A new book by two UNSW lecturers has documented the traumatic experiences of the former occupants of the Parramatta Girls Home by transforming their institutional memories through art and creative writing.

UNSW Art & Design adjunct lecturers Dr Lily Hibberd and Bonney Djuric OAM recently released their book, 'Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home though art and memory' at the Parramatta Girls Home as part of the mental health, science and arts festival, Big Anxiety. The book explores the unique perspectives of survivors, using art to transform their memories of an institution notorious for its abuse of children.

Djuric, the director of the Parragirls Memory Project, is a survivor of the Parramatta Girls Home, and is well known for her advocacy and contribution to the Forgotten Australians. After establishing the Parragirls support group in 2006, Djuric discovered that the survivors used creative outlets such as writing, painting, drawing and quilting to express their childhood trauma.

“It’s important to me and to many others that these things never happen again. That what happened to us was wrong, that our experiences and history are recognised as part of the Australian narrative, so that this history is never forgotten,” says Djuric.

The Parragirls Memory Project also formed part of Hibberd’s Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) research.

“A key part of the research collaboratively investigated with Parragirls how we might create archives of memory using digital media. It was crucial for this work that we had already reclaimed a portion of the institutional site through the Memory Project, which women could not previously access,” says Hibberd.

“This made it possible for the women to come to the girls’ home site and work in a safe space on their art and re-imagination of the home. Parramatta Girls suffered a lot of trauma as a result of their institutionalisation; it’s not easy to return to such a place, which is the reason a small number of women were involved in the research, and why it needed to be structured and a safe space for them.

“It’s not simply about revisiting trauma; it’s to find new creative ways to empower people, who are often represented in the media as victims and not given much opportunity to have a voice or contribute to change." 

The DECRA research project led to the making of the immersive virtual reality (VR) film, Parragirls Past Present for the 2017 Big Anxiety festival. The film was produced by Hibberd and Djuric in collaboration with four other Parragirls and UNSW media artists Volker Kuchelmeister and Alex Davies.

“Today, as more Parramatta Girls return, we are free to move unobserved, to sit on the grass, to laugh or cry, to express ourselves in our own way; to break the silence without fear of punishment, to enter and leave as we wish,” says Djuric.

Image: Bonney Djuric with ‘Living Traces’ artist book at opening of Parragirls Memory Project exhibition, 2016. Photo: Lucy Parakhina