Going the distance: ‘New Narratives’ depicts a progressive step in Aboriginal art

An artist from the Papunya community works on a painting that will be sent to Cicada Press through a partnership that is incorporating permanence into the legacy of Aboriginal art. Photo courtesy of Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. An artist from the Papunya community works on a painting that will be sent to Cicada Press through a partnership that is incorporating permanence into the legacy of Aboriginal art. Photo courtesy of Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection.

It’s all too frequent that I overhear someone mention that she’d “love to go to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, if only it wasn’t so far away.” To put this in perspective, the drive from downtown Charlottesville to the museum takes about 10 minutes. It’s roughly double that if you ride the public bus. Remember though: The Kluge-Ruhe is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the exhibition and study of Australian Aboriginal art.

This means that you could drive all the way to New York (seven hours) or Los Angeles (37 hours) and still not have access to the exhibits and educational opportunities that the short drive to the Kluge-Ruhe enables. Beginning this month, one of those offerings is an exhibit titled “New Narratives: Papunya Tjupi Prints with Cicada Press.” The exhibit features 14 prints that were created through an eight-year partnership between two Australian arts organizations, the Papunya Tjupi Art Center and Cicada Press, a printmaking studio.

Home to the art center, the Papunya community in Australia’s Northern Territory is notable as the birthplace of Western Desert art. This movement is best known for its iconic dot paintings and for bringing international attention to Aboriginal art in the 1970s and ’80s. Largely credited to a teacher in the Papunya settlement, Geoffrey Bardon, the movement began through his efforts to encourage indigenous artists to use acrylic paint, rather than a traditional medium like sand or body paint. Though he introduced this new medium, Bardon was careful to foster the unique Aboriginal style of visual expression rather than teaching other art techniques. Today, that respect for tradition is passed down to the next generation by the elder artists at Papunya Tjupi.

Of the more than 100 emerging artists working at the Papunya Tjupi Art Center, many are descendants of the original Western Desert artists. They continue in the artistic tradition as a way to preserve and depict their ancestral narratives, called dreamings. The patterns and iconography found in their paintings are traditional in Aboriginal culture, but paint provides a more permanent and transportable display, allowing for a broader audience and enduring archive.

After playing a significant role in establishing the Papunya Tjupi Art Center, Aboriginal art scholar Vivien Johnson reached out to Sydney’s Cicada Press in 2006 to propose a partnership built to once again bring a new medium to Aboriginal art. Years later, the partnership between Cicada Press and Papunya Tjupi Art Center continues to combine Aboriginal painting with printmaking.

“Much like any artist who is exposed to a new medium in which to express their content, there are challenges to face,” said Cicada Press Director Michael Kempson. “While etching is a medium with several centuries of tradition, it is in the eyes of this next generation of artists at Papunya a new medium.”

Another challenge is the 36-hour drive that separates the Papunya Tjupi Art Center and Cicada Press. This distance means the collaborative process takes time and happens infrequently, for now. Kempson hopes to establish a self-sustaining print workshop at the art center one day. Until then, artists are lucky if they get to work together in person once a year. When they do meet, a painter discusses her vision with a printmaker, who then attempts to translate that vision into a completed piece of work.

The “New Narratives” exhibit showcases these works and demonstrates how a new medium changes the technique of representation without altering the meaning. Visually, the effect of the multimedia work is invigorating. And like much of Aboriginal art, the pieces can be viewed in a strictly abstract sense or as a narrative.

“You can see some of the standard symbols associated with Western Desert painting, concentric circles, which represent places and, of course, dots which are a kind of conventional motif,” said Kluge-Ruhe Director Margo Smith. “Yet there is a feeling of experimentation in these works. The intaglio process adds considerable depth to the two-dimensional prints, the same way that layering of dots does in paintings from this area.”

Though Cicada Press was established in 2004 and has been working with Papunya Tjupi since 2006, its relationship with Charlottesville only began in 2013, through a group exhibit at the Kluge-Ruhe. “That was when I learned about Michael Kempson’s work with the artists from Papunya,” said Smith. “The Kluge-Ruhe Collection contains quite a lot of work from Papunya so we were interested to see new developments by these artists and their descendants.” Since then, Kempson has continued to strengthen his organization’s relationship with our city, curating the exhibit at the Kluge-Ruhe and collaborating on another print project with art students at UVA.

“Kluge-Ruhe is a very significant and highly respected museum in the eyes of Australians who have a commitment to Australian Aboriginal art,” said Kempson, making it clear that, even with a roughly 24-hour flight from Sydney, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is well worth the trip.

“New Narratives” will remain on display through mid-May. Michael Kempson will give an in-person talk about the exhibit on March 26.

How far would you travel for art? Tell us in the comments.

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