After the excitement of Paris and London, Aboriginal art is set to take Washington, DC by storm with an exquisite new exhibition of paintings by Aboriginal women, Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), curated by Britta Konau of the Museum in collaboration with Margo Smith of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in Charlottesville, Virginia. The NMWA is a private museum located on New York Avenue and 13th Street in Washington, DC. It has 35,000 contributing members as well as corporate financial support. By way of full disclosure (caveat lector), Harvey and I are lenders to the exhibition, so we are predisposed to marveling at it. There are over seventy paintings by thirty-three artists in the exhibition; major lenders include the Kluge-Ruhe, Richard Kelton, Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan of Seattle, WA, Colin and Liz Laverty of Sydney, Ann Lewis, AM, of Sydney, the Seattle Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Australia and of Victoria, among others. The exhibition can be seen in Washington until September 24. After that it travels to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, which is now under the direction of Brian Kennedy, formerly head of the National Gallery of Australia. Britta, Margo, and Brian are the authors of the stunning catalog of the show, which includes full-page, full-color reproductions of every work in the exhibition. Each artist is represented by at least two, and usually three, works. The exhibition contains only paintings, on bark or canvas.
Festivities began on Wednesday night with an opening reception for lenders and sponsors and other invited friends and guests. In addition to being welcomed by Judy Larson, the Museum’s Director, and Dennis Richardson, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, we got our first look at the exhibition itself, and it’s a knockout. The exhibition is on the second floor, which is spacious, with cleanly designed walls in connecting rectangular rooms, and permits an uncrowded display of the works.
The first gallery features works by Pansy Napangardi, Linda Syddick, and Lorna Fencer. Although it’s all strictly desert work, the contrast among Pansy’s early paintings, heavily influenced by the style of Pintupi men’s paintings of the 80s, Lorna’s expansive, colorful brushwork of bush tucker, and Linda Syddick’s deco renderings of Heavitree Gap and ET on his way home gave a foretaste of the variety of styles and subjects in women’s painting that the exhibition strives to present and at which it succeeds wonderfully.
Straight ahead, a small alcove is devoted to three works by Emily Kngwarreye (two other paintings are in adjacent spaces). A second gallery just beyond the first showcases the developments in Dorothy Napangardi’s work to one side and paintings from Haasts Bluff to the other. Beyond these galleries and to the left is a room of Pintupi women’s painting: Makinti Napanangka, Tatali Nangala, Inyuwa Nampitjinpa, and Ningura Napurulla. This is followed by a room devoted to Utopia paintings and dominated by a largeLeaves by Gloria Petyarre and a sweeping, minimalist canvas by sister Kathleen. Another painting by Kathleen Petyarre is dramatically displayed halfway up a staircase leading to the exhibition.
At the rear of the space devoted to the exhibition one finds paintings from the Top End. The back wall, the first thing you see on approach, is a thirty-feet sweep of bark paintings, many of them very large works from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, works which really need the twenty-foot ceilings of NWMA. Although I’ve seen reproductions of these works in monographs, I was unprepared for Galuma Maymuru’s monumental painting of Nyapililngu and the story of the Guwak. It is one of the great Manggalili paintings, and it is perhaps the highlight of this exhibition to see it exhibited in all its glory and power.
Sharing this space with the barks were works by Kitty Kantilla and Jean-Baptist Apuatimi from the Tiwi Islands, Regina Wilson from Peppimenarti, and Gertie Huddleston from Ngukkur.
The next gallery, from the Kimberley region, was also a triumph of geography over style, combining as it did works from Balgo (Eubena and Lucy Yukenbarri Napanangka) with stark canvases by Lena Nyadbi, Wandjinas by Lily Karedada, and three large landscapes by Queenie McKenzie. In this respect it formed a sharp contrast to the Utopia Gallery directly across the exhibition space where family and stylistic connections among the artists were mutually reinforcing. I was a little uncomfortable with the Kimberley groupings at first (“why put the Balgo works in opposite corners like prizefighters slugging it out for a title?”), but the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. Eubena and Lucy actually wound up complementing each other and contrasting nicely with the more muted earth tones of the paintings by the other women in the room.
I then began to notice the care with which these arrangements had been structured throughout the space. In the Warlpiri sections, Bessie Sims’ two works shared a corner, facing each other at a ninety-degree angle that allowed the reds of one painting to harmonize with the purple tones of the other. The third proximate wall was dominated by two large black-and-white canvases by Dorothy Napangardi. The third painting by Dorothy, an early, colorful bush tucker piece in the style she learned first from her auntie Eunice was set a little apart. This arrangement allowed one to take in the artistic growth of the painter without the display being visually jarring. Additionally, the vistas from one gallery to another were often superb. From the Kimberley room, for example one could look over to a large and beautiful Emily, and ahead to a pair of superb works by Julie Dowling brought over from the National Gallery in Canberra. These views across the exhibition were just another example of the care with which the show was curated and designed.
The final gallery, in addition to the works by Julie Dowling, contained a breathtaking wall of three canvas wall hangings by Judy Watson, and a pair of Rosella Namok paintings. A timeline of Aboriginal history occupied the fourth wall gave an excellent lesson in the arc of indigenous history that emphasized the antiquity of the culture, the political domination by the settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the tumultuous attempts to restore and reclaim indigenous culture in the last forty years that helped bring a show like this into being.
After the opening previews lenders to the exhibition, representatives of sponsors, and members of NMWA’s board were hosted by Ambassador Bill Richardson and his wife Betty at their newly renovated residence. The evening gave me the chance to catch up with several folks who had been in Paris for the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly, including Bev Knight of Alcaston Gallery, Ros Premont of Gallery Gondwana, and Jenny Bott of the Australia Council. To my delight, Fred Myers and his wife, Faye Ginsburg, were there: I’d never before had the pleasure of meeting Faye.
On Thursday there was a members-only preview of the show and I was astonished to watch over 500 visitors (a near-record attendance for a members’ preview) troupe through the galleries in the course of the day. Gallery talks by NMWA staff, including curator Britta Konau and Director Judy Larson, Margo Smith of the Kluge-Ruhe, collectors Margaret Levi and Bob Kaplan, and me were incredibly warmly received. The audience was both intellectually and emotionally engaged by the talks, the questions were intelligent and perceptive, and every talk went on beyond its appointed length as a result. Colin Laverty gave a midday presentation in the Museum’s lecture hall. His sweeping tour of the continent gave attendees a sense of the landscape that was so often referred to in the gallery talks and a generous selection of reproductions of works from the Lavertys’ collection added depth to the already impressive selection of works on display in the galleries. At the end of the day Franchesca Cubillo, the newly appointed Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory presented another slide show of artwork and culture to complement Colin’s earlier talk; afterwards she answered questions from the audience.
The following day a group fifteen people boarded a minibus early in the morning for a two-and-a-half hour drive to Charlottesville and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum. The current exhibition there is a celebration of the career and collecting of the late Ed Ruhe, a professor of English at the University of Kansas who spent much time in Australia, particularly in the Top End, amassing a superb collection of bark paintings and ceremonial objects, which was purchased after his death by John Kluge and which forms the heart of the Kluge-Ruhe’s collection of works from Arnhem Land today. Margo gave a tour of the exhibit along with a history of Ruhe’s career, and after lunch on the spacious lawn of the Museum’s quarters, led us all down into the extensive storage areas below the exhibit space for a look behind the scenes.
After touring the Kluge-Ruhe, we went over to the main campus of the University of Virginia where eleven large works on paper from the Oenpelli region are on semi-permanent display in the Student Union. A brief tour followed of the historic heart of the University, the great Rotunda and the “academical village” designed by Thomas Jefferson when he founded the University early in the nineteenth century.
On Saturday we had the chance to see yet another exhibition of women’s painting, mounted by the staff of the Australian Embassy. Ron Ramsey and Maryanne Voyazis opened the gallery specially so that Ros, Margaret, Bob, Harvey, and I could have a look at Painted Stories: Contemporary Paintings by Australian Aboriginal Women. Visitors to the NMWA show who realize that owning Aboriginal art is a wonderful experience have the chance to acquire works from this show, assembled from numerous venues includingGallery Gondwana, Chapman Gallery (Canberra), Bett Gallery (Hobart) and America’s own Booker-Lowe Gallery (Houston).
Nana Booker-Lowe herself was one of the travelers to the Kluge-Ruhe on Friday; I’ve lost track of the number of times our paths have crossed in Charlottesville, but it’s always a pleasure to see her again. Likewise, Friday’s excursion allowed me to renew the conversations begun last August when we met Colin and Liz Laverty for the first time. I was honored to be introduced to Ann Lewis this week, and delighted at the opportunity to meet and have an extended chinwag with Brian Kennedy. Australian gallerists have always been astounded that Harvey and I had never met Bob Kaplan and Margaret Levi, and now we can stop confounding their expectations and tell instead about enjoying Washington cafe society and the Phillips Collection with them, as well as the delights of Dreaming Their Way and the Kluge-Ruhe.
Ron Ramsey and Maryanne Voyazis of the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC at their exhibition.
As I put a close to this chapter of our London-Paris-Washington “World Capitals of Aboriginal Art Tour 2006,” I once more have to offer my thanks to Ron Ramsey of the Embassy of Australia here in the States. Making introductions to staff at the Embassy in Paris, giving us a lift back to our hotel in Dupont Circle after the Ambassador’s dinner, with Maryanne opening the Embassy Gallery on what ought to have been a holiday weekend, he was always on the spot when help was needed, as he has been all the years we’ve been fortunate enough to know him.