Spits of rain pierce dappled sun under the tall pines. A white marquee, a podium, three huge black rocks wrapped with a very long yellow ribbon, a pack of media, a crowd of mostly women, milling, meeting old friends being introduced to others. A day that had been waited for…
Grundy Gardens is behind Adelaide’s cultural boulevard, along the manicured meandering River Torrens banks, between the University footbridge and the Zoo. Green, peaceful, wheelchair accessible, safe, well lit at night – the perfect site for the Commemorative Public Artwork for those affected by past forced Adoption policies and practices.
Premier Jay Wetherill arrives and the unveiling ceremonies begin. Many are deeply touched by the heart-felt speech of Education and Child Development Minister Susan Close. The Premier unties the ribbon and leads us in scattering flower petals over the Memorial, people are invited to write messages on black boards. Emotions are high, some fray, words written and spoken by some upset others, some cry, others hug. The snaking yellow ribbon is cut into portions, some stroke it, others tying it into hair or around necks, lengths flap from handbags. A gang united by losses past and present.
When the South Australian Government issued a formal Apology for Past Forced Adoption Policies and Practices on 18 July 2012, several former ARMS mothers approached the Premier asking for funds for a Memorial. Two years later the Department of Education and Child Development provided $50,000 for a Public Artwork, administered by Relationships Australia’s Post Adoption Support Services (RASA PASS), where most of those mothers attend a monthly support group. As the Memorial was to encompass all experiences of Forced Adoption, I joined the Steering Committee an Adoptee representative with experience in the arts industry.
Serving on that Committee over the last few years was both a challenge and transformative. It enabled me to talk about the cycle of forced Adoption being repeated in my life to people outside Adoption networks. I was adopted soon after birth in 1959, and in 1974 when I was 15, my son, my only child, was removed for adoption. I straddle both sides but I identify foremost as an Adoptee.
Whenever I’ve mentioned the Artwork in conversation it’s created an instant connection with others. So many people – often total strangers – have opened up and shared intimate and traumatic stories with me. Experiences of their own, or of friends or family being adopted or loosing children. At an art opening one evening a woman I had just met related that she knew adoption was a major factor in her adopted daughter’s despair and drug addiction, but as the object of her daughters’ anger, felt powerless to help her. That’s the side of adoption I don’t often see or acknowledge – the pain of adoptive parents who didn’t know what to expect.
Commissioning the Memorial was a complex process – design by Committee is often fraught, and the only guaranteed outcome is that while some will embrace result, some will find it fails their expectations. The process included wide Adoption community consultation and working with Adelaide City Council’s Public Art Committee to adhere to Guidelines for Artworks on Public Land. We secured an additional grant from Arts SA to enable a two-stage selection process, and three shortlisted artists/teams developed their concepts more fully to present to the community.
It was an incredibly hard choice as all the shortlisted artists resonated with the brief on a deep level, and each concept would have been a truly fitting Memorial. The Space Between by experienced public artists CHEB – Deb Jones and Christine Cholewa, was chosen by the majority of those adoptees and mothers who attended on the day for its monumental aesthetic and strong symbolism.
The Memorial Rock is one huge boulder split in two in brutal portrayal of adoption’s life long legacy. When a bond is prematurely broken, wholeness can’t be restored. A family cannot be glued back together. Reunions, if they do happen, are the start of new challenges, not happy endings.
At the launch I met a daughter my age who had just met her birth mother after searching for 20 years. They were both ecstatic, crying with grief and joy. Television reporters buzzed around them – it was the story of the day. Thankfully they realised that announcing their reunion to families and friends on the evening News may not be the best option, and asked to be unidentified in broadcast.
While public acknowledgement opens a dialogue for compassion, growth and change speaking of adoptions is still a delicate, sensitive slow process despite political apologies and failed Adoption counseling initiatives. It takes time to talk about being a mother without secrecy and shame, or without reliving that feeling common to adoptees of being a bad seed – either not good enough to keep, or someone else’s second hand child.
The counter balancing element of the Memorial Space is a substantial sitting stone facing the river and the split rocks, surrounded by pavers engraved with fragments of text – forever searching, endless sadness, different.. It’s a place for rest and contemplation, for being alone, being with memories and being with others. A tiny section of the raw boulder is polished to a reflective surface, where many hands have touched or will touch. This shiny spot is my favorite aspect of the Memorial – a quiet site of connection between anyone affected by Adoption.
Many, many people have been involved in bringing our Commemorative Place into existence – and I especially want to acknowledge those who have gone before who often become invisible in single outcomes. Adoptees, Mothers, Social Workers and Activists amongst others, have worked for decades, challenging both attitudes and legislation, to create a society where artworks like this Memorial are possible. Let’s have more.
The Space Between is a public reminder of their efforts to expose and address past abuses, to change laws and attitudes. My hope is that the injustice of widespread practices of taking children from mothers, and identity and belonging from children, will not be forgotten or repeated.
This artwork is for all those whose lives have been profoundly affected through adoption separation practices, for the loss suffered by many, for the ongoing grief and pain experienced by Mothers who lost their children and for Adoptees who lost their identity, heritage and family.
Adoption Affected Artist and Author
Memorial site Photos: Melinda Rackham
Melinda straddling the rocks. Photo: Sofie Gregory
Unveiling and rose petals. Photos: Relationships Australia
More images can be seen on Facebook – search for
The Space Between was unveiled on 14 July 2016.