Exciting Times at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

I. Terry Smith on Contemporary (Indigenous) Art

On February 13, 2008, the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Aboriginal Art at the University of Virginia sponsored the first John W. and Maria T. Kluge Distinguished Lecture in Arts and Humanities, featuring professor Terry E. Smith of the University of Pittsburgh. The event coincided with the opening of the second half of the exhibition Our Way: Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River. Smaller works from the show had been up at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection for about a month; the largest works were being given space in Newcomb Hall, the University of Virginia Student Union, which also hosts a permanent exhibition of large works on paper from Western Arnhem Land.

Smith’s lecture was recorded and can be heard in its entirety as a podcast from the Charlottesville Podcasting Network, but I will endeavor to summarize his major points here. (Both Smith’s lecture and the December program hosted by the Kluge-Ruhe on the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory can also be accessed from the Kluge-Ruhe website.)

Smith began by asking in what way might an art based in a tradition that could be tens of thousands of years old be considered contemporary. It is a tradition whose values were formed during a prehistoric era, transformed by the concentration of energy in urban areas that has eliminated the foraging lifeways fundamental to that ancient tradition. 

It is an art that comprises ceremonial traditions whose main goal has not been to enter into the universal art canon as defined by modern art theory in the academy. Yet it is also an art of urban artists like Gordon Bennett who deal with the contrasts of contemporary art and criteria. And it is a renovation of a previous tradition of artistic expression forged in the era of early contact with Europeans like Baldwin Spencer who encouraged the production of portable and preservable paintings on sheets of bark. It is an art that many judge to be the best Australian painting, and the best abstract painting being done today, and as movement, sustained for over thirty years.

It is an art that surveys the conditions of colonization and strives to attain compromise with them. This above all makes it contemporary: it places ancient and modern temporalities in juxtaposition. It recognizes common elements between them; and lives within and between times. In its very multiplicity of ways of being in time, it is contemporary.

Aboriginal art has also become in some ways the national of Australia, in the sense that is has something essential that relates Australia to the rest of the world.

Smith reiterated the importance of the art as a reaction to colonization as one of its defining elements. This can be seen in its intense engagement with country in both place and time. This can be seen in works as diverse as those of Emily Kam Ngwarray or the Aboriginal Memorial that now resides in the National Gallery in Canberra. Both exhibit this fierce attachment to place, to the desert of Emily’s paintings or the geography of the Glyde River that informs the placement of the log coffins of the Memorial. Both partake of multiple layers of time, the Dreaming present in the modern moment, or the 200 years of colonial oppression and death symbolized by the 200 coffins.

Artists working in an urban mode display the same engagement with colonialism, whether it be Tracey Moffatt developing a register of what it’s like to live in a racist society, or Gordon Bennett appropriating the work of Imants Tillers, a white artist who comes of immigrant Latvian stock, once unwelcome in White Australia.

More broadly, indigenous art is rarely conceived of as contemporary anywhere in the world, but especially in the north, in the Euro-American sphere of influence where indigenous peoples can not be conceived of as modern, where they are viewed essentially as survivals of the past. As Smith noted, art from Africa, Oceania, even parts of Asia might be seen either as traditional or contemporary, but never modern

What distinguishes the best art being produced now by Indigenous Australians, though, is a movement beyond the stricture of colonization, away from their status as non-contemporaneous contemporaries. The artists resist the colonial urge to speed them up, to erase time, to do what Smith characterized as “temporal cleansing.” He sees Indigenous artists as desiring to outlive modernity: to become contemporary while maintaining indispensable spiritual values. An artist like John Mawurndjul has moved past abstraction into a form of art that tries to capture a manifest spiritual presence. By making this essence present to the viewer, he makes it contemporary.

This is the art of persuading the powerful in a global society of the contemporaneity of one’s life. It speaks of global shifts that recognize the multiplicity of ways of being in the world today, and of the necessity of living together in a complex world. Indigenous artists become contemporary not by imitating Western art, but by inviting the West to learn from them and their ways.

Terry Smith, far right, with Terry and Clely Yumbulul and curator Margo Smith. The painting by Rosella Namok is part of the exhibition of Lockhart River work now on view at the University of Virginia.

II. Future Attractions

Terry Smith’s lecture was the latest in a long series of distinguished presentations organized by the Kluge-Ruhe’s curator, Margo Smith (no relation to the speaker). Past presentations I’ve attended have featured artists Fiona Foley and Alec Tipoti, scholars Fred Myers and Howard and Frances Morphy, and photographer Martin Jolly. The Lockhart River Gang have visited; so have David Gulpilil and yidaki artist Ash Dargan.

A couple of special events are on the horizon for those of you who live close enough to take advantage of this exemplary programming.

An important exhibition, Virtuosity: the evolution of painting at Papunya Tula, curated by Fred Myers, opens at the Kluge-Ruhe on April 1 and will remain on view through August 9. The show will feature early works from Papunya and nearby settlements, some of them documented in the early 70s by Myers himself. Also included are a number of very early boards on loan from the private holdings of the Collection’s benefactor, John W. Kluge. 

When we visited Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago, we were fortunate to able to preview these paintings, which include some of the most spectacular works by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri that I’ve ever had the luck to see. Other early works by Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Uta Uta Tjangala (among others) make this exhibition one of the most extraordinary opportunities to view seminal works of the contemporary Aboriginal tradition. On previous trips to Australia I’ve been lucky enough to see the cache of Papunya Community School Collection exhibited at the Araluen Galleries in Alice Springs, and to be taken behind the scenes at the Australian Museum to look at the Papunya Tula archives held there. Virtuosity promises to be on a par with both of those experiences.

Fred Myers will lecture on “Perceiving the Landscape in/through Western Desert Acrylic Paintings on Thursday, April 10 at 7:00 p.m. and offer a guided tour of the exhibition the following Saturday, April 12, at 10:30 in the morning. 

On April 25 Kim Christen, assistant professor at Washington State University, author of the blog Long Road, and co-architect of the Mukurtu Archive will be speaking on her work in digitally preserving the cultural heritage of the Warumungu people around Tennant Creek. Kim was recently interviewed about her work by the BBC, and as a result attracted international attention for her ground-breaking work on intellectual property and digital rights management. Kim will speak on “Culture at the Interface: Digital Archives and ‘Social’ Rights Management in Aboriginal Australia” at 3:30 in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, and at 7:00 that evening at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection itself on “A Safe Keeping Place: Shifting Museum Spaces and Embedded Aboriginal Cultural Protocols.”

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