Thank you UrbanGrowth NSW for a vision of North Parramatta’s heritage future

No, that headline is not a joke – nor have I swapped sides. It was my personal response after attending Discovering Parramatta North Open Day, conducted by UrbanGrowth NSW on Saturday, May 27. From informal feedback, it was a response shared by many who attended, including Parramatta National Trust. Our focus may have been different from our hosts, but the experience began to put flesh on our alternative vision for the future. The aim of Open Day was to learn about the recent archaeological discoveries on the site. Above is Parramatta Holroyd Sun’s photo of nine-year-old Hannah Bunby from Parramatta North Public School. She wants to become an archaeologist and on a school tour the day before, she met the archaeologists led by Aboriginal Jamie Eastwood, right, in the pit where they were working.

One hundred people including school students, Parramatta Female Factory Friends and hospital personnel were given a preview on the Friday. On Saturday, 300 people participated in a succession of guided tours led by members of the state government’s development agency or by other experts who are consultants to the North Parramatta Transformation Project. UrbanGrowth’s project team leader Donna Savage gave a brief overview of the project and archaeological work to date, before each tour. She was followed by Jillian Comber, consultant in Aboriginal and historical archaeology, who is leading some of the research. Archaeological teams with indigenous expertise and links to the land have been working across the site.

Freely available were high quality fact sheets about the sites under investigation giving detailed information on the research to date and the history either known or newly revealed. Papers included Aboriginal History and Archaeology; Aboriginal Artefacts; Water Management 1803 – 1880s – Ditches, Dykes and Drains; The Parramatta Female Factory – an Archeology of Absence; The Ward for the Criminally Insane 1861 – 1963 – Escape from Parramatta Lunatic Asylum; and Parramatta Hospital for the Insane 1878 – 1983 – Change of Name and Change of Attitude. Some of the items excavated from the sites, above. Jamie explained that more than 2000 Aboriginal artefacts have been unearthed, and that some like spear heads of silcrete, indicate that trade was conducted with other groups, because silcrete is not a local stone.

As well as being a known Aboriginal settlement area, Parramatta North was the site of some of the colony’s first farms, from the 1790s. It was also home to early colonial institutions including the convict Parramatta Female Factory from 1818 and the Roman Catholic Orphan School from 1841, which later became the Parramatta Girls Home. Parramatta Gaol dating from the 1840s is also on this site. The Parramatta National Trust’s photo, above, of the excavated ha-ha (a deep trench with a sloping side that ends in a vertical wall), shows it was filled in with earth and old bed frames in the 1870s, denoting a change of practice in treatment of the mentally ill.

Both North Parramatta Residents Action Group (NPRAG) and Parramatta Female Factory Friends were provided by organisers with tables close to the central meeting point. NPRAG displayed their artist’s impressions of UrbanGrowth’s proposed developments and of their own alternative proposals for creative arts facilities, and public open space for the benefit of community physical and mental health. The drawing of UGNSW’s proposals, left, drew an angry response from two staff members. One claimed they were a serious misrepresentation and another stated there was a great deal of misinformation circulating. While the drawings were concept only, they were sourced from the only information available from UrbanGrowth at the time. It was stated that the high rise buildings shown on the Cumberland Hospital side of the old Parramatta Gaol are now positioned on the east side. Another change that has been made as a result of community feedback is that there will be no new residential buildings in the historic Governor Gipps courtyard.

For some within UrbanGrowth and within the community, there is deep mutual distrust. UrbanGrowth claims misrepresentation while community members claim secrecy and planning to a hidden agenda. UrbanGrowth says it can’t display developer proposals until they have been drawn up by the developers and approved by Parramatta Council, while community members claim that UrbanGrowth won’t have control anyway if their current development application to sell off two thirds of the 30 hectare site in 17 super lots is approved. Anger and distrust foment between a rock and a hard place.

For those visiting the site, the inspiration of the day was the recognition of just how much information and evidence about our ancient and more recent past sits just below the surface of the site. It was illuminating to see what could be achieved when real money, expertise and resources are applied to archeological research and heritage building repairs. UrbanGrowth’s aerial view, above, of repairs being undertaken on the Roman Catholic Orphan School.  The state government argues that only by selling two thirds of the site can it afford the conservation needed on the other third. Those of us who have lately witnessed the demolition of Parramatta Swimming Pool before any alternative plan was in the pipeline, have only to remember how quickly the government could find $30 million to match Parramatta Council’s $30 million when community anger forced them to begin planning for a new aquatic centre.

The draft Development Control Plan (DCP) and Development Application DA/1124/2016 relating to Parramatta North Urban Transformation Precinct are on display by Parramatta Council until June 13. You can make your submission online or by using the template created by NPRAG.

The Royal Australian Historical Society, The National Trust of Australia, Parramatta Female Factory Friends and NPRAG are all submitting objections to inappropriate residential development to Parramatta Council. At last year’s RAHS conference in Wollongong, NPRAG president Suzette Meade discussed the work NPRAG has carried out to protect and promote Parramatta’s heritage. Suzette’s presentation is on YouTube.

She explains that there are over “77 state heritage listed buildings around the Cumberland Hospital grounds. The Female Factory Precinct, filled with buildings designed by government architects Francis Greenway to Walter Liberty Vernon, is undergoing a National Heritage Listing Assessment and is a more than worthy candidate to be added to the current 11 convict locations on the UNESCO world heritage listing. If sympathetically re-interpreted and re-developed, this huge site could become Australia’s equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg but with one unique advantage – it is all real, all still there physically and historically and not some modern confection channelling the past.” Another Parramatta National Trust photo, above, reveals the layers of history under the site of the Female Factory.

The submission developed by Parramatta Female Factory Friends highlights the absence of a Master Plan. There is a precedent for this, they write, in that the Rozelle Hospital/Callan Park grounds and buildings’ Master Plan is the result of community input and acceptance. “This must be carried out for the Cumberland Hospital site as it has a far more singular, significant and extensive history than the Rozelle Hospital.”

Another concern they raise, is shared by every other community organisation – the height of buildings and transfer of floor space. The height of buildings seriously impacts heritage buildings and the valued park like setting of PNHS. These must be scaled back further, they say. Setbacks must be reviewed. They also point out that the DDCP (page 26 C.3) states that floor space cannot be transferred. “The DA is not a legal document,” they say. “There is no protection for future floor space ratios (FSR) being altered by a developer.”

(A quick note – I delayed publishing this in the hope that advice about potential World Heritage Listing would arrive in time from heritage consultants to the project. There has been a delay, but it is clear that it would still be subject to the qualifications expressed in submissions, above.)

One of the great concerns among the many protests is the proposal to preserve only a selection of heritage buildings and thus destroy the continuous narrative of the site. An example is the proposal to remove buildings like those from the 1960s on the site of the Parramatta Girls Home and leave only the old Roman Catholic Orphanage and the children’s hospital, Bethel (see Parragirls’ photo, above, right). Those newer buildings represent a change of government policy, when some of the girls gained access to education.There are many potential adaptive re-uses for all these buildings.

Parragirls represents girls formerly institutionalised in the Parramatta Girls Home. Under the leadership of Bonney Djuric, they have developed the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct – Memory Project.  It has been evolving since 2012. One of their long term aims is to establish Australia’s first International Site of Conscience. On UrbanGrowth’s open day, they were hosting an event, Long Time Coming Home, remembering the Stolen Generations and other Indigenous Australians who were separated from their families and communities. Above is the Mt Druitt Aboriginal Children’s Choir performing at the event. Unfortunately, it was finishing by the time I could get there, but from the pleasure expressed by departing audience member it was clear that the talking circle, art, song and storytelling were a great success.

This is the whole point of this post. Rather than the rush to sell off “surplus” land by the NSW government, let us all share in exploring the potential of this remarkable site. UrbanGrowth has shown us some of the real possibilities. In the meantime, we’ve just been alerted to another stunning government fiasco – Parramatta Advertiser, May 31, 20017, pages 8 – 9. Parramatta Council has blocked the use of the Old King’s School as the temporary Parramatta Primary School, owing to serious risk of flooding from the  adjoining Parramatta River. What does that say about former Premier, Mike Baird’s “thought bubble” proposal to move the Powerhouse Museum onto the nearby banks of the Parramatta River?

Three important comments have been received in the four hours since this post was published and are now added in the sequence in which they arrived:

  1. On Facebook from Cumberland Hospital historian Dr Terry Smith – “I have to say that I am deeply disappointed with what I’ve heard of the archeological interpretations of some of the finds on the site. Without any evidence whatsoever, one archeologist claimed in television interviews that patients were chained to the floor of the ward for the criminally insane and wiled away their days playing a harmonica. There is NO historical evidence that patients were chained to floors (or walls) of this ward. Apart from this fact, the patients in this ward were extremely dangerous and would never have been allowed a harmonica, the metal from which would have provided a easy weapon. The bedsteads were not buried in the 1870s but rather in the early 1960s when Dr Eric Hilliard wanted to remove as much of the old 19th century structures as possible that resembled a prison. This included filling in the Ha Has and demolishing the ward for the Criminally Insane and several old sandstonewalls! If these points can be so easily discounted, then one might wonder about the rigor of their other interpretations?
  2. From NPRAG president Suzette Meade – “UGNSW have in fact prepared a 3D model and submitted it to the Heritage Office 18 months ago (its in the minutes of the meeting available online to view). NPRAG requested for it to be viewable to public the staffer at the time said we could only look at it on their computer screen at their offices.
    We then submitted a Freedom of Information order to make it public and of course the reply was CABINET IN CONFIDENCE.
    What do they have to hide ?
  3. By email from TKD associate and senior heritage consultant  Sean Williams – “Part of the Cumberland Hospital (East Campus) site (essentially the Female Factory/Lunatic Asylum Precinct) and the Norma Parker Centre/Kamballa site is currently being assessed by the Federal Government for inclusion on the National Heritage List (NHL). UrbanGrowth NSW supports the listing.The Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy has confirmed that the NHL assessment is based on the identified heritage values of the place – ie the area nominated for inclusion on the NHL. The Federal Government does not take into consideration any current or future proposals for change unless they consider them to represent a substantial risk to the identified heritage values.

    In relation to world heritage listing, the Commonwealth has confirmed that the identification and assessment of the values would be expected to follow a similar rigorous approach to that for inclusion on the NHL, although the focus is on establishing whether the place has ‘outstanding universal values’.  Assuming that the site is nominated and the Commonwealth is satisfied that the place meets at least one of the 10 world heritage criteria, then it can refer the nomination to the World Heritage Centre to progress its evaluation and potential future inclusion on the WHL.  Again, UrbanGrowth NSW supports this listing.

    More about the WHL assessment process can be sourced from: http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/about/world/world-heritage-listing-process.

    You can also visit the World Heritage Centre website at: http://whc.unesco.org/

  4. Another significant post was added to Facebook – History B4 High Rise about Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent

Campaign grows with urgent calls to make your own submission to save Parramatta’s national heritage

“Save Australia’s heritage now” is the urgent appeal of North Parramatta Residents Action Group. UrbanGrowth NSW plans to subdivide the Fleet Street heritage site in North Parramatta into super lots to sell off 20ha of a total 30 to private residential development with a goal of 3000 units. President Suzette Meade says, “If you don’t object to the first development application currently on exhibition with City of Parramatta you will be allowing this to occur. Once the sub division is approved the site will be sold to multiple developers.” NPRAG is making submission easy for those short of time or inexperienced in planning language. They have developed a template (click here), which you can edit for your own requirements. Hundreds of people have already responded.

Soap opera star of Home and Away, Shane Withington, has joined the campaign to save the site. Read the Parramatta Sun story and watch their video below.

 

Internationally renowned author of Schindler’s List Thomas Keneally and his daughter Meg have already thrown their complete support behind the community campaign.

An open day on the site, at 5 Fleet St, North Parramatta, has been planned by the UrbanGrowth for tomorrow, Saturday, May 27, from 10am to 4pm. The focus will be the heritage restoration being undertaken, but organisations like The National Trust of Australia, Royal Australian Historical Society, Parramatta Female Factories Friends and NPRAG are all submitting objections to the Council.

Take the opportunity to inspect the extraordinary site and bear NPRAG’s advice in mind:

  • There has been no genuine community consultation – listened then ignored
  • No new infrastructure for 10,000+ extra car movements per day
  • No new schools planned for the thousands of new residents
  • Aboriginal archaeological study not completed

Remember the deadline for submissions is June 13.

River is an uplifting gift offering healing and hope

“All these rivers we must cross. Together we will get to the other side. . . . We’ll be forced to grow.” This is the theme of River, a haunting new video by the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra. It is an inspiring sound and visual experience of the Australia we are becoming, all woven together by the movement and grace of Gambirra Illume, Yolngu performer and cultural educator from Australia’s north east Arnhem Land. River is a song of sadness and despair uplifted by the hope and optimism that emerges from sharing the journey towards resolution. Look at the warmth and laughter of the participants as they near the end of their street performance.  Watch the video River. It is now available from all digital retailers.

In January this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least half of Australia’s special intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be settled in Fairfield in western Sydney, within 12 months. In the previous year, Fairfield City Council had already welcomed 3000 humanitarian arrivals from the two war-torn countries. It was the continuation of a pattern of accepting migrants and refugees displaced by war and economic upheaval, which had grown since World War I. This concentration of cultural diversity gave Fairfield a special relevance as the setting for River, Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra‘s first single released last month. The photo below records the warmth and excitement that surrounded the orchestra following their inaugural concert at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, in November 2014, when they performed the remarkable three stages of love and death. The words and music of River are developed from an extract of this work. Please take the time to click on all the links and listen to the music recorded.

It would be true to say that years of preparation have gone into the launch of River. Some of the first threads were drawn together long before Richard Petkovic created the Cultural Arts Collective in 2007 with Maria Mitar. Even so, they say it took three years of working with fellow musicians to create, record and release River. Through Cultural Arts Collective they showcase the future of Australian music by combining Australia’s many cultures into music that “touches the spirit”. It is a generous vision that has driven Richard for a very long time – unearthing the musical talents and mastery that have remained unrecognised outside the bounds of individual cultural communities and gathering them into making music that draws on tradition to create inspirational contemporary work – anything from driving rock rhythms to hypnotic spiritual chants.

Through Cultural Arts Collective, Richard launched the first Sydney Sacred Music Festival in 2011 after working with migrant and refugee communities in western Sydney for more than 10 years. After operating on a shoestring, it is now an established non-profit organisation, with a measure of government and private financial support. The program extends right across metropolitan Sydney, linking together a whole range of music organisations.

Death and personal loss were the immediate inspiration behind the creation of River. It offers a message of hope for those struggling with grief and profound loss. Eleven musicians performed in the streets of Fairfield, where they were filmed with the willing support of locals. They were world renowned Uyghur bard Shohrat Tursun – vocals, dutar (two string lute), Yaw Derkyi – African percussion and vocals, Richard Petkovic – guitar and vocals, Maria Mitar and Gambirra Illume – vocals, Nicholas Ng – urhu (Chinese two stringed fiddle),  Bukhu Ganburged – Mongolian horse fiddle, Salar Hs – violin, Rudi Upright Valdez – double bass, Victor Valdes – Mexican harp, and Ngoc-Tuan Hoang – guitar.

Many of these artists have been playing together for several years now and it shows in their ease of improvisation and collaboration and their quiet mutual respect. Cultural Arts Collective produces and composes music, and creates ensembles to support artists previously hidden from the mainstream. Already firmly established is the Shohrat Tursun Trio, comprising Shohrat himself, in right of photo, Yaw Derkyi, centre, and Richard Petkovic. CAC manages artists, produces festivals and events and distributes new music.

Richard’s perseverance in changing the focus of Australian music making and performance has led to contracts with Musica Viva to re-imagine their regional touring program and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to work with several community festivals to improve their artistic direction. They are great steps forward on a deeply enriching path.

Yes, this blog does have a future – building on each other’s achievements!

Well, hello again! It’s more than two months since my last post. In that time, I have been sorting and culling files, books and other records and generally downsizing. Many were used in the writing of my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney, published in 2013 and in the subsequent publication of this blog Western Sydney Frontier – beginning in 2014. Simultaneously, it has meant a chance to reflect on the last 45 years of arts and cultural development I have witnessed and the monumental changes that have occurred across the region.

1-bsa-collective_blank-slate

In the midst of this period, I was honoured to open the first exhibition of the recently formed Blacktown Studio Artists Collective, Blank Slate. It is a perfect illustration of what has happened in that 45 years. Distance and isolation remain facts of life, but population growth, cultural diversification, growth in social infrastructure like education and the arts and the determined advocacy of hundreds of passionate individuals has produced  extraordinary change.

Above is Blacktown Sun’s photo of the exhibiting artists, Jan Cleveringa, left, Nazanin Masharian, Suzannah Williams, Rosalind Stanley and Alex Cyreszko. Nazanin says “Blank Slate is a metaphor for the collective; we’re not sure what we’re going to be yet. We’re open to the energy of the group and what comes up,” They are all well educated, widely experienced and willing to explore their own histories in a context of local and global issues like displacement by war and colonisation, the impact of changing technologies, and climate change. They came together under the auspice of Blacktown Arts Centre and are also committed to Blacktown and its future.

ian-zammitThen last week I had the immense pleasure of an evening of conversation over dinner with two inspirational people, Ian Zammit, left, and Natalie Wadwell, right below. Our evening resulted from both of them contacting me after I questioned whether this blog has a future. Having reached the age of 75, I am increasingly reminded of my own mortality and the need for me to pass on the baton of networking, support and promotion. Both Ian and Natalie grew up in western Sydney. Each was creative and imaginative, but frustrated by the limited opportunities available locally. Ian grew up in Emu Heights, pursued music and theatre studies and completed an honours degree at Middlesex University in the UK, in 2006. He returned to live in Penrith and for five years worked at Carriageworks arts centre in Redfern. Then he took a gamble on working full time to develop Emu Heights Theatre Company with a group of local artists, teachers and business people and the support of his wife Michelle. The company survived five years of successful productions and work with local schools, but decided to close last year when facing unending struggles for money and resources.

Far from giving up, Ian recognised the need for more collaboration and mutual support among theatre people and established Theatre Links in the West, which meets monthly and shares theatre information through its Facebook page. His track record is leading to increasing professional employment opportunities for him in Penrith and Liverpool performing artsNatalie Wadwell - ARI forum.

Similarly, Natalie has been confronting the frustrations and challenges for young people in her local area and continually investigates, analyses and instigates creative solutions. With an appetite for learning, strategic thinking and a commitment to improved opportunities, she established an online presence with Wadwell Initiatives, giving her own background as a writer and creative instigator and a summary of her projects, writings, ideas and vulnerabilities. She has a Bachelor Art Theory/History (First Class Honours), UNSW Art and Design (2012-2015).

Earlier this year, she graduated with 16 other young people from the inaugural accelerator program conducted by the School of Social Entrepreneurs for young people wanting to drive social change in Western Sydney. Now, she is working with Lucinda Davison, founder and editor of the online publication State of the Arts to develop the site as an online platform promoting a more inclusive arts and culture conversation across New South Wales. “It aims to bring together creatives, art writers, performers, musicians and art organisations to investigate, engage and promote the diversity of creative initiatives and cultures. From the northern plains to the southern basin of NSW, including Greater Western Sydney and the ACT, State of the Arts will be a guide from country to coast.

State of the Arts brings together the broad experiences of art and culture “out there” to take art off its pedestal, because culture is everywhere.” Natalie is determined to ensure that western Sydney is well represented and the platform provides scope for lots of participation. Do check it out and consider contributing. State of the Arts is a more than worthy successor to Western Sydney Frontier and for the time being, we can gladly cross promote each other’s posts. In the meantime, those people who left generous comments supporting the continuation of my blog can feel pleased.

wagana-becky-chatfield-and-jo-clancy-2016While most of the arts and cultural achievements in western Sydney are the result of sustained collaborative effort and many disappointments, some require even more commitment than most. For Becky Chatfield, above left with Jo Clancy of Wagana Aboriginal Dancers in the Blue Mountains, there are daily encounters with casual racism and denial of her own deep sense of identity. Statements like “Aboriginality is just unnecessary. It’s not really in the best interests of Aboriginal people. It’s not good for Aborigines to remain Aborigines.”

A week ago on Facebook, she posted “I tossed up whether or not to watch First Contact last night but decided I had to, the issue is too important. So many people saying ‘ignore it, don’t worry about it, give it no energy’. But unfortunately, I feel that I must indeed give energy to it and I believe we all should, because David Oldfield is not the only one with these sickening views, Australia has many people who think the way he does and I can’t close my eyes to it. I have a responsibility to my daughter and to all of our children to at least try. I will continue to spread the beauty of our culture, and I will call out the bullshit.
I want change and it won’t come unless we actively tackle the situation together.”

Then out of the blue came a contact from Anton Arets, an artist I hadn’t seen for 30 years. It was followed by a completely unsolicited response to my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney  – one that reflects the views of Ian and Natalie. “I have Blog - PPM book coverjust finished reading it. It is such an excellent, well researched and insightful publIcation . . . This book will help everyone contemplating a career in any of the many art forms and cultural support networks, to appreciate that its not an easy road, that there will be challenges, disappointments, limited budgets, rejections, lack of community support and opportunities – just to mention a few.. But they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They need to build on the foundation set by the many dedicated artists and artisans before them, and capitalise on every opportunity that presents itself or is even self created, regardless of how small it appears on the surface. Effort always pays dividends.

“Just thinking….. What the book highlighted in my mind, amongst other things, was how the Aboriginal community and also the European/Asian Migrant population, the New Australians, were basically told to bury their identity or ‘shut up and fit in..’  Art gave them their voice back, and helped them research and regain their identity as individuals worthy of dignity and respect. Its a voice we cannot afford to lose.

“As the powers-that-be continually implement and endorse the time tested quality of not listening to the general populace, this may end up being the only voice we have.”

In officially launching Blacktown Studio Artists Collective exhibition Blank Slate, I gave each of the artists a copy of Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney to thank them for their inspiration to the rest of us and to let them see themselves as part of a rich continuum of creative arts development in western Sydney. They work in a wide range of media to give expression to their ideas. Blank Slate continues at Blacktown Visitor Information and Heritage Centre in the original Blacktown Primary School, Civic Plaza, Flushcombe Rd, Blacktown, (across from Blacktown Library), until January 28, 2017. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 3pm.

It’s a pleasure to know that Ian Zammit and Natalie Wadwell are looking forward as much as I am to getting together again early next year. All good wishes in the meantime.

“Living Traces” offers an international vision for North Parramatta heritage site

1-living-traces-griefThanks to the vision and passionate commitment of artist Bonney Djuric, the current exhibition Living Traces – a Parragirls artist book and print exhibition – is giving us a glimpse of possibilities both poignant and beautiful. The possibilities are implicit in her proposed International Site of Conscience embracing the convict Parramatta Female Factory and the Parramatta Girls Home. Both lie in the Parramatta North Heritage Precinct, a key site of Sydney’s colonial history from 1792 and part of the land of the Burramatta clan of the Darug people for at least 20,000 years.

This core of Australia’s national history is now threatened with subdivision and development by the NSW Government through its agency UrbanGrowth. The girls home is currently under investigation as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse and former individual male staff members are the subject of criminal investigations.

living-traces-workshop-bonney-djuricBonney, left, and the late Christina Green were the co-founders of Parragirls in 2006. Both had been institutionalised in the Parramatta Girls Home under a punitive welfare model  in the 1970s, though like most of the residents, neither had committed any crime. Both had struggled in adulthood to understand the harshness of their experiences and to find healing from the consequences. Parragirls was founded to assist other former residents to find similar recovery. As part of this process, following a chance meeting with artist Lily Hibberd, Bonney initiated the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct – Memory Project with Lily as creative director in 2012. There was little or no money. The early stages involved bringing to light through photography, history documentation, artworks, multimedia presentations and installations, a record of the abuses and punishments of life in the institution. A theatre production, a symposium conducted in partnership with UTS Shopfront and quiet meetings with former girls returning to face their past were all part of the process. They began to reach a wider public totally unaware of the history.

living-traces-workshop-gypsie-hayesAs Bonney explains in the Living Traces catalogue, “Important to both of us was coming up with a new model of ethical practice to engage with and interpret institutional sites of confinement that would place former occupants at the centre of the process rather than at the periphery as subjects, footnotes. . . . Slowly we have built community interest in the site, connections to arts, history and the museum sector, and are rekindling its early Indigenous history. Most importantly we’re exploring new ideas on how these sites can be used, and who should be involved in the process.” There are no similar models to guide the process. Aboriginal artist and Parragirl Gypsie Hayes, above, in a Living Traces workshop.

living-traces-workshop-jenny-mcnallyFor those of us who grew up outside Sydney and NSW, it it difficult to comprehend the fear and shame associated with the girls home. Although originally intended to provide safety and education in life skills for disadvantaged girls from the 1880s, instead it became a focus for brutality, moral judgements and the abuse of power, especially by male officers. As Bonney says in a video interview in Living Traces, “we were told we would never amount to anything.” Civic leaders and the media echoed these judgements, and until the home was forcibly closed in 1986, teenage girls were commonly threatened with the girls home if they didn’t behave. It was a mode of control and punishment, including shaved heads and solitary confinement, that had its origins in British naval practice in earlier centuries. Although Bonney and Christina Green (aka Riley) were each treated very differently in the home – Christina’s Aboriginality compounded her punishments – both buried their experiences until painful memory triggers became inescapable. For almost every former resident who survived the ordeal, this was the pattern – profound shame, guilt and burying memories of the past. Parragirl Jenny McNally, above, and her Living Traces collagraph, below.

living-traces-jenny-mcnallyLiving Traces, a Parragirls artist book and print exhibition has been a year long project with funding assistance from Arts NSW. Among the traces of the brutal and demeaning history perpetrated in the 19th century buildings of the Girls Home are names, initials and statements scratched into doors and window frames by girls locked in solitary confinement. So many records have been lost or destroyed by the state welfare authorities, and others not yet found, that sometimes the scratchings are the only evidence that a girl was ever there. Professional artists Gwen Harrison and Sue Anderson conducted 16 workshops with 12 former Parragirls to create delicate multilayered collagraphs incorporating traces of these scratchings and others in which they respond to those marks on their own lives. The results are printed on exquisite German etching paper, displayed individually throughout the exhibition and gathered into collective artist books.

living-traces-bethel-its-time-for-transparencyThe exhibition is laid out in Bethel, left as seen at the launch of Living Traces, the children’s hospital built in 1862 for the adjacent Roman Catholic Orphanage opened in 1844. Both buildings were subsequently part of the Girls Home. A catalogue and information sheet guide visitors through rooms upstairs and downstairs, where sound recordings, videos, and installations create an atmospheric context for the stories being told. Upstairs in particular the sight of stripped back walls and scratchings on doors bear grim witness to the girls’ experiences. With the official opening on Saturday, September 24, performance artist Zsuzsi Soboslay, presented the verbatim story of Jenny McNally’s struggle against shame and hiding her past from her family. As she spoke, she quietly wiped a window clean to reveal the words – It’s time for transparency. Her strength and dignity were almost palpable and her audience was deeply moved.

1-living-traces-its-time-for-transparencyArt is transforming a terrible history into a transcending experience uniquely personal and universally relevant, from which we can all learn and draw inspiration. Lily says, “Living Traces offers rare insight into the continuous history of a justice system that criminalises, incarcerates and punishes vulnerable children to this day.” For Bonney it is “opening up new ways of understanding ourselves as a nation who never questioned the rule of authority when it came to the fate of those who were placed in institutional care.” The goal is a Memory Museum for Women and Children for which they have already amassed a huge archive.

But there is an elephant in the room potentially threatening the future of the project, other than from the NSW Government. Without a unified voice, the government could easily ignore alternative proposals to their plans. In the last two years, government proposals for the site have led to the rise of the North Parramatta Residents Action Group, which has been instrumental in mounting a widespread inclusive campaign to save the 30 hectare heritage precinct. With the National Trust and Parramatta Chamber of Commerce, among others, they envisage a world class cultural, educational and tourist precinct that is economically viable and remains in public ownership. They have tried to engage Bonney and the Memory Project in the process. Last October they conducted a symposium about the future of the precinct drawing on a broad range of expert opinion and continue to garner support and commission alternative concepts to those of UrbanGrowth.

living-traces-bonney-djuricPrevious experience has taught Bonney to be deeply distrustful of heritage organisations, which “domesticate” or sentimentalise colonial history and fail to see the continuing impact on contemporary society. It is only her highly strategic and total commitment which has brought the project this far and won global recognition as the first Australian member of the 200 strong International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Bonney’s Living Traces collagraph, left.

About the Parramatta Memory Project Lily explains, “The Site of Conscience founding ethos is to bring ‘Memory to Action’ past and present experiences of women and children who have been in state welfare institutions. It is place of recognition for women and children who have been subjected to terrible injustice, cruelty and punishment in welfare and juvenile justice systems. Parramatta Female Factory and Parramatta Girls Home are conjoined as the mother and child of this system from its colonial origins and legacies from the 20th century to the present day.

living-traces-gypsie-hayes“The Memory Museum for Women and Children will make the physical and emotional link between the Female Factory and Parramatta Girls Home and the intergenerational and contemporary issues for all those who have similar experiences. This is a museum of inclusion: a home for otherwise disparate and vulnerable people: Forgotten Australians, Stolen Generations and many others who have been treated unjustly and abandoned by the state and their carers.” International Sites of Conscience generate huge visitor numbers, she says, and strong economic returns. Gypsie Hayes’ Living Traces collagraph, left.

It’s time to talk. In the meantime, UrbanGrowth has just announced –

Sprout

Growing ideas for the Parramatta North heritage precinct

Two days of panel discussions, working sessions, inspirational presentations, site tours and displays to help us grow ideas for the Parramatta North heritage precinct. Thursday and Friday, November 10 and 11. The Chapel, Norma Parker Centre,
1 Fleet Street, North Parramatta NSW 2145.
Sprout
is free to attend. Pre-registration is required, as we have limited space. Register

I regret that I shall be unable to attend, but you can still make a contribution by phoning  Sara Wilson on 0419 815 087 or emailing parramattanorth@urbangrowth.nsw.gov.au

Living Traces continues only from Friday September 30 to next Sunday, October 2, 2 – 6pm, 1 Fleet St, Parramatta North.

Workshop images – Lucy Parakhina; Collagraph images – Lily Hibberd; Other images – Suzette Meade

Creative artists present nuanced views of conflict, causes and consequences

ntop-qanonAward wining film director George Miller says, “. . . art is at its best when it allows catharsis through story telling and a nation is at its best when it provides a refuge for humanity to heal and flourish.” It seems that this observation is relevant to three arts events due to launch across western Sydney, where negotiating multiculturalism and difference is a daily  experience.

The first is Diaspora-Making Machines opening at Blacktown Arts Centre, on Thursday, September 29. The second is a public dialogue between writers Ellen van Neerven and Michael Mohammed Ahmad under the provocative title Black and Lebo. The third is The Cartographer’s Curse, a new production created by National Theatre of Parramatta, which explores the complexities of political and social divisions within the Middle East. Above is an image of the qanun, a Middle Eastern instrument featured in The Cartographer’s Curse. Director Paula Abood explains qanun is the origin of the English word canon, encompassing the lore and law of a society.

In Diaspora-Making Machines eight artists of diverse cultural backgrounds explore some of “the systemic devices (the machines) that generate movement and the dispersal of communities (the diaspora).” From the earliest days of the colony, Blacktown has been a scene of continuous waves of migration. Some were forced, like the Aboriginal and Maori children sent to be “reformed” at the 1823 Blacktown Native Institution, and others like migrants and refugees who made new homes there by choice.

1-blak-douglas-bac-for-diaspora-making-machinesOffering an Aboriginal perspective on the exhibition’s theme of Blacktown’s historic place as a centre of migration, attitudes to newcomers, and notions of belonging and assimilation is Blak Douglas, who grew up in the area. His work, left, Pipe Dreams (Part A), suggests a challenge to the role of the church as a systemic device in the dispersal of Aboriginal communities. Another of the artists is Mehwish Iqbal, who grew up in a small town in Pakistan where art wasn’t even taught in the local school. Nonetheless, she defied traditional expectations to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the National College of Arts and then moved to Dubai. In 2006, she moved to Australia with her family where she completed a Masters degree at the College of Fine Arts UNSW. Mehwish has undertaken international artists residencies and has a keen interest in themes of integration, assimilation and separation experienced by migrants living in Australia and issues faced by under privileged children in developing countries.

The other artists are Jumaadi, Nerine Martini, Susannah Williams and Warren Armstrong, Luping Zeng and his son Cheng Zeng. Diaspora Making Machines will continue at Blacktown until Saturday, November 5.

ellen-van-nervanBlack and Lebo promises a lively discussion between two award winning young writers, Aboriginal author Ellen van Neerven, right, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad, below, left. Ellen won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize, among other awards, and has just published a new book Comfort Food, a collection of poetry. Michael is the director of Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, a talented actor, and a doctoral candidate at the Western Sydney University Writing and Society Research Centre. He has won several awards for his work and for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs will be published early next year.

Ellen and Michael Mohammed.AhmadMichael will discuss the intersections between race, faith, class, gender and sexuality in contemporary Australian literature, give performances from their latest works and take questions and comments from their audience. Black and Lebo takes place on Friday, September 30, at Western Sydney University, Bankstown campus, Building 3, Room G 55. The event is free with lunch provided and everyone is welcome, but RSVP is essential.

Prof Ghassan HageFrench and British colonialism of the early 20th century in the Middle East is the starting point for The Cartographer’s Curse. Invasion, colonialism and conflict have been common experiences for centuries among people in this region, where borders have undergone frequent change, according to who holds the power. A century ago, it was the British and French who drew lines on a map to divide the area according to their own interests. The consequences continue to reverberate and have led many people to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. Under the guidance of Paula Abood, history is imagined through spoken word poetry and prose, parkour movements and qanunic music. Among the characters are the cartographer, the wandering professor, the poet, the resistance, the merchant and the master of the qanun. The professor is played by Ghassan Hage, above right, an actual Future Generation Professor of global stature.

1-ntop-cartog-curse-thistle“This ensemble captures the very best of Arab Australian artistry in all its different expression,” Paula says. “Each performer in The Cartographer’s Curse brings a particular prowess and this makes for an exciting performance.” The coupling of the melodic quality of the qanun with the edginess of Parkour movement, she describes as “artistically very exhilarating.” The thistle, left, grows throughout the landscape of the Middle East and could easily be perceived as a metaphor for resilience and survival. The Cartographer’s Curse opens at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, on Thursday, October 5 and continues only until October 8.

Sacred music launch highlights Aboriginal spirit of country and inspires hope

1-IMG_4705I missed the opening event of the Sydney Sacred Music Festival, but by chance discovered unexpected beauty and symbolism. Owing to wet weather, The Gathering Ceremony at Marrong, featuring internationally acclaimed Aboriginal musician William Barton, was transferred from Marrong or Prospect Hill, to Pemulwuy Community Centre. I missed the message and arrived instead at the foot of the hill in Daruga Ave, Pemulwuy, at 2pm, last Friday, September 2. With no one in sight, the concert was clearly happening elsewhere. From the road, the view was of carefully landscaped bushland, polished steel and timber stairways, and signage including Burra – the Darug word for food – found in the bush around.

The hill is a central feature of the Cumberland Plains and the region of western Sydney. The sight was a revelation. The last time I had been on the hill was probably more than 20 years ago. The hillside was deeply scarred after years of mining for building and roadmaking materials, and battered old pine trees still formed a windbreak of sorts along the ridge line. At Worlds Collide, the Festival concert on the following night, others confirmed their only consciousness of public discussion about the hill was a pre-Bicentenary proposal in the 1980s for a giant flagpole on the hill – a symbol of white Australian triumphalism. In the 30 years since that time, a quiet revolution had been taking place with many participants, particularly members of then Holroyd Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee and local resident Jacqui Douglas, a descendant of the Malyankapa language group of western NSW.

1-IMG_4709Jacqui’s research of early documents had led her to question why the third colonial settlement of Portland Place, established at the base of Prospect Hill in 1791 appeared to have been abandoned in favour of Toongabbie, now officially recognised as the third white settlement in Australia. Holroyd Council commissioned historian Michael Flynn to undertake a formal study of Portland Place and the indigenous history of Holroyd. Three months after the establishment of the penal colony at Sydney Cove in 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip set out with a party including Captain Llieutenant Watkin Tench to search for arable land for growing crops. On the fifth day, they arrived at what was soon known as Prospect Hill because of its fine vistas and dominant position in the landscape. Settlement followed but quickly met with Aboriginal resistance. Attacks and counter attacks were occurring elsewhere in the colony. In a chapter called War on the Cumberland Plain, in her award winning book The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, associate professor Grace Karskens details the complexities of relationships that were emerging between Aboriginal groups and white settlers throughout this period. There was no simple racial divide, but a network of sympathies and conflicts between and among Aboriginal and white groups across the plains. Outstanding among the Aboriginal resistance fighters was Bidgigal man, Penmulwuy from the Botany Bay area whose defiant exploits took him to many locations around Sydney. In 1802, despite previous remarkable escapes, Pemulwuy was killed.

1-IMG_4708Grace Karskens writes that in 1805, Governor King reintroduced the strategy that had successfully eliminated Pemulwuy. “A few days later, Aboriginal people of Prospect, Parramatta and the Cowpastures asked (the Reverend) Samuel Marsden to attend a conference ‘with a view to opening the way to reconciliation’. A complex dance of diplomacy and negotiation followed, brokered by Aboriginal women with the assistance of  Prospect settler, Jonathon (also called John) Kennedy, When Marsden arrived at the appointed place, the women told him that the men were in conference and would be calling on him when they were ready. And they did: . . .” Skirmishes in the area died down, though they continued elsewhere, particularly where white settlements had destroyed access to indigenous food sources.

The peace talks were held on May 3, 1805. On Monday, May 4, 2015, the 210th anniversary of the talks, Marrong Reserve was officially launched by the Mayor of Holroyd, Greg Cummings and Darug Elder, Aunty Sandra Lee. The commemorative plaque acknowledged the contribution of resources for the establishment of the reserve from Lend Lease and Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Limited. A Holroyd Council media release stated that “Marrong Reserve provides recreational, cultural and visual amenity to the residents of Pemulwuy and surrounding areas, and is named after the Aboriginal word for Prospect Hill because it follows the ridgeline. . . . The Reserve will be dedicated to Council by land owner, Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Limited and developer, Lend Lease after a maintenance period. The northern section of Marrong Reserve has been completed as Stage 1 with the expectation that Lend Lease will develop the southern portion as Stage 2.”

1-IMG_4704As I walked through the misty rain on Marrong, I heard and saw currawongs, kookaburras, crested pigeons and little finches. The surrounding scrub looked like a metaphor for the symbolic nature of the hill itself. Introduced plants like lantana threatened to overwhelm native shrubs, but other native grasses and trees flourished and hardenbergias were resplendent in purple spring flowers. Clearly there is a lot more planned for the reclamation and maintenance of Marrong/Prospect as a focal point for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal intercultural understanding and respect. Martha Jabour, cultural officer for the new Cumberland Council, which has absorbed much of the former Holroyd and Auburn Councils, writes that “the treatment of Marrong is very much about the work of our ATSI committee. Recent forums and programs have been effective in bringing  additional Aboriginal partners to the process.”

With so much progress in little more than 20 years, it’s encouraging to think that the hotly contested North Parramatta Heritage Precinct might yet emerge as another example of honest Australian story telling, self knowledge, education and cultural tourism. Advocates are heartened by the outstanding 10 year record of achievement of Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne as a model for their future. Click here to see the video highlighted by North Parramatta Resident Action Group president Suzette Meade.

1-img_1706I arrived at the Pemulwuy Community Centre, just as William Barton and his mother Aunty Delmae Barton finished their performance for The Gathering Ceremony. Their audience was clearly uplifted by the experience. Thanks to Martha Jabour for her photo. By good fortune, the artists were present at the following night’s Worlds Collide concert and improvised with musicians in the first piece to the delight of the crowd. Sydney Sacred Music Festival program continues Sydney wide until September 18.