Book Review by Dee Michell
Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory. Edited by Lily Hibberd with Bonney Djuric and in collaboration with Darug women Leanne and Jacinta Tobin.
Back in September 2013, my partner and I headed off early on a crisp, cold spring morning in the direction of Sydney. We were on our way to the Parramatta Female Factory Trace, Place & Identity Workshop being held at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in the city and the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct (PFFP) in Parramatta, a suburb approximately 24 kilometres west of Sydney.
We had decided to drive the 1300 kilometres so we could visit the Hay Gaol Museum located almost halfway between Adelaide and Sydney. From 1961 for 13 years the museum site was the Hay Girls Institution, a prison for recalcitrant girls. These were girls considered ‘troublemakers’ at the notorious Parramatta Girls Home, girls who at Hay were compelled to be silent for most of the day, condemned to hard labour, and forced to sleep facing open doorways at night.
The Parramatta Female Factory Trace, Place & Identity Workshop was a memorable event. It was beautifully organised with an inclusive array of speakers who presented on the PFFP and its history, what draws people to be moved by objects at memorial sites, how the PFFP can be recognised as a ‘site of conscience’ but also become a joyful place to visit, and the impact of trauma and the place of sound in remembering.
This week I had the pleasure of catching up with what’s been happening at the PFFP over the past 6 years as I read Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory.
This is a gorgeous book, full of photographs—of Parramatta Girls Home, art projects and exhibitions, and images of the brilliant Parragirls, a voluntary group of former inmates who, since 2006, have been organising reunions, Open Days, exhibitions, and representing Parramatta Girls at state and federal government events.
Parragirls has 9 chapters which move from some of the history of the PFFP, the founding of Parragirls and the development of the Parragirls Memory Project from the first meeting on 9 February 2013 to the September workshop I attended, through to the Parragirls reclaiming the site for those who were once incarcerated there.
The book is a moving, inspiring record of what visionary activists can achieve. In 2005, Bonnie Djuric stepped inside the main building of Parramatta Girls Home for the first time in 35 years, taking video footage of what she encountered as she walked the halls. Eight years later, the Parragirls Memory Project had a lease on a former classroom which became their home base for doing transformative art.
It is the first week of February 2013, and a small group of artists and collaborators meet with Bonney and Lily [Hibberd]…As we open up the derelict rooms we are shocked at the neglected state of the rooms…Between vacuuming and toilet scrubbing, we share different stories about institutional experience over cups of tea.
Parragirls is also a record of the patient, challenging work that is transformative art.
Physical contact with the site raised unforgettable memories that had been locked away for decades. The abuse that occurred in Parramatta Girls home had also destroyed their trust in all forms of welfare and state care.
But having that classroom as theirs, where they had the freedom to meet and work without surveillance, gave the Parragirls space to begin exploring painful memories and to branch out. For example, to explore the Aboriginal heritage of the site as an ancient gathering place for Darug women.
Parragirls also documents how the Memory Project connects past and present. For instance, the group worked with a landscape designer to cultivate a children’s garden and then held a Children’s Day on 9 March 2014 to commemorate when children were first ‘placed’ in the Parramatta Roman Catholic Orphan School 170 years previously. The photographs of young children enjoying the day are delightful, a vivid testament to the healing work going on at the PFFP.
Parragirls memory projects challenge conventional forms of recordkeeping too. In 2016 the Parragirls began a printmaking project called Living Traces where they brought to the fore the “scratchings” girls made on the walls at Parramatta.
Before this project, the extensive graffiti found at Parramatta Girls Home was only evident to Parragirls…Recalling her time at the girls home, Gypsie Hayes described how messages were shared between residents, with numbers or acronyms scratched with pins ‘into paintwork for other girls’, secretly carved into solitary confinement cell walls, wooden doors and skirting boards.
From this project emerged stunning collagraph prints—some of which are included in Parragirls—as well as a performance video by Gypsie Hayes and audio stories by other Parragirls.
Collectively, these works and the women’s voices reveal that it is possible to contest the official version of an archive and give it an authentic meaning and purpose. This cannot repair or erase the evidence of wrongdoing, but provides the archive with an index to experiences lived in the present…
“From little things big things grow” is a 1991 protest song written by Australian singer-songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and describing the beginnings of the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia.
Parragirls is a stunning book documenting how a small group of creative women took their protest about the cruel treatment they had experienced and turned it into the big thing of the PFFP being recognised as an International Site of Conscience and as one of Australia’s “most important heritage sites”.
Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home through art and memory is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of child welfare in Australia, in empowering marginalised and traumatised populations through art projects, and in reclaiming the past—self and site—through collective action.
Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory is published in Australia by NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, NSW.
Dr Dee Michell is an academic at the University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell