Kluge-Ruhe: A City-wide Exhibition
On March 12, 2020, as Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Henry Skerritt, Curator at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection dashed out to pick up a copy of the New York Times. Buried among fearful news of the growing pandemic, the paper featured a lengthy article of “the growing interest in Aboriginal art” in the United States.
Above the fold was a photograph of artist Joe Guymala—who had been in Charlottesville only weeks earlier—alongside a pole painted with haunting skeletal figures, a gloomy portent to the horrific stories of death sweeping the world. “Normally it would have been a huge thrill to see Joe gracing the pages of the Times,” says Skerritt. “But on this day, I had a sinking feeling no one was going to see it. Art was really the last thing on anyone’s mind.”
Many people had declared 2019 a breakthrough year for Indigenous Australian art after major exhibitions at the world-renowned Gagosian Galleries in New York and Los Angeles featured paintings on loan by actor, writer, musician, and comedy legend Steve Martin and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced acquisitions of sixteen new works by contemporary Aboriginal artists. And there was an auction dedicated to Aboriginal works at Sotheby’s, the first of its kind held on American soil. The early months of 2020 showed no signs of the momentum slowing.
In January 2020, Kluge-Ruhe brought vibrant and important artworks by more than 100 leading Indigenous Australian artists to spaces on Grounds and across the community including The Fralin Museum of Art, the Rotunda’s Upper West Oval Room, Second Street Gallery, and New City Arts. “Having a concentration of the best artists in this globally significant movement,” says Skerritt, “is something you can’t really get anywhere else in the United States, and really, anywhere outside of Australia. It was truly unique.”
What may seem like a boom of activity in the United States, however, may just signal Americans catching up to what Kluge-Ruhe has always known. “I’m kind of hesitant to call it a boom,” says Margo Smith, director of Kluge-Ruhe. “The truth is that Indigenous Australian art has been very strong in Australia for a very long time and is a significant part of the contemporary art world. People outside of Australia are realizing that. This includes not just galleries, but art critics and tastemakers who are writing about it, sharing it with a broader audience, and inspiring curiosity.”
Since its founding in 1999, Kluge-Ruhe has promoted meaningful cross-cultural exchange by bringing a regular program of exhibitions and artist residences to Charlottesville. Americans benefit from this exposure to Indigenous Australian art but cultural exchange goes in both directions, says Skerritt, particularly when it came to the residency of Gabriel Maralngurra and Joe Guymala in January. There were scheduled conversations about race, place, and the environment, but there were also spontaneous conversations about how Indigenous art should be appreciated in the United States, the historical treatment of Native Americans, and the bush fires that were then dominating the headlines and devastating the continent’s land.
And there were the unplanned moments that provided windows into American life that the artists were all-too-eager to experience. “Many artists, and this goes for Aboriginal and non-Indigenous artists,” Skerritt says, “can be shy and often prefer to hole themselves up in their studios. Joe and Gabriel came here with an incredible desire to engage with people.” They had plenty of opportunities for that, from an overflowing crowd at their Saturday morning discussion, to their trip to the Corner where some students introduced them to Hoos-style NCAA hoops madness. “When you think about it,” he says, “it was a really fascinating form of cultural immersion to come from the other side of the world and find yourself in the middle of that scene.” Their visit was captured by UVA graduate student Cassie Davies, who received a Jefferson Trust Grant to make a short film (see below) documenting Aboriginal art on Grounds.
The centerpiece of this activity was an important collaboration between The Fralin and Kluge-Ruhe called The Inside World. This exhibition featured 112 memorial poles by 55 artists from Aboriginal communities in the tropical northern region of Australia known as Arnhem Land. The works in The Inside World were drawn from the collections of Miami-based philanthropists Debra and Dennis Scholl and the Kluge-Ruhe collection. The exhibition was organized by the Nevada Museum of Art and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog edited by Skerritt.
“The Inside World was an exciting opportunity for The Fralin and Kluge-Ruhe – the only museum dedicated to Aboriginal art outside of Australia – to serve students, faculty and visitors in a new way,” says Matthew McLendon, the J. Sanford Miller Family Director at The Fralin. “By coming together in one location, we were able to present visual and academic experiences that advance new ideas and new ways to view the world.”
In the past, memorial poles were made to house the bones of the dead and guide them along their final journey within the ancestral world. Today they are made as works of art, and no longer represent death so much as they represent signs of a vibrant, living culture. The exhibition featured works by leading artists such as John Mawurndjul AM, who was recently honored with a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, and Djambawa Marawili AM, whose work has been included in the Moscow, Istanbul, and Sydney Biennales. Both artists have visited Kluge-Ruhe.
Kluge-Ruhe was also home this spring to Brian Robinson: Tithyuil (Moving with the Rhythm of the Stars), a selection of prints, paintings, and multi-media works from the last several years. The Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait) Islander artist combines his heritage with his strong passion for experimentation, highlighting a unique ability to cross the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The prints bring together diverse styles and influences, ranging from Torres Strait cultural motifs, objects, and activities to classical sculpture and science fiction. Robinson spent a month at Kluge-Ruhe in a residency in February that included public talks, discussions with UVA students in a variety of disciplines, and more.
The wave of Australian Aboriginal art extended to downtown Charlottesville as well, thanks to exhibitions at New City Arts and Second Street Gallery. “Having exhibitions both on Grounds and downtown,” Smith says, “meant that wherever people went in Charlottesville, whether out on Pantops at Kluge-Ruhe, downtown, or at the University, they were able to see fantastic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. It really promoted the idea that this is contemporary art.”
The exhibitions across Charlottesville, which featured some of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, such as Nonggirrnga Marawili, Steaphan Paton, and Regina Pilawuk Wilson showed an immense range of Indigenous Australian artistic practices. As Smith notes, “I think it is very important that we are able to show the diversity of Indigenous artists here at Kluge-Ruhe, but we are also limited by our collection. Efforts like these allow us to show a range of contemporary artists who aren’t represented in the collection. The types of artworks ranged from photography to sculptural works made from natural materials like tree trunks using natural pigments and works painted on bark, plywood, and canvas. The materials and styles reflect the cultural diversity of Indigenous Australian artists and show how expansive this art is.”
Munguyhmunguyh: Forever, the exhibition on view at the Rotunda, was a celebration of the 30th anniversary of a major commission by John W. Kluge from Injalak Arts in Western Arnhem Land. It also recognized the next generation of artists who are carrying on the region’s traditions by including commissions of new work by Maralngurra and Guymala. “Joe and Gabriel were young artists still learning when those works were first commissioned,” says Smith, “Now they are both highly respected artists, so it was a nice way for us to show both the continuity of traditions and changes over time.” While in Charlottesville, Maralngurra, and Guymala were able to view works by their relatives in the Kluge-Ruhe collection, offering new insights into UVA’s world-class historical holdings. “I think it was really inspiring for Gabriel and Joe to see these works by their parents and grandparents,” says Skerritt, “You could see their pride, that their works were going to sit alongside these masterpieces by the artists who had taught them, showing the world the continuing power of their culture.”
The Kluge commission was the first time that many of the artists at Injalak Arts had worked on paper. The scale and flexibility of paper offered new possibilities, which the artists embraced by creating images of unprecedented complexity and narrative flair. In the decades that followed, paper would become one of the most commonly used surfaces among Kunwinjku painters. In 1997, Kluge donated thirty-one of the works from the commission to the University of Virginia. These remain a cornerstone of the Kluge-Ruhe collection.
By the Strength of Their Skin at Second Street Gallery showcased artworks by three senior and highly regarded female Aboriginal artists. Nonggirrnga Marawili, from Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land is one of the most successful Aboriginal artists of her generation, and was recently featured in the Sydney Biennale and a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Her work was shown alongside that of Mabel Juli and Regina Pilawuk Wilson. An exhibition at New City Arts included the work of artists Steaphan Paton and Robert Fielding, featuring sculpture, video, and photography.
While COVID-19 meant that Kluge-Ruhe was closed to the public for nearly five months in 2020, Skerritt remains optimistic: “Indigenous Australian art has been going for tens of thousands of years and has weathered worse storms than this. I think the message of Indigenous art is even more relevant and pressing during this period of rapid change and social upheaval. Black Lives Matter, in both the USA and Australia, has shown our desperate need to embrace the diversity of society and our world. And that is exactly what this work does: it shows us how to appreciate our differences while still recognizing our shared values. It’s sad that Charlottesville became known around the world for the violence and division of August 2017, but hopefully, this gives us a chance to be champions of a new message.”