Carrolup Art Still Inspires

The Carrolup Mission was an Aboriginal Settlement, situated 25 kms from Katanning ( 250 kilometres SouthEast of Perth. ) It was established in 1915 under the Aborigines Act 1905 and was part of a government policy which saw hundreds of children forcibly removed from their homes, traditional places, and families. 

The appointment in 1945 of Noel White as Headmaster at Carrolup Mission brought a period of enlightenment for the  Nyoongar children along with a teaching program which fostered their creativity and imagination. Noel White with his wife Lily, introduced music and drawing to their pupils and confidence in their amazing gifts grew. Landscape was the predominant subject for the painters at Carrolup and the distinctive use of colour characterised the work from these painters. Noel White took his students on bush walks and urged them to depict in their painting what they saw.  Individual styles soon emerged and individual students favoured particular subjects. Native animals and traditional ceremonies and dances were painted among the depictions of  landscape. The huge trees of the South-west feature prominently. For many of these children, painting was a way of maintaining their Nyoongar culture and deep connection with the land while it was being eroded and absorbed by contact with the colonising culture. 

The Carrolup Art was so distinctive and technically sophisticated that the work was exhibited locally and then toured Europe in the 1950’s, mainly promoted by the British patron Florence Rutter. The result was a remarkable collection of paintings created by the “Child Artists” that were internationally successful and found their way into private and public collections in the United States and the UK. It was also the subject of a 1952 book written by Florence Rutter and the Australian writer M D Miller, ‘Child Artists of the Australian Bush’. It included photographs of the work and the artists interviews. During this time, two of the artists, Parnell Dempster and Revel Cooper became relatively well known artists, though due to the Aborigines Act they were deemed as ‘ward of the state’ and received no monetary rewards or claims to their work. ( Revel Cooper a significant ‘child artist’ later painted on into adulthood and yet died a pauper. )
The Carrolup settlement was closed in 1951 and the younger children were moved to Roelands Mission near Bunbury while the older boys, who were the painters, had reached school leaving age and were sent out to work. Mrs Rutter collected the works and returned to England with them, where many were sold. Herbert Mayer, a 1929 graduate of Colgate who died in 1991, donated some Carrolup Art to the Picker Museum.

In April 2004, a collection of 65 of the children's drawings, pastels and watercolours were discovered in storage in a gallery archive at the University of Colgate in New York State by visiting Australian lecturer Howard Morphy, director of the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at the Australian National University. He wrote  ‘My immediate reaction must have been the proverbial jump for joy’, on his finding. In 1985 two Nyoongar elders and the director of the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia, visited Colgate and declared the paintings of national significance to Australia, as well as of ‘vital cultural significance to contemporary Aboriginal people’. Eventually, the collection may shed more light on the Carrolup story - a story, as the 1952 book's jacket stated, "of badly fed, badly housed children, belonging to a so-called backward race, who inexplicably produced beauty in the midst of squalor, and who displayed amazing artistic talent". 

While pleased by how seriously Colgate viewed the collection and the opportunities it presented for a better appreciation of their culture. Members of the Nyoongar community see the drawings as a source of pride, ‘ They are our history books reflecting our identity and hold the power to heal our people and should be, immediately and without bias, returned to the Nyoogah community’, states Robert Eggington of Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation.

Many of the ‘child artists’ have continued painting in adult life. Renold Hart, Allan Kelly and Revel Cooper continued painting into adulthood after leaving Carrolup, which has influenced the next generation of artists. Their influence in the re-establishment of a strong Nyoongar culture in art is recognised and acknowledged by artists such as Athol Farmer and Lance Chadd / Tjyllyungoo.

While many groups of Indigenous people in remote parts of Australia are able to continue to live on their land and maintain some form of traditional way of life, this choice was denied to the Nyoongar people and they were forced to live in an urban environment because their land was already settled and pastoralised by non-Indigenous people. The quest for identity has led to the claiming of land rights and to the reconnection with traditional culture.

One of the positive aspects of Carrolup was that the imagination and creativity of the Child Artists, during those short years under the tutelage and encouragement of the White family, was able to flow unabated, free, cementing their traditions. It exposed them to other possibilities. It laid down the foundations of a movement that continues today.