Of all the memorable things I heard during the past weekend when Crossing Cultures opened at the Toledo Museum of Art, that is the quotation that has stuck in my ears. Especially since the boy in question was racing off with his camera to capture Patrick Tjungurrayi’s Untitled (Illyatjarta) from 2001 (left), a look somewhere between intense concentration and glee on his face. And then there was the woman who told me that her two sons (aged seven and nine) had brought her to see the exhibition for her birthday. Pretty cool kids they’re growing in Toledo, wouldn’t you say?
When Crossing Cultures opened at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art last September, the audience on opening night was rapturous—but then there have been two other exhibitions of Aborginal Australian art at the Hood Museum in recent years, and many of those in attendance had traveled to Australia and had their own memories to inspire their appreciation.
But this opening was a first for Toledo, located in the heartland of the American Midwest. The last time a major exhibition of Aboriginal art came anywhere close to this part of the country was when the Dreamings exhibition opened at University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in January, 1989. Now Toledo became the second major American civic art museum (after the Seattle Museum of Art) to host a large show within the space of less than twelve months.
Brian Kennedy came to Toledo three years ago from the Hood Museum; before that he was Director of the National Gallery of Australia, where he first learned to love the art of Aboriginal Australia. His ongoing commitment led to the creation of Crossing Cultures, and his sponsorship brought the show from Dartmouth to Toledo, where it will be on view until July 14, 2013.
The festivities began on the afternoon of April 12 with a panel discussion moderated by Kennedy in which I was privileged to share the stage with Stephen Gilchrist, Crossing Cultures‘ curator, and Margo Smith, Director and Curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia. For nearly an hour we answered a series of questions that Kennedy posed, some of them as startlingly simple yet profoundly difficult as “Why is Aboriginal art important?” (To hear our responses, check out the video that was posted by the local public television station, WGTE.)
At the end of the hour, Kennedy turned the microphone over to the audience—about 200 strong, with standing room only—for their questions. There was curiosity about the success of Aboriginal art in the United States, as well as about the creation and reception of the art in Australia. One gentleman in the audience voiced his concerns about what Stephen Gilchrist called “registers of knowledge”: the fact that some levels of the meaning of these artworks remain accessible only to initiated elders. I had mentioned this point in one of my responses as well, and it seemed to strike a nerve, as it did on other occasions over the course of the weekend. The notion that an ultimate meaning, a body of information, could indeed by restricted and unknowable to outsiders like those of us in the room was disturbing to some. I don’t think we convinced the questioner that this was an essential quality of Indigenous knowledge; it just seemed wrong to him. I admitted to feeling that way myself twenty years ago when I first started my own explorations of the art and the culture, but coming to terms with those registers of knowledge was in itself a product of learning about the culture. I understand how unsatisfying that response would be to the western spirit of scientific inquiry that governs how we think, but it has been a long time since I felt such resistance to the idea itself. Crossing cultures, indeed.
After the panel, we adjourned to a reception and to an exploration of the galleries in which the show is hung in an impressive display created by the Museum’s designer, Claude Fixler. (We’d actually been able to explore them earlier in the day with very few others present apart from the exceptionally gregarious and appreciative museum guards.)
At the Hood Museum, the exhibition was organized along geographical lines, with the large main gallery devoted to a majestic hang of canvases from Papunya Tula and smaller side galleries devoted to, for example, works from Arnhem Land, Queensland, or urban centers.
At Toledo, the emphasis on geography remained largely intact, but the openness of the gallery plan and a striking use of the sculptural objects in the show presented opportunities for mixing up one’s apprehension of the works. Additionally, strict geographical organization gave way to a hang that focused slightly more on the inherent visual aesthetics of the work: Maningrida mingled in places with Yirrkala, Kintore nestled nigh to Yuendumu and Utopia. In the main galleries, a series of constructed islands formed the basis for the presentation of the sculpture, and if you followed that archipelago, you found yourself transported from Maningrida to Yirrkala to Galiwin’ku, then on to Melville Island and across the Gulf of Carpentaria to the western shores of Cape York.
The gallery space featured a small antechamber that hinted at the variety to come: canvases by Patrick Tjungurrayi and Naara Nungurrayi framed a tall sculpture of Tokwampini by Leon Puruntatameri; off to one side, a small bleached triptych by Clinton Nain led to the first thematic gallery. An opening in the wall offered tantalizing vistas of Arnhem Land, the central deserts, and Cape York.
That first gallery highlighted the works of urban artists, and no doubt confounded the audience’s expectations with its presentation of large-scale photographs, intimate watercolors (by Tony Albert) and haunting graphite drawings by Vernon Ah Kee. Highlighting the complex issues of Aboriginal identity in modern cities, this room was balanced by the final gallery, featuring works from Balgo, Bidyadanga, and Warmun, where themes of frontier violence and dispossession came to the fore.
Indeed, politics permeated the halls of the Toledo Museum, especially in a room dedicated to providing (along with works by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, James Iyuna, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, and Mick Kubarkku) some basic information about Australia and its Indigenous population. One wall of this room was blazoned with an excerpt from Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, and amidst the slides that presented facts about Australia and views of country, the video of the Apology in Parliament played every fifteen minutes. In another media installation, films from the Canning Stock Route Project provided further explication of the meaning of country and its politics to the audiences.
Another small gallery seemed to insist that there is something more than serendipity at work when you mass together so many great works of Indigenous art. Against an intense blue backdrop, Kennedy had hung a brilliant orange work by Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula between two larger works by Yukultji Napangati and D. R. Nakamarra. Tjupurrula’s painting came from the Papunya Tula exhibition organized by Harvey Art Projects at New York University in 2009. Napangati and Nakamarra attended the opening of that show, only a few short months before Nakamarra’s untimely death, and here they all were, reunited in spirit. I shivered at the sight.
The following day, a second small, private symposium was convened to continue discussions of ways in which to promote awareness and acceptance of Aboriginal art in the context of contemporary museum displays. Thursday panelists were joined by Museum staff Larry Nichols and Adam Levine, along with guests who included Harvey Wagner, Seattle’s Bob Kaplan, Julie Harvey from Harvey Art Projects, Kirk Endicott from Dartmouth College, and critic and Ph.D candidate Henry Skerritt, who had braved the Midwest spring thunderstorms to drive in from Pittsburgh. That evening Stephen Gilchrist offered a gallery tour that once again boasted overflow attendance, as did my own tour on Saturday afternoon. It was clear from the comments that attendees made after these tours that many of them had never encountered this art before, and they were mightily impressed and moved by what they saw. One viewer claimed that the works “came screaming off the walls at you.”
There were more moments of serendipity and delight that day. My college roommate Dave, with whom I’d reconnected a couple of years ago after more than a quarter of a century, chose this weekend to come visit his sister (who lives nearby) and to visit the exhibition, not knowing that I, too, would be there. A long-time reader of this blog introduced himself and his charming daughter, shared photographs of his own small but select collection of desert paintings, and left me with a lovely CD of his own music as a thank-you. Our friends Matt and Susan drove in from Cleveland, and Carol Folt and Kirk Endicott made the trip to represent Dartmouth College at the opening. For a weekend in a town that we’d never visited before, we felt surrounded by friends old and new, which made for an exhilarating experience all around. Photographs of the installation can be seen in the post immediately below. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.