“The white man history has been told and it’s today in the book. But our history is not there properly. We’ve got to tell ‘em through our paintings.”
These urgent words, said by Aboriginal artist Clifford Brooks, begin the section label of the Art at a Crossroads exhibit in the University’s Kluge-Ruhe museum — home to the most comprehensive collection of Aboriginal art outside Australia. Brooks’s statement underlines the ethos of the rich contemporary artistic movement — one of both extraordinary aesthetic value and illuminating cultural impact.
The Kluge-Ruhe takes up one small floor in Pantops Farm, a scenic countryside house on a property once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Late entrepreneur and art collector John W. Kluge collected and admired Aboriginal art for its uniqueness and beauty, and he donated his immense private collection to the University in 1997. Over 20 years later, the museum regularly welcomes a steady stream of talented artists — Reko Rennie, Carol McGregor and Judy Watson — and enables the consistent showcasing and education of new Aboriginal perspectives.
Director of Kluge-Ruhe Margo Smith says the overarching mission of the museum is to advance the knowledge and nurture a nuanced understanding of indigenous art and culture worldwide.
“Many people — if they haven’t seen Aboriginal art before — come with a stereotypical idea of what an Aboriginal person looks like, how they might live and what their culture is like,” Smith said.
Smith’s ambition to dismantle imperial-based assumptions of indigenous art as primitive and unsophisticated becomes fulfilled immediately upon visiting Kluge-Ruhe. Despite the limited gallery space, the museum’s featured artworks are highly diverse, each one bursting with its own rich narrative and providing a unique voice influenced by the artist’s generation, community, gender and memories.
Each painting’s flat canvas comes alive with an infectious vivacity, not unlike the country — the Aboriginal concept concerning the totality of land, air, water, animals, food and everything in between — that inspired them. One the collection’s highlights, Lungarung by Weaver Jack, depicts Jack’s birthplace, Lungarug in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. Due to a drought in Lungarung, Jack was forced into exile and spent much of her life near the coast, and the painting expresses ties to Jack’s now detached country.
Lungarung also powerfully functions as a self-portrait — in the lower left-hand corner, Jack paints herself as a vibrant orange cross merging with the surrounding landscape. The self-portrait evokes a sense of inextricable unity between country and Weaver, and this conflation widens conventional perceptions of identity. To know Jack, the viewer must know her land — they are the same.
Jack’s personal rendering of Lungarung asserts her own identity in the face of genocide, displacement and systematic oppression — a common occurrence within the collection. The aforementioned small gallery size results in focused exhibitions, with most of the artworks sharing compex themes like ancestral history, country and the colonization of Aboriginal people.
While the small collection allows for portability and upholds an intimacy between the viewer and the artist, it does constrain the capabilities of showcasing Aboriginal art. Smith cites Kluge-Ruhe’s size and locations as challenges the museum regularly confronts.
“Our long-term goal is to be at the University and have enough space to show the collection in its magnificence,” Smith said. “We have many works in our collection where our wall space and the ceiling space is not adequate to show the work.”
The limited accessibility to Kluge-Ruhe for students without cars also presents a challenge to the museum’s additional goal of fostering an entirely inclusive space.
“A lot of people think of museums as elite spaces,” Smith said. “And I know a lot of Aboriginal artists told me that they didn’t enter a museum until they were adults, and didn’t feel that museums were welcoming spaces. We want everyone to feel welcome here, and that our conversations are honest.”
Smith’s inclusive goal is especially pertinent after the Aug. 11 and 12 white supremacist rallies. In response to the calamity, Kluge-Ruhe has encouraged open conversations on institutional racism and the enduring disadvantages people of color face in the seemingly progressive Charlottesville community, as well as the marginalization imposed on indigenous people in Australia today. Smith says self-reflection is necessary for ceasing this disadvantage and marginalization.
“We have to look ourselves and how we might change what we are doing,” Smith said.
Kluge-Ruhe has enacted specific programs orientating to the sharing of stories concerning the events of Aug. 11 and 12. In the collection’s interactive art-making space, there are prompts like “Privilege can be defined as ‘unearned advantage.’ What are some advantages you have that you didn’t earn?” and “Describe a time that you listened to someone from a different background, and you learned something that surprised you.” These prompts invite visitors to reflect on their own learning experiences and privileges. Visitors are encouraged to place their response cards in the Kluge-Ruhe breezeway, deconstructing the previously mentioned elitist connotations of museums — anyone can have their artwork posted in Kluge-Ruhe.
Smith also spoke some to the different purposes of museum programs.
“Sometimes programs can feel like you’re there to learn something,” she said. “And other programs are there for people to reflect and to have a vehicle for expression.”
Kluge-Ruhe is the rare museum that fulfills both functions. The museum both offers educational, nuanced insight into Aboriginal culture and encourages an elevated sense of self through the museum’s interactive, inclusive art-making spaces. The valuable dual function of Kluge-Ruhe makes the museum a must-see destination for all members of the community, regardless of their backgrounds and interest.
While the ambitions of Kluge-Ruhe may appear lofty or overreaching, Smith and her team are a small but mighty crew dedicated to expanding the visibility and global significance of Aboriginal art. Kluge-Ruhe is currently orchestrating a project called Madayin, the museum’s most ambitious undertaking yet. The project will consist of Yolngu bark paintings touring art institutions all over the country, offering Americans the all-too-rare opportunity to receive an in-depth look at Aboriginal art.
Madayin will be curated by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists — including former artist-in-residence Djambawa Marawili — thereby limiting the presence of Western interpretation in Aboriginal artistry. The art is projected to tour 2020-21, and knowing the admirable, exceptional efforts of Kluge-Ruhe, it will be a grand sight to behold.