Howl for a Black Cockatoo is a limited edition of 25 handcrafted books produced collaboratively by Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison. The work explores the experiences of the hundreds of young girls who were held on Cockatoo Island in the Industrial School between 1871 – 1888.
The island, one of many in Sydney Harbour, is harsh, barren, and treeless – exposed to all weather. It is a misshapen site: a formation of sandstone rock emerging from the deep harbour that convicts quarried to construct their own prison on the escarpment and dry docks for ships below. It seems an unlikely place to have sent children, and yet young orphaned and neglected girls, some of whom were babies, were kept there.
In 1871 Cockatoo Island prison was renamed ‘Biloela’ an Industrial School for girls and a separate Reformatory. Ostensibly, the name changing was to protect the children from the stigma of having been at ‘Cockatoo’. In reality, the renaming was intended to divert public attention from the fact that children were being sent to a notorious prison site. The appalling conditions there were deemed unfit for some of the worst felons in the colony who had just been moved to a new prison on the edge of Sydney town.
These children had already been stigmatised the moment they were ‘charged’ with being neglected. A public inquiry in 1873 into ‘Biloela’ outlined the brutal, inhumane treatment the children received from all those in authority, the management, and those employed for their care and teaching.
In ‘The Fatal Shore’ Robert Hughes wrote ‘crimes die with their witnesses and so, no doubt, did most of the crimes against women in the early colony’. The story of the Biloela girls is scarcely known in Australia. When researching their history we constantly wondered how these voiceless children fared after surviving Cockatoo. On reading a recently released report, by the Government’s current Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in Australian Institutions, the Parramatta Girl’s Home/Training School was named as one of the worst. This is the place where the girls from Biloela were sent, and as history has shown, the pattern of abuse continued.
Many of the children carried the scars from these institutions on their damaged souls; passing them on from generation to generation. This history forms part of the fabric of Australian society today. It is difficult to express the nature of the overwhelming wrongs these girls endured. Eventually their story was recontextualised into another world called Wonderland.
The books are comprised of original sugarlift and aquatint etchings on Magnani ‘Revere’ 100% cotton rag paper, with letterpress printing on a Potter Proof Press, handset Canson Lead type, various wood types. Abstract leather binding in black kangaroo, with sugarlift etching on Magnani ‘Revere’. The work was completed in January 2015.
Currently on view as part of Small Publishers curated by Akky van Ogtrop.