Exposed to Moral Danger rewards anyone prepared to listen, observe and contemplate the impact of the former state run Parramatta Girls Home on the girls who were detained there. “Exposed to Moral Danger” is the charge under which most of the teenage occupants were held. The exhibition is both confronting and inspiring. For those who have seen it in conjunction with Alana Valentine’s play Parramatta Girls, at Riverside Theatres, it is particularly powerful and deeply moving. Without these illustrations, it’s almost impossible for outsiders to even begin to enter the world experienced by the much vilified “Parramatta Girls”.
Five artists worked for a year on creating works for Exposed to Moral Danger, at Bethel, on the site of the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. Three of them are former “girls”, Bonney Djuric (her work Les Oubliettes, left), Christina Green and Jeannie Gypsie Hayes. Allow time to immerse yourself in the offerings. Their honesty and meaning are inescapable.
Christina is now too ill to attend in person, but co-curator of the exhibition Lily Hibberd has ensured her presence in a video interview recently recorded at Chris’s northern NSW home. Chris was taken from her Aboriginal Riley family as a three year old in 1958 and for more than a decade was shunted between foster homes and institutions, where she experienced varying degrees of punishment, extreme brutality and sexual abuse – all without explanation. At the age of 15, in a state of anger, bewilderment and confusion, she was sent to Parramatta Girls Home and from there, three times to the old Hay Gaol for the severest forms of punishment.
In the video, Chris responds to Lily’s gentle questioning with candour and simplicity. Although her education was very limited, Chris began writing a few notes about her life more than 25 years ago. Over time, it became a way of gaining some perspective on what had befallen her. She found she was entitled to counseling, which became a critical support in her efforts to piece together her own life and ultimately to assist other “girls” to find healing and peace of mind.
In the next few weeks, Chris’s story The Life of Riley will be published as part of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project. Like Lily’s video recording of the same name, the most extraordinary qualities of the book are Christina’s spiritual strength, her wisdom and warmth. She has come to accept the cruelties and injustices, embraced her Wiradjuri dreaming and worked for respect and mutual understanding between Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians.
For a decade, she has worked with Bonney Djuric to raise the profile of the Parramatta Precinct and its nomination as Australia’s first national Site of Conscience – a place of remembering, learning and creativity. Her commitment to telling her story she hopes will encourage others who suffer to seek healing. These days she is inspired and blessed by the support of her children and grandchildren. In the photo above, Chris gives the Acknowledgement to Country at the book launch of Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney, Parramatta, March 2013.
The upper level of the Bethel building is still very difficult for some former girls to visit. There they met with brutality and rape by some of the most senior officials and incarceration in cells that still bear their rebellious carvings and scratchings on old doors. While absorbing the meaning of the markings on the doors and Bonney’s evocative installations, you are surrounded by Jeannie’s hurt and mocking voice reading her poem Little China Doll.
Downstairs, artist and prison teacher Liz Day has created a delicate installation around the letters ILWA, which girls used many times to mark their bonds with each other against abuses by authorities. Healing, growth and hope are symbolised by the soft grasses emerging from moist soils, while grass roots and leaves are revealed in positive and negative images of ILWA.
Among several works by Darug descendant, artist and prison teacher Leanne Tobin are her sketches for Memory of Water, left and below, a proposed future garden and waterway. The project would link the site to its former use as an important ceremonial place for Burramattagal women and its subsequent colonial and 20th century uses.
Exposed to Moral Danger will extend beyond its original closing date of May 18, though opening hours will be reduced. Check detail. Although resources for the exhibition were limited, it provides a remarkable glimpse of the possibilities of the site as part of the future North Parramatta framework masterplan.