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UK exhibition to find and return lost art drawn by WA’s Stolen Generations children

Hand-drawn artwork produced by children of the Stolen Generations while in a WA mission could still be hanging in homes and galleries across the United Kingdom.

WARNING: aboriginal and towers Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of deceased people.

A search is underway for hundreds of missing artworks created by the children detained at Carrolup Native Settlement near Katanning in the 1940s.

An exhibition run by Curtin University of a selection of the landscapes in chalk and pastels will be displayed in the UK this week in the hope of helping to uncover works that may be in private collections.

Kathleen Toomath’s mother, Alma, was taken away from her mother’s care to live at Carrolup in the late 1940s.

While there, Alma painted countless pieces, some of which have been recovered and returned to WA.

Kathleen Toomath (left) with John Curtin Gallery curator Michelle Broun.(Supplied: Curtin University)

Ms Tommath said she hoped the exhibition in England and Scotland might identify more of the lost pieces.

“I’d love to see some more of my mum’s artwork discovered … she did when she was nearly six,” Ms Tommath said.

A painting of brown hills with few trees, kangaroos near a waterhole, blue sky in the distance.
Down to Drink, one of the long-lost Carrolup artworks returning to country.(Supplied: Parnell Dempster)

“If people would like to repatriate them, we are open to the process that they would understand how important these works are for the Aboriginal community.

The Curtin University project will take the works to Manchester and Glasgow, where the children’s drawings were previously displayed in the 1950s before they were dispersed across Europe and the USA.

A Bella Kelly painting of the Stirling Ranges.
Celebrated Aboriginal artist Bella Kelly’s work, Landscape (with mountains), is influenced by her time at the Carrolup mission.(Supplied: City of Albany)

In 1949, English woman Florence Rutter was in Australia to establish Soroptimist clubs — a volunteer human rights organization for women.

Ms Rutter heard about the extraordinary drawings and visited Carrolup, where she was given about 1,000 pictures to take back to London to exhibit and sell, with the intention that money would come back to Carrolup.

They were then distributed around the world, with many still unaccounted for, but 120 paintings were discovered by chance in storage at Colgate University, New York, in 2004.

Spiritual legacy for Carrollup

An older Indigenous man, long gray beard, gray hair, wears gray jumper, blue jeans, stands in front of a building, long grass
Ezzard Flower at the former Carrolup mission near Katanning.(ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)

Carrolup sits on Goreng land, and elder Ezzard Flowers said the artwork had a spiritual legacy for those linked to Carrolup.

“If there was to be one [artwork] handed back because of this exhibition that’s going to be touring Manchester and Glasgow, that would then really empower and strengthen the spiritual legacy of those artists.

Black and white photo of aboriginal children standing outside an old building with a white man and woman.
Residents of the Carrolup mission gathered for a photo.(Supplied: Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation)

“We hope that the outcome of this will not only be positive but here comes another story, another connection to something that is already resilient and strong.”

Artworks a key link to Stolen Generations

John Curtin Gallery director Chris Malcolm said he was urging people to check their attics, cupboards and homes for paintings resembling the culturally significant chalk works.

“While hundreds of artworks that were created by the children of Carrolup in the 1940s were taken overseas, only some have been recovered and returned home to Nyungar country,” Mr Malcolm said

The exhibition will run at Manchester’s Portico Library from Friday to September and then spend two months at the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel.

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