Building partners with Aboriginal artists and communities
U.Va. has largest Aboriginal art collection in world, outside of Australia
By Jane Ford
When the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection opened here in January 1999, its off-Grounds location on Pantops Mountain was so remote that it may as well have been in Australia’s Outback. But word of the massive bark paintings and colorful artifacts that are on display at U.Va.’s historic home on Peter Jefferson Place, which demonstrate the culture of Australia’s indigenous people, caught on. And today, the collection not only has a strong presence in the University’s community, it is gaining national and international attention as well.
Thanks to a gift from long-time U.Va. benefactor John W. Kluge, U.Va.’s collection is the largest assembly of Aboriginal art outside of Australia, according to collection director and curator Margo Smith. Boasting 1,600 objects, the natural ochre paintings on bark from northern Australia, acrylic paintings on canvas from the central and western deserts, and sculpture and artifacts from both regions form a bridge to understanding the intricate spiritual and social life of a group of diverse people who live in harmony with and have a special connection to the land, their ancestors and their dreams.
Aboriginal art and culture, the heritage of these indigenous people, has been slow to gain recognition in the art world. It was only after World War II that Australia began to appreciate the rich culture of their indigenous inhabitants.
Smith credits recent events, such as the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the film “Rabbit Proof Fence,” for sparking interest about Aboriginal cultures — at U.Va. and worldwide. Requests for loans of individual works and traveling shows, curated at the museum, are on the rise.
The museum’s Web presence also has played a large role in making the collection visible to other institutions and contemporary Aboriginal artists seeking to visit and exhibit their work.
“A growing number of institutions and Aboriginal people are interested in working with us,” Smith said. “We’re considered an important center in Aboriginal art outside Australia.”
Smith and associate curator Denise Lajetta design exhibits based on various aspects of Aboriginal culture. By changing exhibitions quarterly and featuring traveling exhibits organized at other institutions and works on loan from indigenous artists, the museum can offer an in-depth look at the diverse culture groups that make up Australia’s Aboriginal people. For example, the museum exhibit, “Dreaming in Color: Aboriginal Art from Balgo,” highlighting various aspects of Balgo community life and beliefs, traveled in 2003 to Ontario, Canada; Lynchburg, Va.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Moraga, Calif.
Exhibiting some larger pieces in the collection, however, presents a challenge. The exhibit space at the museum is limited to four rooms, two hallways and an atrium. Between 25 to 30 larger works will never be exhibited in the museum’s current location. “They are just too big to show here,” Smith said. The larger works are on view elsewhere, through loans to other institutions here and abroad.
This past summer, monumental bark paintings and large works on canvas were shipped to Ireland for a two-week international exhibit at the Institute of Technology in Carlow, Ireland, curated by Smith. The space proved to be perfect for some of the larger works, one of which was 22 feet wide and 9 feet high, Smith said.
The Carlow exhibit, titled ‘Jalanguwarnu,’ — meaning “which belongs to the present” — in Warlpiri, a native language spoken by Aboriginal people, created “a big buzz in the Irish media,” Smith said.
An 2006 exhibit of contemporary works by Aboriginal women for the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., is in the planning stages. It will focus on works created within the past 10 years made specifically as “fine art,” said Smith, one of three curators for the show, which will include pieces from U.Va.’s collection.
“Women are the newcomers to the production of art,” she said. “Previously, works such as the bark paintings from Arnhem Land, a region of North Australia, were created by men. Now women are taking ... responsibility in their communities for passing on their culture.”
In Aboriginal Society the position of the artist is an important one, and skills are passed on from generation to generation, bridging the past and future.
Since 2003, U.Va. students have been learning about this importance first-hand. Each summer Smith has led a study-abroad trip to Australia. An anthropologist with an M.A. and Ph.D. from U.Va., Smith conducted field work in Australia and has bridged many friends and contacts through the collection, which provides a unique experience for the students. They live in Aborigines communities during the one-month trip. Camping, walking in the bush, learning one of the native languages, collecting and eating native foods and making some of the indigenous arts and crafts provides a glimpse into the life of these traditional communities.
As part of the museum’s mission to promote learning about Aboriginal art and culture, it hosts public lectures, educational programs for children and adults, outreach activities and scholarly research in the museum’s Study Center. Indigenous artists, musicians, poets and storytellers visit the museum and increasingly participate in other local arts events such as The Festival of the Book and the Virginia Film Festival. Museum attendance and participation in these activities has grown, Smith said.
On Grounds, the most public display of the collection is the on-going exhibit, “The Sacred Billabong: Ancestral Beings of the Dreamtime,” on the third floor of Newcomb Hall. Other works can be seen in numerous administrative offices.
The American public has not been aware of or interested in Aboriginal art for very long, she added. The Kluge-Ruhe Collection has successfully worked to bridge that gap in just a few short years.