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Rediscovering Australia’s Stolen Generation Artwork

Australia's painful colonial past stole an entire generation of Aboriginal youth. Today, their rediscovered artwork tells their stories.

Alma Toomath, a Noongar artist from Western Australia, was 80 years old and battling Alzheimer’s disease when she was presented with a pastel drawing of pink and orange sunset over a hilly landscape. She’d created it as a six-year-old in 1949 and hadn’t seen the artwork, one of 122 now in the Herbert Mayer Carrolup Collection at John Curtin University in Perth, since childhood. Alma gripped the frame and gasped. “She was quite extremely overwhelmed,” says her daughter, Kathleen Toomath, the manager of the Carrolup Collection at Curtin. “The work triggered her memories.”

On the four-hour drive home, Alma gave a detailed oral history of her experience living in Carrolup Native Settlement, one of 50 institutions around Australia built to incarcerate the Stolen Generation—First Nations children from five months to 16 years old who were forcibly taken from their families by the Australian government between 1901 and 1960. The goal of the settlements was to “breed out” Aboriginal heritage and turn the children into domestic and farm laborers.

“When she fell asleep, it was all gone again,” says Kathleen. Alma, the last surviving Carrolup artist, passed away in 2021.

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Still, the legacy of the Carrolup child artists endures. As Curtin prepares for the 2023 anniversary of the return of 122 works to Western Australia and the 2024 opening of its Centre for Truth Telling, the university has launched a search for the many hundreds of other artworks that made their way into private collections around the world—including those of the English and Dutch royal families—in the 1950s.

Australia was settled 65,000 years ago by more than 200 Indigenous groups, each with its own language, traditions, and community governance. When Europeans colonized the continent, Aboriginal people were stripped of their rights and displaced, often into crowded camps that lacked fresh water, sanitation, and adequate food.

A series of so-called Protection Acts, passed between 1844 and 1905 by eugenics advocates, controlled how Indigenous people lived, worked, and married. The Aborigines Act of 1905 went one step further, granting the Australian government guardianship of Aboriginal children. This allowed for “rehoming” in settlements where they were segregated from siblings and forbidden to speak their own language.

Carrolup Native Settlement, about 180 miles southeast of Perth, was the first established in Western Australia, the country’s largest state, in 1915. It closed in 1922 after widespread reports of child abuse but reopened again in 1939.

After seven years without education or structure beyond the drudgery of physical labor, the child inmates stopped speaking.

“I’d like to think maybe they were protesting, like, ‘If I can’t speak my language, I’ll not speak,’” says Kyra Edwards, a Nyikina and Bunuba historian and the cultural and governance coordinator for Walakaloo Aboriginal Corporation. “But they didn’t understand why they were taken from their parents when there was nothing wrong at home. It was very traumatic.”

Educator Noel White was hired to teach the children in 1946. White took them on a stroll in the bush to encourage them to communicate, then asked them to draw what they’d seen, first using chalk on a blackboard and later charcoal and pastels on paper. As if a floodgate had opened, the children began drawing on virtually every available paper, including their schoolbooks, where they often completed assignments on one side of the page and drew on the other.

The resulting works—colorful, moody, sophisticated, and poignant—are recognized today as Western landscapes and demonstrate profound observational skills and connection to nature. If White and other leaders didn’t anticipate the children’s skills, his student Alma Toomath did.

“I believe that all Aboriginal people can paint and do all these things because of not having a written language,” she said in a 2009 interview. “We are so keen on art, et cetera, because it’s in our blood, it’s in our culture, it’s a part of our religion.”

Moreso than color or subject, the construction methodology distinguishes a Carrolup work. Kathleen says, “The artists worked the perspective first and the foreground later. If you have a figurative tree at the front, you can see the perspective line in the tree when you look at it carefully. Working back to front was never taught to them. They were responding purely from what they saw.”

She adds, “The children were expressing their relationship with country. That expression through art gave them an intrinsic sense of personal value.”

White exhibited some of the work at an agricultural show in Katanning in 1946, where the child artists became an immediate sensation. Their artistic achievements poked holes in the fabric of myth surrounding the inherent intelligence and worth of Aboriginal people.

Florence Rutter, the founder of a London women’s service club, stopped in Perth in 1949, where she came across a newspaper article about the artists. She visited the Carrolup Settlement, where she purchased hundreds of drawings she later exhibited across Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Proceeds from their sale went to a foundation she established in the school’s name. Largely because of the attention brought by the exhibitions, Carrolup closed again in 1951, although it reopened a year later as the Marribank Settlement.

There’s little left of the settlements today save for rusted huts and clapboard buildings with caved-in roofs. But the children’s art endures in Western Australia, not only at Curtin University Gallery but also on the walls of Fremantle Prison, a UNESCO World Heritage site where several Carrolup artists were incarcerated as adults. Fremantle’s murals include the work of Revel Cooper, perhaps the most famous Carrolup artist, whose art has recently been uncovered at Old Geelong Gaol in Victoria. An educational display on the Stolen Generation is also part of Perth’s new WA Museum, Boola Bardip.

Rutter fell on hard times later in life and sold her collection to Herbert Mayer, a New York businessman, and art collector. Mayer donated them to his alma mater, Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, where they remained in archival obscurity for more than 30 years. They were rediscovered in 2004 and repatriated to Western Australia in 2013.

Only 17 of the pieces are attributed. Most of the works weren’t signed, and tracing who might have created a pastel in a schoolbook shared by several children is nearly impossible.

This year, Curtin has sent a traveling exhibit around the UK in the hopes that attendees might help uncover additional Carrolup works in private collections. Return of the works is crucial. In many cases, they represent the only documentation of an Aboriginal person’s existence and a way for descendants to trace their lineage.

Australians have joined the hunt for Stolen Generation works. Some, Kathleen says, have been more generous than others. She relates the story of a farmer who recently came forward with two schoolbooks found in the drawer of his late mother’s gramophone. One belonged to the mother of a well-known Aboriginal elder. When the farmer refused to relinquish the books, the Curtin team asked for permission to digitize them. They even brought the elder to meet him.

“He’s holding the book in front of her, and you can imagine that all she wanted to do was hold it,” Kathleen says, her voice breaking. “That was the only thing that ever represented her mother’s life, except the fact that she was a human being standing there, born of her womb.”

The farmer, motivated by the potential windfall from selling such a prize, declined on both counts. The elder died eight months later.

“There are so many Stolen Generation children that have never seen their families again. Some don’t find their family right up until they’re 80, 90 years old,” says Edwards. “It was our identity itself that they tried to wipe out. These objects play a part in that story of being able to verify our culture and verify our place in the world.”