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Extracts from Nyungar Landscapes
Aboriginal artists of the South-West: the heritage of Carrolup, Western Australia
by John E. Stanton
Carrolup was established as an Aboriginal settlement in 1915 under the Aborigines Act 1905 in order to provide a facility where Aboriginal persons could be sent, to remove them from the public eye, from the fringes of Wheatbelt and South-West towns.
For some years, town-dwellers at Katanning had been objecting strongly to disturbances at the local Aboriginal encampment, and to the lack of facilities there, suggesting that a new camp be established at Carrolup Pool 25 km from town. They were accompanied by Annie Lock, of the Australian Aborigines Mission, who had sought government support since 1912 for the establishment of a mission farming settlement in the local area. She assumed responsibility for issuing rations, and in June 1915 a Superintendent was appointed to the new ‘native settlement’. A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, opened a second settlement to the north three years later, near Mogumber railway siding on the Moore River. By centralising rationing at the two settlements, and closing down other ration depots, he forced Aboriginal people away from their customary camping places.
Although the early staff at Carrolup were missionaries, Neville had a poor opinion of their ability to exercise authority in what he considered to be an ‘enlightened’ manner; non-mission staff were subsequently appointed.
Although local Katanning town-campers appeared willing to stay at Carrolup, groups from neighbouring towns resisted strongly the Departments coercive attempts to relocate families. They saw little benefit in shifting to the settlement – in many cases, they knew that they would be worse off. Housing and living conditions were poor, workers were paid in kind rather than in cash, and the school was poorly equipped and staffed. Many families ‘went bush’ to avoid being relocated.
Forced with so much opposition, the Aborigines Department began forcibly shifting people, using ministerial warrants to enable the police to remove families and individuals from their home camps. After 1919, the new regulations Neville sought gave police additional powers to incarcerate people on the settlements. Conditions were grim on the inside. The Superintendent had extraordinarily broad powers to discipline dissident ‘inmates’ as they were called, and to confine offenders in the goal built at Carrolup in 1918. Corporal punishment was tough, and the word soon spread outside that the settlement was a place to be avoided.
Meanwhile, Carrolup developed slowly. Hessian-covered buildings gave an air of impermanence and shabbiness to the settlement, and the poor water supply delayed the construction of permanent buildings until 1921, when a school was built from local stone. This was followed by children’s dormitories, hospital and residential accommodation for settlement staff. Aboriginal families had to camp on the fringe of the settlement – their children lived in the compound. Farming activities were also slow to get under way, as land was cleared for cultivation. Areas near the river were stocked with sheep, but poor dietary and living conditions debilitated many Aboriginal ‘inmates’, fuelling Aborigines greater resentment and opposition to European administrators.
All this industry was to no avail. Carrolup was closed in 1922 as part of an economy drive – precisely the same reason the settlement had been established.
Carrolup reopened in 1940
Predictably, local farmers and townspeople strongly opposed the suggestion that Carrolup be reopened, and this feeling was echoed by Aboriginal camp-dwellers – albeit for entirely different reasons.
Local townspeople now sought a return to the policy of segregation for Aborigines, stricter control over the distribution of rations, and the exclusion of children from state schools. The period that followed saw the emergence of a group of young Aboriginal school pupils who, ultimately, were to achieve international fame.
The appointment, in 1945, of Noel White as headmaster at Carrolup was to have far-reaching significance. Only one qualified teacher had preceded him, and it was a chance meeting with her that encouraged him and his wife to consider teaching at the settlement. Conditions were far from happy for the children there and, in the past, many commentators have been surprised of such a distinctive style of pictorial art.
Noel White was not an artist himself, his familiarity with ink, crayons and paint were more a reflection on his career as a teacher where art was common, if not integral, part of school-room activities, than it was of his own special talents. It took some months before he earned the respect and affection of his pupils – but winning the support of the administrative staff took much longer. In fact, these persons were an increasing frequent threat to the school programme. But with the assistance of his wife, Lily, he was able to develop a teaching programme well-suited to the children’s interests and abilities.
Noticing their skills, White provided better materials and within weeks the children’s efforts had developed from doodles into complex designs of geometric shapes and naturalistic features of the local landscape. Concerned to encourage the pupils, White began taking the children on walks in the bush, after which they would return to the classroom and draw what they had observed in nature – each hiding their work from the eyes of the others, until it was finished.
It was not long before the children were asking to do drawings two evenings a week, after school, and individual styles and preoccupations soon began to emerge. The children drew and painted the world they knew from their own experience. Some of the pastel drawings were subtle and subdued, echoing the softened perceptions of the night. But in other cases, dramatic renderings of almost unbelievably rich sunsets, patterned by the silhouettes of trees, accords an extraordinary vibrancy to the panoply of these. works.
The animals of the bush, and images of body-painted Aboriginal men and spirits, compete for prominence in so many of the drawings. Imagined corroborees, far removed from the day-to-day institutionalisation of life at Carrolup, suggest a yearning for the outside world, the cherished bush of the South-West.
In July of 1947, the children sent a collection of twenty pastel drawings to the Lord Forrest centenary exhibition held in Perth. Later some 450 drawings, comprising the work of several of the children, all of them boys, were exhibited at Boans department store during the month of October 1947. Parnell Dempster, Revel Cooper, Claude Kelly, and Reynold Hart demonstrated their skills at the exhibition, which received wide press coverage. Approximately 120 pounds was raised from donations and sales of drawings at the Boans display, and the money was held in trust by the Department of Native Affairs for the purchase of materials necessary to encourage art. All these exhibitions did much to overturn preconceptions in the wider community about the work of child artists and the naivety of the notion ‘primitive ‘art. But it was the chance reading of a magazine article about the Boans exhibition that sparked off a life-long interest in the Carrolup art by Florence Rutter, an English woman visiting Perth at the time. Perhaps more than any other, apart from the
Whites, she was to have the greatest impact on the development of Carrolup art.
Florence Rutter was sure that difficulties in planning for the future of the Carrolup children would be solved once their work was publicised and their talents recognised. She spent the remainder of her Australasian journey exhibiting a selection of drawings. Carrolup art was exhibited in Sydney, Hobart, Launceston, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, London and the Netherlands.
Closure of Carrolup
With the appointment of S.G. Middleton as Commissioner there was rapid change in policy within Aboriginal welfare administration, as he was convinced that the whole environment of Carrolup was detrimental to the welfare and future of the children. At first Middleton suggested that Carrolup should remain as a reserve for older Aborigines, and that the school would be transferred nearer to Perth since the settlement lacked essential water, lighting and medical services.
Noel White found it increasingly difficult to collaborate with the superintendent Mr. V.H. Scully, who strongly criticised the art programme as having no vocational value. Conditions at Carrolup continued to deteriorate. Noel White was finally given notice by the Director of education that drawing will not, in future, be produced for use outside the school, particularly for commercial purposes, and the emphasis will in future be more on the general education rather than the artistic attainment of the pupils.
Carrolup was closed in 1951 and Middleton moved the younger children to Roelands mission, near Bunbury. Many of the older children had, by then, reached minimum school leaving age, so left entirely. They continued with their painting, sporadically in some cases, for the rest of their lives.
Renovated as the Marribank Farm School, the settlement was intended to provide rural and technical training for young Aboriginal men and boys. This idea foundered, and the assets of the settlement were passed to the Baptist Church, which continued to operate the settlement as the Marribank Family Centre until it withdrew in 1989. The Marribank Aboriginal Corporation sought control of the lease, but this is now held by the Southern Aboriginal Corporation, a regional body that covers areas of the South – West.
Further Reading >>>
By Jack Davis
Southern Aboriginal Corporation
Child Artists of Carrolup
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