A new book and website tell the story of a small group of Australian Aboriginal artists who changed the face of world art history – and the resources were produced by the only dedicated museum at Australian Aboriginal Art in the United States, The University of Virginia’s Kluge -Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection.
The book and virtual exhibition accompanying an in-person exhibition in Kluge-Ruhe and tracing the movement of artists that began in 1971 in the township of Papunya in Australia’s remote central desert. Motivated by artists’ desire to preserve and pass on their cultural knowledge in the face of great adversity and displacement, the movement quickly grew into an artistic renaissance that also served as a powerful vehicle for economic and social justice.
Papunya Township was founded in 1959 as a settlement for indigenous people who were displaced from their homelands. It brought together indigenous peoples from a disparate array of language groups: Luritja, Pintupi, Anmatyerr, Warlpiri and Kukatja. Some had considerable experience with white Australians; for others, life in Papunya represented their first encounter with the colonizers.
Inside this bubbling, cross-cultural cauldron, a small group of men began painting their ancestral designs on scraps of cardboard, linoleum and masonite.
From these humble beginnings, artists eventually began to create the epic, abstract paintings that travel the world today. A multi-million dollar industry has emerged, creating a powerful voice for Indigenous artists.
“Painting is a medium for expressing relationships, memory, sadness and joy, and also one’s relationship to country,” said Fred Myers, anthropologist and Silver Professor of Anthropology at the New York University, which began working with Aboriginals. artists in the early 1970s.
Artist Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri said: “This is for all the people in America who look at the pictures, all the canvases: Kulila (listen), this is our ‘Tjukurrpa, martupura Tjukurrpa’ (important matter) of the elderly, men and women .”
The complete catalog and the online exhibition “Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu | Past & Present Together: Fifty Years of Papunya Tula Artists”, not only features the work of artists working for the Papunya Tula Artists company, but also reveals much of Kluge-Ruhe’s collection of 2,200 objects which has not never been published. The accompanying in-person exhibition will be on view in Kluge-Ruhe until February 2023. [Interested visitors can make a reservation here.]
Henry Skerritt, Curator of Indigenous Arts of Australia at Kluge-Ruhe, and Myers, co-edited the book, which is in progress distributed by University of Virginia Press. Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Arthur Sinodinos, came to Charlottesville on November 18 to mark the publication’s release during a private reception at the museum.
Partners who contributed to the research, exhibition and publication attended the reception, Kluge-Ruhe’s first hybrid event. Students from the Skerritt Seminar on Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art gave short ‘lightning tours’ of the artworks in the exhibition. VP Arts Jody Kielbasa, Sinodinos and Skerritt spoke about the book and the project. Five contributors joined them virtually from the United States and Australia: Myers at NYU, comedian and actor Steve Martin, John Kean, Marina Strocchi and Papunya Tula director Paul Sweeney, each of whom spoke briefly about their involvement.
The book features more than 150 color plates depicting works of art, as well as essays from an extraordinary range of artists, curators, scholars and collectors, including a contribution from Steve Martin, who began to collecting Aboriginal art in 2015; and original research and consultation with artists and their descendants by John Kean, who served as director of Papunya Tula Artists in the 1970s.
The website allows visitors from all over the world to explore the art and artists in the exhibition. This resource highlights the breadth of the exhibition in a virtual gallery centered around five central questions about the history of the artists and their work. While designed to be accessible to the student, researcher and casual visitor with a budding interest, it also includes lesson plans for teachers, produced in partnership with the Art Gallery of South Australia.
In business for 50 years, Papunya Tula Artists is one of Australia’s oldest and most successful Aboriginal businesses. Artist Bobby West Tjupurrula remarked, “It will be a very good party for ‘Anangu tjurtangku’ (all indigenous peoples). All over Australia and in the museum in America, which is a good thing, because Papunya Tula has never failed. It’s still OK.
After its closure in Kluge-Ruhe, “Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu | Past & Present Together” will be the first exhibit when the new Australian Embassy opens in Washington, DC in March 2023.