Parnell Dempster ‘Down to Drink’ (circa 1949)
The highly acclaimed Carrolup school of Noongar Art was inspired by the artwork of Stolen Generation Noongar children who painted at Carrolup River Native Settlement. Carrolup was an institution in the South West of Western Australia that was established in about 1918 by the Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr AO Neville.
Many of the art works, executed in charcoal, watercolours and ink, were sent to Europe for exhibition in the late 1950s. They were then ‘lost’ until April 2004 when one hundred and twenty pieces were rediscovered, still in their original packing, at Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University, USA.
Executed in a style that mingles European and Aboriginal styles, they reflect a pivotal moment in modern Aboriginal art history. The children framed their compositions in a traditional European way, as reflected in their use of foregrounding and shading, but incorporated images of people, kangaroos and designs from Aboriginal culture.
Athol Farmer, an Aboriginal artist, visited to New York to view the works, said: “As a contemporary ‘Carrolup artist’ myself,” Farmer says of the drawings, “to see them was inspiring; it was amazing for me, it was emotional, it really touched me to see those pieces.” For the WA artist it was a moving reminder of his own childhood, when he was mentored by Carrolup artists at Gnowangerup in WA’s South West. “In some ways, every Noongar family from down here feels a connection to the children of Carrolup”, Farmer says, adding that his own style was influenced by the Carrolup settlement. “Some Noongars are descendants of the artists, others feel the pull of a shared history that provokes bitterness and pride”.
“That makes the discovery of these artworks so important. It’s a bit like a lifeline thrown to us, they show our history and remind us of our heritage and values. They are also encouraging better understanding and relationships between Noongar people and the wider community.” said Mr Farmer.
The story of the Carrolup art began in 1945 with the arrival of teacher Noel White at Carrolup Native Settlement, which is situated some 25 kilometres north-west of Katanning. Determined to give his students a more meaningful life, he encouraged the children to develop their talent and introduced evening sketching sessions.
His young charges were inspired and began making extraordinary drawings, varying from landscapes and botanical studies, which were stimulated by nature walks, to designs for fabrics and ceramics, scenes drawn from Australian poetry and images depicting Aboriginal life in the South West.
The Carrolup art was so distinctive and technically sophisticated that the work toured Europe in the 1950s to considerable acclaim.
The art provided powerful relief from the mission walls for the children, adding that a number of artists continued their work after the government closed down Carrolup Native Settlement. Mr Farmer said that as a child in Gnowangerup he had sat and watched Revel Cooper, one of the Carrolup artists, at work. In turn, he mentors Aboriginal artists in Katanning and other towns in the region.
It was in Katanning, that the Carrolup story took its next step, when some 25 pieces from the New York collection were shown as part of the 2006 Perth International Arts Festival. The ‘New York’ Carrolup works were only displayed in Katanning and the launch was a very moving event for the local Noongar community. The Katanning event also included a display of Athol Farmer’s work at the Mungart Boodja Arts Centre, with a further display of historic and contemporary Carrolup works at the Town Hall. The exhibition “Koorah Coolingah – Children Long Ago” was a momentous and moving occasion for the local community and an exhibition of major historical significance for WA.
There is still a lot of ‘Carrolup’ art held in WA; there is a major collection at UWA’s Berndt Museum and some is held at the Battye Library. Publicity around the 2006 Katanning exhibition resulted in some other pieces turning up from around the State with some being donated to the Mungart Boodja Arts Centre.
A debate followed in some circles as to whether the Carrolup art should be repatriated from New York. To recap, Rutter sold the artworks to American television magnate Herbert Mayer who, in turn, gifted the collection to Colgate University in upstate New York, where the works remained in obscurity for decades. The University had no idea of the significance of this collection. Their chance discovery in 2004 by visiting Australian academic Howard Morphy eventually led to their repatriation to Noongar Country.
Colgate had discussions with the University of WA and Curtin University before deciding to gift the works to Curtin in September 2013. While Curtin legally owns the works, the university sees itself as custodian, providing safekeeping for the collection. The university wants to demonstrate to the Noongar community that they can trust it to keep the collection safe for them. Curtin will also ensure it’s accessible and is used to educate people about the travesties of the past and how they impact on contemporary society.
Carrolup was closed very suddenly by the government in 1950. There has been some suggestion that this was because the children were becoming famous and people were asking difficult questions about Carrolup. It was reopened on Saturday 29th November 1952 under the management of the WA Baptist Union and was subsequently known as Marribank until it closed in 1988.
previously published 6/1/15