Koorah Coolingah-Children Long Ago: Art from the Stolen Generation of Australia

By Wexler, Alice | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Koorah Coolingah-Children Long Ago: Art from the Stolen Generation of Australia

Wexler, Alice, Studies in Art Education

Recently, artwork of child artists from the Carrolup settlement school in Western Australia was rediscovered in the archives of the Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University. The young artists were among what was then called the half-caste children and now known as the Stolen Generation. Between the late 1800s and mid 1970s the Australian government forcibly removed children from their families with the purpose of not only assimilating them into European culture, but also eliminating Aboriginal culture. With the support of a dedicated new headmaster and teacher Noel White (1946-1951), a group of male children became proficient artists. Through the efforts of Florence Rutter, who later co-authored the book Child Artists of the Australian Bush (Miller & Rutter, 1952), the children became internationally known. Tragically leading short and sometimes violent lives, most of the children went on to menial jobs. Their style, however, has remained an enduring influence on the local artists of southwestern Australia.

"It was a little brief spark that lit for them . . . glowed for awhile and then died out. "

- Patsy Millet

In 2005, A New York Times article announced a remarkable "rediscovery"1 of children's artwork at the Picker Art Gallery located at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Ninety-one drawings, several with work on both sides to total 113, were found in a box that was stored for almost 50 years and simply identified as "Aboriginal Art?" with a question mark. Colgate's guest lecturer, Howard Morphy, Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at The Australian National University, described the encounter, "I took the lid off this box and I saw the drawing, a beautiful pastel drawing, and I immediately thought: Carrolup. I just leapt for joy" (O'Keefe, 2005). Morphy and his colleagues had been searching for this collection for 20 years with no result, and its rediscovery brings to light a story that will not be silenced. The young Aboriginal artists made sure that it would not, for in their drawings they document the loss of land, speech, and culture owned by a people for 40,000 years. The conditions under which such arresting work was made - and the international response to them - bring new questions about the power of cultural forms of representation. Making art not only helped the Carrolup artists to survive the death of their culture, but they also unwittingly become the cause of its current rebirth. They, like other Aboriginal artists, put the supposedly uninscribed territory on the world map, which thus makes them visible and understandable within our own epistemological frameworks (Grossman, 2006). Because of the overwhelming lack of agency in determining their own future, Aboriginal selfconsciousness and self-representation are considered inherently political acts of resistance (Moreton-Robinson, 2003). They may not necessarily be explicit or intentional, as indeed the children's works are not.

This article describes the enduring battle Aborigines face in attempts to create "meaning, knowledges and living traditions" (Moreton-Robinson, 2003, p. 128) under conditions not of their choosing. The battle is described through the story of a group of male children of the Stolen Generation2 from the Carrolup Native Settlement near Katanning in the southwest of Western Australia. Carrolup was one of 60 government settlements and missions operating between the late 1800s and mid 1970s that forcibly segregated young children, not only from the white social structure, but also from their own families, while purporting to offer them greater opportunities in that same society. Under these compelling conditions, the children made artworks that continue to mystify. It is this unusual art and the unusual circumstances of cultural genocide in 20th-century Australia that are inextricably connected in this story.

Colgate's Collection of the Carrolup Artists

Colgate Alum Herbert Mayer gifted the collection to the Picker Art Gallery in 1966.

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