THERE’S a touch of Indiana Jones to the tracking down of a Stolen Generation artwork that for seven decades had criss-crossed the globe from rural WA to London and back.
Earlier this year, Curtin University launched an international campaign to find hundreds of ‘lost’ artworks created by the Stolen Generations at WA’s Carrolup Native Settlement.
Back in the 1940s at the Settlement, teachers Noel and Lily White used art to connect with the Noongar children who’d been forcibly taken from their families. Many would go on to become prolific artists, recognised for their ability to depict a deep understanding of their land.
In 1949 London Soroptimist Club president Florence Rutter visited Carrolup and was so impressed with the work she arranged for them to be exhibited in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Fast forward to 2022 – retired Perth paediatrician Dr Paddy Pemberton was relaxing in his home with a cup of tea when he realised that one of the artworks on the wall was a Stolen Generation piece.
It turned out his father had purchased it from the London-based Foyles Art Gallery in 1951, when the artworks were on tour in the UK.
Remarkably, Curtin University also had a photo in their archives of the actual artist, 13-year-old Ross Jones, holding the pastel drawing.
John Curtin Gallery’s Carrolup manager Kathleen Toomath, whose late mother Alma was the last-known surviving Carrolup artist, said she was blown away to find another artwork created by a Carrolup child artist.
“It’s truly wonderful to have located another missing artwork. What makes this discovery so remarkable is the fact that we already had a photo of the talented child artist with the very artwork that has now been found,” Ms Toomath said.
“These artworks offer a window into a deeply traumatic time in the lives of children of the Stolen Generations. It’s an absolute honour to see the work of these bright and perceptive child artists.”
John Curtin Gallery’s Australian First Nations art curator Michelle Broun said the exhibition where Dr Pemberton’s father bought Ross Jones’ work was opened by Dr Margaret Lowenfeld, a pioneering child psychotherapist who had an interest in how children survive traumatic experiences.
“Our search for more of these precious works created by the children of Carrolup continues so we would love to hear from anyone who recognises a similar artwork that includes their signature use of chalk or pastel on paper and scenes of the Australian landscape including kangaroos,” she said.
Carrolup Elders Reference Group chair Tony Hansen said the children’s artworks held a special place in the country’s reconciliation journey.
“These artworks show how young Aboriginal children – forcibly separated from their families, isolated, segregated, traumatised and living in an unknown place – still found beauty and connection to Country through their art,” Mr Hansen said.
“They offer an enduring reminder that while racism seeks to destroy all that is good about a people, it never can.”
John Curtin Gallery staff have been able to notify some members of Ross Jones’ family of the discovery.
Staff are very keen to hear from other relatives and invite them to view the artwork, which is on loan to the Gallery until January 31.
The process of reconnecting Carrolup artworks with families is at the heart of Curtin University’s Carrolup Centre for Truth-telling, an ambitious project to create a permanent home for the collection in Australia.
If you own one of the historic Carrolup children’s artworks, email the Gallery at gallery@ curtin.edu.au.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK