New Centre for Truth Telling gives home to Stolen Generations

Curtin University launches campaign to create a Centre for Truth-Telling, and a permanent home for artworks created by Aboriginal children of Australia’s Stolen Generations.
children in gallery learning about Aboriginal art

When a collection of Carrolup artworks came home to Nyungar country in 2013, a precious resource was returned to Western Australia. We are talking about 122 works on paper that had been lost for more than 60 years.

They were the artworks by children of the Stolen Generations from the late 1940s. After their chance discovery in the bowels of America’s Colgate University, where the archive of artworks had sat for near 50 years, they finally returned to the art collection of Curtin University in 2013.

Since then, the works have largely remained in storage at the University’s John Curtain Gallery. But moves to create a new Carrolup Centre for Truth-Telling – a permanent home for a collection of rare artworks, has been announced.

The Centre is expected to cost $15 million, and will be located within the John Curtin Gallery precinct. The University is currently fundraising to make the Centre a reality.

Curtin University Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Cordery said: ‘These extraordinary artworks offer an insight into a sad period in our country’s history and the enduring qualities of Western Australia’s Nyungar community.

‘They deserve their own space to ensure that more people are able to access and learn from them,’ he added.

Carrolup classroom late 1949. Image courtesy of the Noelene White Collection.

Why is this collection so important?

In a nutshell, the Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork offers, ‘a rare glimpse into the lived experiences of Aboriginal children during a dark chapter of our past, when systemic racism and discrimination tore Indigenous families and culture apart,’ explained the University.

The artworks were created by Aboriginal children who were forcibly separated from their families and detained at the Carrolup Native Settlement near Katanning, about 300km south of Perth.

‘These children were denied access to their culture, language and history and subjected to institutionalised programs of assimilation into the dominant culture,’ explained the Gallery. And yet, it was the encouragement of a teacher and his wife that recognised the role of art, that has left the legacy of this incredible archive.

Tony Hansen, Chair of the Carrolup Elders Reference Group, said the Centre will shed light on the true stories of the Stolen Generations by allowing the voices of the Carrolup children to be heard.

‘It will be an enduring reminder that while racism seeks to destroy all that is good about a people, it never can. Like water, cultural beauty and goodness always finds a way; at Carrolup, that way was through children,’ Hansen said.

Their hand-drawn landscapes in chalk and pastels speak to the steadfast resilience of Aboriginal people against the greatest of odds, and their deep, spiritual connection to culture and Country.

ArtsHub caught up with John Curtin Gallery Director Chris Malcolm in the earlier stages of planning. I can talk to you under wet cement about this. It’s such an incredible story,’ said Malcolm.

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. Almost all of the children were then moved on to other institutions regionally and unfortunately very few managed to undertake any further art production beyond their school years at Carrolup.

Malcolm added in a formal statement: ‘Our gallery is privileged to be the custodian of this extraordinary collection and believe it should be shared and recognised by people everywhere.’

From here to there, to now

What is remarkable about this story is its journey, both in terms of distance and resilience.

It was teacher caretaker Noel White and his wife Lily who recognised the role that art played in cultural connection for these children, who intuitively created these artworks.

‘White would take the boys out on “rambles” through the nearby bushlands keen to help the children simply observe their surroundings. The only advice he gave them was to draw what they could see,’ explains the gallery.

Malcolm told ArtsHub: ‘He had no arts capacity what so ever, but he was a gifted musician.’

‘In 1949 an English woman [British philanthropist Florence Rutter] visited the school, and she appoints herself – which was accepted by Commission of Native Affairs at the time – to be an ambassador for these children and has permission to sell these artworks and send funds back to school,’ continued Malcolm.

When Carrolup closed in 1950, and she fell ill, she had 122 artworks left in her possession, and she sold them to Herbert Mayer, who Malcolm describes as running “the gallery” in Manhattan in the 1950s.

‘He was interested in the post traumatic art by children – largely post war Europe. He donated his collection to Colgate University in 1966, including the Carrolup work. They sat there in storage until 2004,’ he added.

‘Professor Howard Morphy, who was at the ANU at the time and a pre-eminant Aboriginal art historian, knew they existed because a colleague, John Stanton of the Berndt Museum, had come across a letter of Florence’s that mention selling the works to an American guy, and he was writing to every where in the States.

‘But it was in 2004 when Morphy was delivering a lecture at Colgate, that he was invited to view the collection before flying back to Australia. ‘They said we also have this box of children’s drawings; Howard one of five people on earth to know what this work was,’ Malcolm explained.

Colgate committed to repatriate the collection, didn’t tell anyone until 2012, he added.

The creation of The Carrolup Centre for Truth-Telling is the final and next chapter in the journey of custodianship of these important works.

A suite of the artworks were scheduled to return to London May 2021 as part of the ‘Festival of Australian Culture’, which has been placed on hold due to this year’s pandemic. The tour was viewed as an awareness campaign to help locate the 1,000 artworks that were sold and found their way into collections in the early 1950s.

‘People not even know what these things are – it was three generations ago. We know of seven in the British Museum donated in 1986, Malcolm told ArtsHub. 

‘Of the 122 works in the Collection, only seven children have been identified. Over 400 children when through the school, so there is also a huge amount of scholarship to be done,’ he added. This will be one of the roles that the new Carrolup Centre for Truth-Telling will be charge with – that ongoing research.

The Centre is part of a broader vision by the University, which has been offering culturally appropriate educational programs for Aboriginal people since the mid-1970’s and in 1983 established a Centre for Aboriginal Studies.

In 2008, Curtin was the first Australian university to implement a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) and now, Aboriginal Elders are working closely with Curtin to develop ‘Elevate’ Reconciliation Action Plan, which includes the new Centre.

‘This Centre will serve as a foundation for a whole-of-University initiative to engage the wider community in truth-telling, healing and reconciliation,’ it said in a formal statement.

For more information on the Carrolup story, and to lend your support.

This story was originally published in November 2020.


Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina