Did you know we have something very unique in Charlottesville that you can’t see anywhere else in the United States? The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is the only museum outside of Australia dedicated to the exhibition and study of Indigenous Australian art — and it’s right here, on the east side of Charlottesville on Pantops mountain, less than 5 miles from the University of Virginia Grounds.
You may have lived here for years and had no idea of its existence, or you may have heard of it anecdotally, but haven’t made it a priority to visit it, like myself. I’m here to tell you, after my visit, you should make it a priority. It’s a profound experience that connects you with a culture that has battled unbelievable forces and has remained intact for thousands of years. In fact, Australian Aboriginal art and culture is the oldest continuous tradition on the planet. As of 2018, the oldest Indigenous Australian art is about 55,000 years old, located in a rock shelter in northern Australia. Yet, with such a long history, Aboriginal art has remained part of the contemporary art world, continually evolving and innovating in our modern society.
The influence of Aboriginal art may be seen in much of today’s contemporary art due to its ability to speak across borders without forsaking any of its distinctive identity. But you must come to it on its own terms. I believe the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia helps us with this connection.
The Kluge-Ruhe Collection receives its namesake from the two American men who collected the majority of the artwork. In 1997, John Kluge, after acquiring the collection of the late Edward Ruhe, donated the collection to the University of Virginia. The museum opened in its current location in 1999. The collection is vast and growing. Due to the limited space, the collection can exhibit only about 1.5% of the permanent collection at a given time, and many paintings are too large to display in the gallery space. The museum is located in an historic home that is maintained by the UVA Foundation, surrounded by a panoramic view of Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge Mountains. I couldn’t help notice there's a bit of tension between the 1930’s neo-colonial architecture and the Indigenous art on display. However, curators of the museum have made the space dedicated to the galleries quite comfortable, respectful and intimate.
Currently, you can view part 1 of the exhibit, “Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu (Past & Present Together): 50 Years of Papunya Tula Artists.” This is probably the most well-known art movement of the Aboriginal people of Australia, having thrust Aboriginal artists from Australia’s remote Central and Western Deserts into the international spotlight of contemporary art by 1971. The township of Papunya was founded in 1959 as a settlement for Aboriginal people who were relocated from their homelands. A diverse group of artists from various language groups expressed the conditions of their cultural and geographic displacement. Their work has come to define the contemporary experience of Indigenous people and refugees worldwide. In 1972, the artists banded together to form the Papunya Tula Artists company, which still operates today. "Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu (Past & Present Together)" will be exhibited over two years in two parts to explore the depth of both the beginning of the movement (Part I) and its contemporary momentum (Part 2).
Also currently on exhibit, and much different from the Papunya artists, is “Dub Leffler: Darkish,” a selection of watercolors made for illustrations in children’s literature and other related works. "Darkish" explores how Indigenous children are represented in children’s literature. The term “darkish” was used by the adoption agency to describe the artist himself as a child. The exhibit is powerful and does not shy away from controversial notions of displacement, loneliness as seen through the eyes of children. A virtual tour of the exhibit can be accessed here.
While you're visiting the museum, don’t forget to go outside to experience an exhibit created by students and faculty of UVA’s Department of Art and Contemplative Sciences Center. The exhibit “Breathe With Me: A Wandering Sculpture Trail” provides an opportunity for visitors of all ages to be outdoors and immerse themselves in the healing power of nature from a scenic hilltop location. The beautifully done trail, composed of various “sculpture stops,” is a direct response to the stress and isolation we are all experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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