This article was submitted by Kathryn Jeanes, a PhD student in the School of Fine Arts.
Historically, islands have been used as prisons, penal colonies and as isolation for those displaced from society. Surrounded by sea, islands ensured exile and visitation was often banished. Monitoring supervision by the authorities was easier and the punishment component of sentences was often more severe. Today, islands also provide a safe haven for the vulnerable and victims of change in circumstance for adults and children.
Australia, itself an island of incarceration, developed seven offshore sites of punishment and exile in colonial history. Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour Tasmania, Rottnest Island offshore from Perth, Melville Island north of Darwin, Stradbroke Island off south east Queensland, Peel Island in Morton Bay Queensland, Norfolk Island in the South Pacific Ocean east of Brisbane and Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour.
My Fine Art PhD research includes the concept of reparation, making amends (with my site-specific installation) and examining the errors of the past. This promotes the concept of adapting to change and the scrutiny of an outcome.
Biloela on Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbour, was established as a girls Industrial School in 1871. My research explores the 16 year cultural phenomena of Biloela, the education facility where young destitute and neglected girls were incarcerated. The girls were displaced from society, and at times suffered under gross mismanagement. By acknowledging the circumstances of the girls and researching the archives, brutality and harsh cruelty is evident.
The aim of my site-specific installation, titled ‘Reparation: Biloela 1871-1887’ and held on Cockatoo Island in April 2017, was to create an empathetic framework responding to a colonial period of child welfare which had been previously neglected.
Unfortunately, to date, no visual records of the girls are apparent – no photographs are archived from this period as witness to their lives and events. As a result of these findings, and the government ambivalence to this shameful period in child welfare, I installed 16 handmade artist books in an atmospheric convict-built space on the island for three weeks. I projected lists of the girls sewing and their appointments as domestic servants onto the wall and this gave a voice and recognition to the girls. It allowed a transition of information from passive to public by tactile engagement with books and quiet reading in the atmospheric space.
Researching the site and associated archives allowed me to present an equitable and realistic representation of the girls and the challenges they faced. The inclusion of the history, presented as contemporary artist books, allowed the girls’ lives to enrich the records of the past and for them to be viewed as an integral part of Cockatoo Island’s history and not to be portrayed in sex-stereotypical roles.
Was I successful in making amends with an art exhibition?
Did my exhibition allow participants to adapt to change and reconsider girls’ incarceration?
Yes, it was a very positive PhD experience and allowed the opportunity for great discussions with participants. My visitors book expressed the hope that we as a society had adapted to change, and the desire that we can learn for the future.
My research has extended and now includes the Industrial School for Girls Parramatta, a notoriously cruel precinct where the child welfare placed ‘neglected’ and ‘uncontrollable’ girls. This precinct was added to the national heritage list in November 2017 and recognised as one of Australia’s most significant heritage sites.