From the Great Southern region of Western Australia to major cities across Europe, and later to New York, a collection of astonishing artworks produced by Aboriginal children of the Stolen Generations in the late 1940s finds its way back home to Noongar country.
“The work has so much meaning in country that it deserves to be within the hearts, souls and eyes of the people.”
These words, by Professor Ellen Kraly from Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, encapsulate the cultural significance of Colgate’s transfer of a unique collection of 122 artworks by Noongar children of the Stolen Generations from the 1940s, to Curtin University in May 2013.
Kraly, the William R Kenan Jr Professor of Geography at Colgate, was central in the consultation with senior elders of the Noongar community in the Great Southern region of Western Australia, the Mungart Boodja Art Centre in Walmsley, and Curtin to effect the transfer. It was the final stage of a long process that started soon after the collection was ‘rediscovered’ decades after it had been donated to and then ‘lost’ in storage
The timeline of events in the remarkable tale of the return of this historic collection takes root in the scrubby landscape of Carrolup in the late 1940s.
At the time, Noel White, the new headmaster of the school at the Carrolup Native Settlement, and his wife, Lily,took it upon themselves to enrich the disenfranchised lives of incarcerated Aboriginal children through art. These children were forcibly removed from their families to the notorious settlement on the banks of the Carrolup River under the government’s assimilation policies of the day. Little could the Whites know they had set in motion the beginning of an art movement, still alive today.
The Whites fostered the extraordinary artistic talents of the children, aged between seven and 14, supervising walks through the local bushland to make sketches in the landscape, later to be finished from memory in class as colourful drawings and paintings.
For the children who were denied access to traditional culture, making art about their natural surroundings enabled them to keep in touch with their Noongar heritage and connection to the land.
Similarly for the Whites’ eldest daughter, Noelene, the recent Koolark Koort Koorliny (Heart Coming Home) exhibition at the John Curtin Gallery (JCG), celebrating the artworks’ transfer to Curtin, brought the recollections of her formative years in Carrolup into sharp relief, some 67 years later.
“What it does for me is to realise that my parents’ energy and love for those children was not in vain, and even though they are all gone now, that time has not been for nothing,” she says.
Recognising the astonishing artworks the children were creating was visiting English woman Florence Rutter, a major benefactor of the Carrolup school. From 1949 Rutter organised exhibitions of the artworks in major cities across Europe, where they captured the art world’s attention with their atmospheric and sophisticated depictions of Carrolup landscapes.
Years after Carrolup closed, Rutter sold all of her remaining Carrolup artworks to New York art collector and Colgate University alumnus Herbert Mayer. Ten years later, in 1966, Mayer donated the entire Carrolup collection, along with many hundreds of other artworks from his personal collection, to Colgate. It was there that the Carrolup works sat in storage at the university’s Picker Art Gallery, evading the search by Australian scholars for 38 years until, by chance, a visiting academic from the Australian National University, Professor Howard Morphy, literally lifted the lid off the container.
The rediscovery was widely reported internationally, after the story broke in The New York Times in 2004. Morphy’s excitement at the discovery was quoted in The Colgate Scene in 2005: “I saw the top drawing, a beautiful pastel drawing, and I immediately thought: Carrolup. It was a Carrolup drawing … I just leapt for joy. And then I saw that this box was actually full of works on paper, piled on top of each other. So I started to take them out and each one was a Carrolup.”
Since their rediscovery, the paintings have been studied by students from Colgate who journeyed annually to Western Australia on field trips under the guidance of Kraly. These trips included contact with the Mungart Boodja Art Centre, guided tours with Noongar elders of the Carrolup Native Settlement site, and engagement with programs developed by Curtin’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS), the School of Art and the JCG to learn about Noongar culture and history.
The visits enabled strong relationships to flourish between Curtin and Colgate, and fostered Kraly’s relationships with Noongar leaders, including Angus Wallam, Noongar Elder from Wagin, Mungart Boodja Art Centre CEO Ezzard Flowers and Curtin’s Director of CAS, Associate Professor Simon Forrest. These collaborations have helped to build stronger links between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and to foster respect and better understanding of Noongar culture and history.
After a brief flourishing, the Carrolup Native Settlement and school were closed in 1951. The distinctive Carrolup artworks created there continue to resonate across the decades, inspiring generations of Noongar artists. Importantly, the snapshot captured of the lives of these Aboriginal children who endured the challenging conditions of the times is a powerful story of resilience, retold and remembered with every viewing of the artworks.
Curtin is now planning to tour the collection widely, starting with the Great Southern region from 2014 onwards, to honour the intention of Colgate’s gift.
In this way, The Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork indeed has returned home to Noongar country.