This includes Yanyuwa Garrwa elder Miriam Charlie’s 2019 photographic series on housing in Borroloola’s town camps, entitled The Promise of Housing. Excitingly, a show that “brings together contemporary artists and the Tin Shed’s archive”  is also on the horizon. 

Ultimately, the history of the Tin Sheds reminds us that art remains a powerful force of activism. Located right here on our Camperdown campus, the Tin Sheds have provided past activists with a space of creation —  influencing how we foster and communicate social causes in the modern world. 

In 2022 when social causes including the climate emergency, the continuing impact of colonisation on Indigenous Australians, and the persistent challenge to increase women and gender diverse people’s empowerment, art is a powerful force to inspire social change. 

You only have to  look at the many posters still pinned to poles and notice boards on Eastern Avenue today. The history of the Tin Sheds and indeed art-as-activism remains incomplete; we must be the ones to continue its legacy. 

The Tin Sheds remain on campus, with an open exhibition call-out for 2023 soon to be announced.

All images sourced from the University of Sydney archives: Transferred from the Art Workshop Tin Sheds Gallery Poster Archive to The University of Sydney in 1990, they now belong to the University Art Collection.

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