Deaf dancer graces new seven-storey mural in Windsor

Strike a pose: artist Guido van Helten with his mural of deaf dancer, Anna Seymour. Photo: Wayne Taylor.

By Peter Barrett

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” musician Elvis Costello once said. Half that metaphor took a surprisingly literal form on a Melbourne wall this week. As part of a series of murals recently commissioned by Melbourne Polytechnic, artist Guido van Helten worked with profoundly deaf contemporary dancer Anna Seymour to create a striking seven-storey portrait.

The campus, in High Street Windsor, is well-known to the deaf community. As well as teaching a diploma course in Auslan it is home to Deaf Connect ED, a centre of excellence for students who are deaf and hard of hearing; a block away is the Victorian College for the Deaf.

But van Helten says he had no idea about the significance of the building until after he chose to work with Seymour. “That happened to me just by chance. It happens a lot to me – things just fall into place, as they should.”

Van Helten, 30, travels the world making large, site-specific murals inspired by the way human stories interact with architecture. You’ll find his photo-realist portraits everywhere from the restricted zone in Chernobyl to his largest work to date, a series of grain silos in Brim, in Victoria’s rural north-east.

Born in Melbourne but now living in Brisbane, van Helten says he was particularly interested in the angular structure of his Melbourne Polytechnic canvas. “I don’t think it’s actually part of the Brutalist style but it has that kind of feel about it.”

Seymour, 32, was born profoundly deaf but has become well known in the Melbourne contemporary dance scene, appearing most recently in Under My Skin, a collaboration between deaf and hearing artists called The Delta Project. “Contemporary dance isn’t only about the music,” she says, explaining that despite being unable to hear anything she can sometimes “feel” music. “But I don’t really rely on that. I rely on muscle memory and I rely on other bodies in the studio. I tune into their rhythms, I tune into my own rhythm.”

Seymour, who also works casual shifts as a high school teacher of English and literacy, is a strong advocate of Auslan and believes it should be more widely taught in mainstream schools. “I think it’s really exciting to have a deaf person painted on a wall – a deaf artist/dancer – as the deaf community can be quite under-represented in general.”

The collaboration, engineered by street art management agency Juddy Roller, began with a photo shoot in Collingwood, with Seymour improvising poses inspired by the architecture of the building. Van Helten then took five days to transfer the image to the wall by eye, using only spray paint, acrylics, paint brushes and a large cherry picker.

So, what’s it like to finally see yourself splashed across seven-storeys? “It’s pretty amazing,” says Seymour. “I can’t believe that I’m painted on a massive wall. It’s a bit strange but great at the same time.”

This article first appeared in The Age on 28 January, 2017.