Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

In Issue 44, 2018, Artist Profile travelled to Charlottesville in the United States to speak with Jenni Kemarre Martiniello about her experience as artist in residence at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia – the largest in the Northern Hemisphere.

Meeting with Jenni Kemarre Martiniello at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in the pleasant, green hills of Charlottesville, Virginia, could not be further from the central desert region of Australia where most of the Kluge-Ruhe’s artworks hail from.

Part of the University of Virginia, the location of the Aboriginal Art Collection is embedded into American history. Charlottesville is home to the Monacan Nation, the traditional owners of the land, and also to Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third US President. And sadly, Charlottesville was the site of violent political protests in 2017.

Adding its own layer of history, since 2010 the Kluge-Ruhe has been an active site of exchange between the Aboriginal Art Collection and its artists in residence. Supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, its program has welcomed leading Aboriginal artists such as Reko Rennie, Christian Thompson, Yhonnie Scarce, Janet Fieldhouse, Vernon Ah Khee and Judy Watson, to name just a few, and currently Jenni Kemarre Martiniello.

When hearing of the Kluge-Ruhe the first question that comes to mind is ‘how did such a substantial Aboriginal art collection come to reside in a museum in the United States?’. Visiting Australia as a Fulbright scholar in 1965, Edward Ruhe’s enthusiasm for Aboriginal art resulted in multiple trips to Arnhem Land – buying fifty bark paintings and seventy artefacts in his first year.

His collection expanded greatly in 1966 when Australian collector Geoff Spence had a ‘blazing row’ with the Northern Territory Administration, who disagreed with the price for his entire collection. As a result Spence telegrammed Ruhe who purchased half his collection. The magnitude of such a substantial collection going overseas was not lost at the time, with Darwin newspaper The Territorian reporting ‘Museums in Darwin and How to Lose Them’.

Businessman and collector John Kluge encountered Aboriginal Art in the exhibition ‘Dreamings’ at the Asia Society Galleries in New York in 1988. Visiting Australia in 1988 he took initial advice from Djon Mundine OAM to fund a major commission, which was the beginning of a significant collection of bark paintings. Refining it in the 1990s, Kluge focused on four main areas: commissioning Yirrkala, Maningrida, Yuendumu and Balgo artists. After purchasing Ruhe’s collection years later, Kluge donated the Kluge-Ruhe collection to the University of Virginia, and it has since grown to more than 1900 artworks and artefacts.

Today, despite the sentiment of The Territorian, the collection’s location outside of Australia has created an exceptional opportunity for Aboriginal artists to spend time in the United States, connecting with an international audience that holds a high regard for Aboriginal art. Only this year four major exhibitions opened at institutions across the USA, and most recently the Washington Post published a major feature on John Mawurndjul’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

In Martiniello’s current show ‘Freshwater Saltwater Weave’ at the Kluge-Ruhe, her glass objects – from Indigenous and European cultures – share a characteristic duality with the Kluge-Ruhe and the multilayered stories and cultures that make up its history. A woman of Arrernte (Australian Central Desert), Chinese and Anglo-Celtic descent, Martiniello engages with traditional woven objects – eel traps, fish traps, fish scoops, dilly bags and coiled and open weave baskets – and expands upon their weft and weave in her glass vessels. Her practice embraces these entwined histories. As she explains, ‘The Venetian glass technique I am using is from Murano, and there is something satisfying in using a 600-year-old technique to create art that is inspired by objects that are tens of thousands of years old.’

Observing the woven patterns in the glass, it is hard to place these works in a single time or contemporary practice, as the forms and subjects blur past and present. For Martiniello the intent behind the works is clear. ‘In Aboriginal culture there is no such concept of art – that is a Eurocentric construct. They are objects of cultural transmission and they are signposts that redirect the gate back to that oldest weaving tradition.’

This idea of redirecting is exactly what her works do. Working with glass has refocused attention to the dilly bags and eel traps, as Martiniello embraces the contrasts in form, medium and colour to create new articulations. ‘The woven objects are ephemeral to some extent because they age and lose shape, and I get to produce a more lasting form in glass.’ Drawing directly from nature, Martiniello subverts the European palette of the glass canes to articulate the natural tones intrinsic to woven works. ‘The colour range – from the fresh-cut greens of the bulrushes to the aged object – there is huge variation. It gives me a lot to experiment and play with.’

Working at the Kluge-Ruhe, Martiniello says she has engaged with the breadth of the collection. ‘I’m looking at a number of woven works, but there is also the most incredible collection of bark paintings. Something that I am very interested in is the many female creations and ancestor spirits from across Australia, in different shapes and forms with very powerful stories attached to them.’
Activating collections is integral to her work, as she explains. ‘When I was growing up you would see those woven objects displayed as belonging to a dead civilisation, and it used to make me angry, because my aunties used to weave and I knew they were part of a living culture, an ongoing practice that is the oldest weaving practice in the world.’

Martiniello’s glass objects can be seen as expansive in form and process, pulling at the threads of a living weaving culture and presenting them in a new light. ‘My work retains that heritage and at the same time exists in a modern context,’ she says.

Also showing alongside Martiniello’s work this year at the University of Virginia was Judy Watson’s exhibition ‘Experimental Beds’. Watson visited the Kluge-Ruhe in 2009 as part of a group of artists exhibiting in ‘Culture Warriors’, in Washington DC, and encountered Thomas Jefferson’s architectural drawings of the University of Virginia. Intrigued, Watson later returned over two trips and a residency with the Kluge-Ruhe to create a series of prints. ‘I wanted to use these drawings in a body of work that spoke about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and the white on black, male on female power dynamics that exist in both our histories’, explains Watson.

The entwined connections that link Australia and America via the Kluge-Ruhe Art Collection are manifested in the process of Watson’s prints. ‘The work was made in Darwin, Charlottesville and Brisbane across three different printmaking studios. Noreen Grahame and I co-published the work with the Kluge-Ruhe Museum. It connects all of us to this as it goes out into the world taking the stories of this place and these people with it.’

The distance between Australia and the US seems a little less vast with the success of the Kluge-Ruhe and its artist residency program. The interconnected histories and stories of the Kluge-Ruhe and Australia have seeped into the ground of Charlottesville, creating a meeting place. Martiniello describes it as ‘its own little world. The setting is tranquil, it creates quite an atmosphere around the place and the collection – it preserves its uniqueness.’ Active in its exhibition and support of Aboriginal artists, the Kluge-Ruhe artist residency is a two-way point of exchange for Aboriginal artists on the international stage, or like Martiniello’s glass objects – a signpost for cultural transmission.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2018

 

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