In 1946 schoolmaster Noel White walked among his Noongar students at the Carrolup settlement and noticed a boy drawing a tree in an original-looking style.
Seeing an opportunity to connect with the children, Noel instituted landscape art classes, inspired by regular afternoon bush walks.
“This unleashed a flood of incredibly sophisticated drawings. Artworks were pouring out,” says John Curtin Gallery director Chris Malcolm.
Though Noel was a respectful facilitator, the pictorial style of the Carrolup School was apparently spontaneous and uniquely Noongar. The children attracted recognition and respect throughout Western Australia, even abroad. Their talent was precocious, considering “one, they were children; two, they were Aboriginal; and three, they were the stolen generation.”
Meanwhile, Bella Kelly, a Noongar woman and mother to some of the Carrolup school children, was forging a long and (eventually) celebrated painting practice. She also worked in the graphic Carrolup style, with its glowing sunsets, silhouetted trees and rolling horizons (often the Stirling Ranges, Kelly’s family country). Kelly was prolific and resourceful. She painted quickly, relentlessly, to support herself. Sold or bartered directly with buyers, her life’s work was distributed across WA.
When a call for Kelly’s artworks ran in the regional press, 230 privately owned works and countless anecdotes re-emerged, 51 of which comprise a touring retrospective coming to John Curtin Gallery. From these, curator Annette Davis and biographer Tony Davis interpret that the Carrolup style “emanated from Bella and was transmitted to the children,” says Malcolm.
For a time, Kelly camped over the river from Carrolup: “Anecdotes have surfaced about her hiding nearby, to get a glimpse of her children”. We don’t know if she made contact, but it’s compelling to imagine that somehow she passed on her traditions and her desire to visualise country.
“To think about the place of these two stories in the early stages of contemporary Noongar art just reinforces how alive Noongar culture is,” says Malcolm. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to uncover the relationships and history behind all these paintings.”