For a brief period in the 1940s, art and drawing was pr omoted among Aboriginal children of the Carrolup Native Settlement and School located in Katanning, in the southwest of Western Australia. The government had removed the children from their families for their “protection” and preparation for assimilation into white Australian society. Settler projects of dispossession, child removal, and institutionalization contributed to the children’s artistic production, hence knowledge creation. Propelled into mobility by the patronage of admirers, a large collection of Carrolup art toured Europe in the 1950s. The works came to rest for nearly sixty years in upstate New York, far from Noongar country. In 2013, this collection of Carrolup artwork was returned to Western Australia. The mobilities and immobilities of both the artists and artworks are keys to unlocking the legacy of Carrolup for present and future generations of Noongar people, as well as for the larger landscape of reconciliation in Australia.
Movements, mobilization, and transitions are critical to the Carrolup legacy. We consider here first the mobilities of the children, then the response to their artwork, and finally its transcendence. The story is far from linear and a mobilities perspective provides a productive framework for reconciling a problematic past in Western Australia with a creative future for Noongar people in the wider world.
Carrolup and the Children
In the 1940s, the Carrolup Native Settlement was one of two government institutions to which Aboriginal infants and children were removed from their families, who were forced to congregate at a distance in camps along the Carrolup River. During that decade, the administration of Aboriginal affairs in Western Australia shifted from a policy of segregation to the assimilation of Aborigines into white Australia society. Key to these aims was the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and a concerted effort at vocational training. Daily mobilities of the children were rigid and regulated, with strict schedules of work, training, and meals. Children were locked in dormitories soon after evening tea without access to sources of light, occupation, or activity.
Art was one pedagogical tool introduced by the teacher, Noel White, for inspiring the children to learn. He took the children into the bush for natural history lessons and then asked them to represent what they had seen in drawings. Their powerful drawings led Mr. White to appreciate their immense capacity to read the landscape in spatial and temporal detail. The education of the children, however, clashed with the institutional control over the children’s mobilities and the need for child labor to (re)produce the settlement. While some of the boys continued to draw in evenings, the contest between education, art, and the governmental policy collided in the spaces of the Carrolup settlement.
In spite, or perhaps because of administrative crossfire, a cadre of (mostly) boys who were competitive, committed to, and prolific in their artwork emerged during these years. Their drawings soon gained local, regional, metropolitan, and even international recognition (see Figures 1 and 2).
In 1949 the art came to the attention of Florence Rutter, an Englishwoman who was in Perth promoting the Soroptimist Club. Rutter traveled to Carrolup to observe the work firsthand. Acting on her vision for the potential of the artwork for the children’s future, she launched a series of exhibitions in Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, and New Zealand. Rutter later exhibited artworkin the Netherlands and then to a series of halls and galleries in London and Great Britain.
The consequence of institutionalization for the maintenance and transmission of Noongar culture and identity is underscored by scholars of the Carrolup artists. The depicted scenes of landscapes and culture may be considered “imagined,” given the removal of the children from land and kin. But imagination is also a powerful conduit for communication of culture and identity. For Noongar people, for example, learning from kinfolk often happened at sunset. Accordingly, the depictions of vibrant sunsets by the child artists offers a vocabulary to describe dislocation from family as well as maintain connection to country. Images of earlier eras of Noongar tradition—corroborees, the hunt for seemingly abundant game, and freedom of movement through the bush—are also depicted in the drawings. Recurring roads and fences stretchingtoward the horizon, away from the vantage of the observer, evoke themes of institutionalization and the control of mobility.
In the context of dispossession from country, the location of the material legacy of the child artists, the artwork, holds immense significance for Noongar culture, heritage, and identity. The children produced a great many works of varying sizes and various renderings. Pieces were given for display, gifts, and purchase. The Gallery of Western Australia holds drawings by the child artists Parnell Dempster, Revel Cooper, and Reynold Hart; and the University of Western Australia has over 140 works, though the whereabouts of the drawings left at the Carrolup School after its abrupt closing in 1951 remains unknown.
The international mobilization of the Carrolup drawings exhibited by Rutter has recently been revealed. Until ten years ago the location of the artwork was unknown, but in 2004 a group of over 100 drawings was identified in the stored collections of the Picker Art Gallery of Colgate University, Hamilton, New York. Herbert B. Mayer, owner of the New World Gallery in New York City, had purchased the collection from Rutter in 1956. Mayer likely showed some works in his 1962 exhibition of international children’s art. He donated many works to Colgate, including boxes of Carrolup artwork, labeled “Aboriginal Children’s Art.” Immobilized during their forty-year storage at Colgate, the colors of the pastels remain vivid.
The discovery of the artwork in New York has provoked an intense response from many parties in Australia and the United States—Noongar leaders and artists in cities and on country, art historians, social scientists, and representatives of educational institutions and museums. The artwork has again been on the move. Over twenty drawings were exhibited as Koorah Coolingah (Children long ago) in the Katanning library as part of the celebration of Noongar culture during the 2006 Perth International Art Festival. They were welcomed back to country with great ceremony in a celebration of Noongar heritage and remembrance. With poignancy and some pain, the pieces were returned to New York. Selections from the collection were exhibited in 2007 in the presence of Noongar leaders and youth who traveled from Western Australia to attend the exhibit, Palimpsest, at the Picker Art Gallery.
A new set of movements has since followed in a manner consistent with the original inspiration for the drawings: education. The multiple facets of the Carrolup story have provided transformative opportunities within the liberal arts curricula of Colgate University. Students and faculty have participated in educational tours to Carrolup country to learn from Noongar elders and artists. Bearing witness to personal interpretations of the meaning of Carrolup and its art for Noongar people, culture, and environmental heritage, they have encountered the complexity of the history and heritage of Noongar country. As students walk through the Carrolup settlement with Noongar elders, they confront the past and contemplate the implications for the present and future. This time spent with Noongar people in their country has renewed and revealed the power of the Carrolup art.
The ways in which the diverse and profound values attached to the drawings—historical, art historical, aesthetic, cultural, identificational, familial, and personal—embody the many legacies of Carrolup. The circulation of the works has materialized a renewed understanding of the mobilities and immobilities of peoples, families, and children, of injustice, pain, creativity, survival, and cultural knowledge. In 2013, the leadership of Colgate University recognized how the cultural, educational, and heritage value of the artwork would be amplified by returning the collection to Western Australia. Goals to conserve, share, and celebrate the Carrolup artwork for future generations of Noongar, as well as non-Indigenous Australians and students worldwide, guided conversations with Noongar leaders, the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, and the John Curtin Gallery of Curtin University (see Figure 3).
From the movement of the art through and from Noongar country, a “spiritual geography” emerges and reveals new spaces for learning and listening. Through their art, the Noongar children continue to instruct and inspire current and, we hope, future generations as well. Their legacy is perhaps unknownto them, but is not limited by time and place. The entire collection of drawings, 122 works, was exhibited at Curtin University in Koolark Koort Koorliny (Heart coming home).1 Noongar people from communities in the Great Southern region attended the opening for an evening of great emotion and remembering. Thousands of people visited the exhibition. Acting on the shared goals of access, education, and celebration of Noongar culture and country, Curtin University in partnership with Noongar leaders launched a tour of the Carrolup artwork in 2014 throughout the southwest of Western Australia—the beginning of ongoing programs.
Carrolup stories are characterized by mobilities and immobilities that are both forced and generous—of things, of girls and boys, students and artists, identities, ideas, relationships, collaborations, and friendships. These processes can be honored and understood from a mobilities perspective, with its analytic respect for what can otherwise remain out of sight—phenomena that are mobile and multivariate, encompassing different times, places and scales, people and objects, ideas, emotions, and identities. Well beyond transdisciplinary and participatory, the “method” to understanding the mobilities and geographies inherent in the story of Carrolup embraces mutual respect, generosity, and the critical significance of human relationships for revealing the unpalatable truths of settler colonialism, shared among people seeking to understand.
http://johncurtingallery.curtin.edu.au/exhibitions/archive/2013.cfm#koolark (accessed 2 July 2015).
For Further Reading
PushmanTracie and Robyn Smith Walley. “Koorah Coolingah (Children Long Ago).” University of Western Australia Berndt Museum of AnthropologyOccasional Paper no. 8 (2006).
StantonJohn and Sandra Hill. “Aboriginal Artists of the South-West: Past and Present.” University of Western Australia Berndt Museum of AnthropologyOccasional Paper no. 5 (2000).