By Professor Deborah Terry AO
Two collections of artwork have been the catalyst for some extraordinary connections that have enriched Curtin University.
One collection of artworks is over 65 years old, created by descendants of the oldest culture on earth, and after traversing the world, and being rediscovered like a missing treasure, have returned home.
The paint is barely dry on the other collection – freshly painted by leading international urban artists, who have woven their stories onto the brutalist walls across our Perth campus.
Both collections have led to new connections. These have been all the way from New York to Katanning in regional WA. In doing so, they exemplify the critical role that creative arts play in connecting us with our communities, both local and global.
In April of this year, we partnered with PUBLIC2016 – FORM’s annual festival of art, urban activation and creative conversation – to provide a public showcase of the latest work from international and WA street artists.
Artists came from all over the world including Tunisia, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the US, and were joined by home-grown talent to create 16 larger-than-life installations on prominent buildings around campus.
The art has added a new dimension to Curtin’s award-winning place activation program, an initiative that has seen students increasing their interaction with, and participating more in, campus life. As FORM’s festival of art unfolded over the week, it captivated the campus community and provided an opportunity for others to experience our beautiful and ever-evolving campus.
The ethos behind the creative campus movement is one that makes arts, culture and creativity central rather than incidental to academic life. It’s not just about what and how people learn and research at Curtin, but how the environment and ambience support and enhance these outcomes.
The second collection that has triggered extraordinary connections across the globe is the Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artworks. The Carrolup artworks were created by stolen generation Aboriginal children between 1946 – 1951 whilst incarcerated at the Carrolup Native Settlement in the Great Southern region of Western Australia.
The artworks of the Carrolup child artists heralded the contemporary Aboriginal art movement and gained recognition at home and abroad. British Philanthropist Florence Rutter organised exhibitions of the artworks across Australia, New Zealand and Europe. She wrote at the time of: “badly fed, badly housed children, belonging to a so-called backward race, who inexplicably produced beauty in the midst of squalor, and who displayed amazing artistic talent.”
In 1956, Florence sold her collection to the New York Art Collector Herbert Mayer who subsequently donated all 122 artworks the Colgate University. There they remained in storage at the Picker Art Gallery until being recognised in 2004 by Australian anthropologist Professor Howard Morph. So 64 years after they had left Australia, the missing artworks were found.
We were deeply honoured that Colgate University chose to transfer the artworks to Curtin in 2013, entrusting us to conserve, preserve and share the works with the world, while acknowledging the very special place they hold in the hearts of the Nyoongar people of WA.
Soon after the collection arrived in 2013, we hosted the Koolark Koort Koorliny (Heart Coming Home) exhibition at our John Curtin Gallery. It was an emotional homecoming, with descendants of the artists and the Nyoongar community gathering to connect with these precious artworks. Regional exhibitions in Albany in 2014 and Katanning in 2015 evoked similar reactions and community engagement.
The Carrolup artworks offer enormous potential for research and education, and for this reason, we established the Carrolup Elders Reference Group, to advise on cultural matters relating to the collection. There are also plans to establish the Carrolup Education and Research Centre within the John Curtin Gallery.
The collection has deepened our connection with the Aboriginal community and given a keen focus to our existing commitment to the advancement of Aboriginal people. It has also attracted new community partners, keen to embrace the legacy of Carrolup to move us all forward to a creative and positive future.
Nyoongar Elder Ezzard Flowers, was a central figure in bringing the collection home from Colgate, and his words when welcoming the artworks back home, perfectly capture their ongoing impact. “Long may this story of the Carrolup Artists resonate and create ripples around the world.”
As these two examples illustrate, the creative arts underpin the connections that go to the heart of our enduring role as critical institutions of learning, knowledge and leadership.
Professor Deborah Terry was appointed Curtin University’s Vice-Chancellor in February 2014 and is the immediate past President of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA) and member of the Board of Universities Australia. She is also on the Board of AARNET, the provider of Australia’s network infrastructure for research and education, and past Chair of the Australian Council of Learned Academies and the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts in the Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences. Professor Terry completed her PhD in Social Psychology at the Australian National University. She had a distinguished career at the University of Queensland, initially as an internationally recognised scholar in psychology, before progressing through a number of senior leadership roles, including Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and was made an Officer in the General Division (AO) in June 2015 for distinguished service to education in the tertiary sector.