Indonesian fruit picker’s murals showcase immigrant cultures in regional Victoria

Aleppo by Dery Theodore

A largely self-taught young artist from Indonesia is painting cultural identities on the walls of immigrant businesses in Shepparton, in regional Victoria, while he earns his living as a farmworker.

Christiano Dery Theodorus was 11 when his father moved to Australia. He finally met his father in person after 18 years in 2016 when his father sponsored him and his sister to come to Australia. “We have been apart for so long and only met again now that I’m an adult. While there is nothing wrong with it, it felt like we’ve just known each other,” he says. Theodorus left his decoration business and a cafe in his hometown Semarang, in Indonesia, and moved to Shepparton in Victoria. His first job was as a kitchen hand in a restaurant, then as a gardener. Afterwards, he started milking cows, farming, driving tractors to plough land, and picking fruits at farms.

As agricultural jobs in Australia are seasonal, and there isn’t much work in Victoria during winter, farmworkers would head North. “The only work in Shepparton during winter is pruning vines. But not many would do it; workers prefer going to Queensland,” Theodorus says. Following the same seasonal work pattern, he once worked at Bowen in Queensland and Munduberra in New South Wales. It took him three days to reach Bowen by motorbike.

Christiano Dery Thomas on farm work
“I did everything for the sake of making money and surviving,” he says.

His first art job in Australia

Theodorus has been drawing and painting from an early age. He also has a degree in graphic design. His first painting, at the age of 10, was the Sydney Opera House. “And now I live in Australia,” he laughs.

He got his first job as an artist in Australia when in 2017 his driving instructor hired him to paint a superheroes mural in his children’s bedroom. “That was my first mural portfolio in Australia. Then I started promoting my work through social media, events and artist markets,” he says. In June 2017, the Mooroopna Education and Activity Center (MEAC) invited him to hold a solo exhibition, showcasing 18 paintings and six sculptures.

Mooroopna Education and Activity Center
“I gave a speech in broken English,” Theodorus laughs. “Fortunately they understood. Some people even asked questions.”

As his popularity grew, he started getting more mural painting jobs in Shepparton, Mooroopna and Nagambie towns.

His clients are mostly immigrants who would like to showcase their cultural identity or their businesses’ origins. One of the murals he painted was of the Citadel of Aleppo at Syrian restaurant, Nedal Kebabs. Bakri Tarsha and his wife Noura Sultan escaped the war-torn ancient city of Aleppo in 2016 and opened the first Syrian restaurant in Shepparton in 2019.

“Nedal means struggle, which is also my child’s name. The beautiful citadel of Aleppo is my pride, although I can’t see it in-person anymore,” Mr Tarsha says. “I wanted the citadel of Aleppo in my restaurant so people would learn of its beauty.”

The 2021 Call to Create asked our region’s artists to responds to the theme Unify. The work submitted goes in the running to be the chosen peice for the next Festival, heavily influencing this years design and branding.

While he was still at Nedal, the owner of an Indian restaurant next door also commissioned Theodorus to paint a mural of spices and herbs peculiar to Indian cuisine. “Murals in restaurants are for decorations. But many would like a mural representing the owner’s or the business’ origin,” Theodorus says. He once painted the Taj Mahal and a Gujarat temple on the walls of a pizza restaurant.

At the Point of Difference studio, a multicultural space founded by two women from Turkey and Samoa to empower local youth from multicultural communities, Theodorus painted seven influential figures, such as Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur, Martin Luther King Jr, Dame Whina Cooper, and Nawal el Saadawi on a wall.

Dery Theodorus at Nedal Cafe

Theodorus’s work features in 12 local eateries, a studio and a private place around the town, and five new mural projects are coming up.

One of his largest artworks is a mural measuring 9X3 metres at Zephyrz Cafe, Nagambie, dedicated to champion racehorses bred by local breeders, who have won group one races. His largest mural, 11X3 meters, in the same restaurant displays fashions on the racecourse and features outfits that have been prominent on race days since the early 1900s.

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