The story of Carrolup

The Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork is a unique collection of artworks created by Aboriginal children of the Stolen Generations in the 1940s at the Carrolup Native Settlement in Western Australia. This is the story of those artworks.

Since European settlement, Noongar people suffered increasing displacement from their traditional Country – land that had sustained them materially and spiritually for thousands of years. The 20th century heralded a regime of government control over the Aboriginal population, culminating in the tragedy of the Stolen Generations.

Taken from their families, Aboriginal children were detained at the Carrolup Native Settlement in Western Australia’s Great Southern region, as part of a brutal policy of forced segregation and assimilation. This practice of removing lighter-skinned children from their parents was designed to breed out the Aboriginal population over time.

During the second half of the 1940s, the State school within the Carrolup Settlement came under the charge of headmaster Noel White and his wife Lily.

Dismayed at the desperate living conditions of the children, Noel and Lily set about improving their lives in whatever ways were possible. Noel would take the boys out on “rambles” through the bushlands to observe their surroundings, and he soon realised that art was important to them. He began encouraging the children to express their deep connection to Country through art.

The striking and accomplished works created by the children, with no training and only basic materials, astounded the local community and caught the eye of visiting English philanthropist, Florence Rutter. Compelled by her visit to the Settlement and the living conditions of the children, Rutter bought a number of drawings and organised for many of them to be exhibited and sold around Europe, with proceeds sent back to Carrolup for the benefit of the children. Rutter’s intention was to further resource an expansion of the Carrolup school’s cultural activities to benefit the Aboriginal children as directly as possible.

Sadly, after little more than three and a half years, Noel and Lily White’s inspiring leadership at Carrolup came to an end with the sudden closure of the Settlement school in 1950 and the Settlement itself in 1951. The children were sent to other institutions or out to work. Very few managed to continue producing art beyond their school years.

The remaining Carrolup artworks in Rutter’s personal collection in London were purchased in 1956 by New York art collector Herbert Mayer. Mayer later donated the entire collection of 122 artworks to his alma mater, Colgate University, in 1966. There they sat in storage at the University’s Picker Art Gallery for almost 50 years until they were recognised by visiting Australian professor, Howard Morphy, in 2004.

This chance rediscovery of a unique historical collection of such profound cultural significance in New York created headlines around the world. Appreciating their significance, Colgate University decided to repatriate the works back to Nyungar country, and after consulting with local Nyungar elders, entrusted the custodial responsibilities to Curtin University through its John Curtin Gallery.

In 2013, the artworks finally came home to Country.

The 122 beautiful but fragile artworks in this collection – known as The Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork – have been kept and cared for by the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University. Supported by the Carrolup Elders Reference Group, exhibitions and tours back to Country have enabled Nyungar communities to engage with the artworks and follow the threads they offer for rebuilding shattered family connections.

The collection sheds light on the stories of the Stolen Generations by allowing the voices of the Carrolup children to permeate through to today. The greatly admired naive artworks are an important conduit to a better understanding of the trauma experienced by Aboriginal people, and a platform for the truth-telling and healing that leads to reconciliation.

Right at home at Curtin

Curtin University has been offering culturally appropriate educational programs for Aboriginal people since the mid-1970s and in 1983 established a Centre for Aboriginal Studies, an education and research centre focused on delivering positive social change for Aboriginal Australians.

In 1998, Curtin signed a public Statement of Reconciliation and Commitment and in 2008 became the first Australian teaching and research institution to develop and implement a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Curtin has been recognised as a leader in this space, strongly committed to the highest standards of institutional reconciliation. Through initiatives such as its Nowanup Bush Campus – which promotes the idea of listening to the land through immersive on-country experiences – Curtin seeks to help build a society that values and respects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, knowledge and heritage as a proud part of a shared national identity. It is a natural home for the Carrolup Centre for Truth-telling.