After an extensive renovation, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection has unveiled two new exhibitions in its redesigned galleries. “Art and Country,” on view for the next year, provides a crystallization of Aboriginal art through the framing of basic questions. The exhibition’s design will remain while the work will be rotated out yearly so that treasures from the permanent collection can each have their moment in the spotlight. “We want visitors who come to Kluge-Ruhe to walk away with some definite knowledge,” said director Margo Smith. “We were concerned that before this redesign, some very basic questions were still unanswered when visitors left. So we decided to boil things down to a couple of really simple ones: What is Aboriginal Art about? What is the Dreaming?”
The latter, a difficult concept for the uninitiated to grasp, is explained by Smith. “The Dreaming is the accumulated knowledge a group has about the ancestral past, present, and future and how it intersects with human activity,” she said. “It is learned and sometimes, new information is revealed in dreams, but otherwise is unrelated to dream states. Life and death are intertwined with the Dreaming. It is kind of the underlying true nature of the universe. One man told me if he took off all of his clothes and walked into the desert, he would walk into the Dreaming—thus it is distinct from everyday life but exists alongside it.”
The Dreaming is the overarching theme of the majority of the work in the Kluge-Ruhe collection coming as it does from more remote communities. While the artwork is contemporary, it draws on long-standing ideas and traditions that are an integral part of various Aboriginal cultures. Not all Aboriginal art deals with the Dreaming, but “country” and people’s relationship to it (a vital aspect of the Dreaming) informs it all. And it’s not just the land; country for Aboriginal peoples includes the sky, water, and air. For its indigenous people, Australia is comprised of many countries with distinct cultural groups and traditions and identification with one’s country is profound, extending even to those descendants from urban areas.
“We are Tiwi,” a loaned exhibition, focuses on the artistic tradition of the inhabitants of the Melville and Bathurst islands off the coast north of Darwin. Their traditions focus on two ceremonies: the Pukumani, which relates to death, and the Kulama, which centers on fertility and male initiation.
The Pukumani mortuary rituals are based on a story about Tiwi’s original ancestors, which Smith describes as “a tale involving adultery and the origination of death among humans. When the ancestor Purukapali went hunting, his wife left their son in the shade of a tree and met his brother for a tryst. The sun shifted and the baby died from exposure. The wife’s lover, who was the moon man, offered to bring the baby back to life after three days but Purukapali refused, and walked into the sea with the body of his son.
In the Tiwi culture, huge Pukumani poles depicting the narrative about the Dreaming ancestors, interspersed with geometric motifs, are erected around grave sites. These continue to be used today even though many of the inhabitants have converted to Christianity. There are no poles on exhibit, but one can spot the paintings that derive from this tradition by their rectilinear quality.
A traditional part of image making for Tiwi and something that has been reincorporated into art is the use of a comb called the Pwoja that is carved from ironwood and used with traditional ochre pigments taken from the earth that are mixed with a fixative.
Looking at the work, one is struck by how it’s almost a surrogate for “country,” composed as it is from the very terrain. Together with the wood comb, the natural ochre pigments taken from the cliffs make potent reference to the living landscape.
Artists use the comb to make a line of dots creating a really beautiful effect. For instance, looking at the work of Pedro Wonaeamirri, a master of the technique, you can see how he has applied the pwoja with different impressions and different amounts of pigment creating a wonderful rippling line. While his are elegant, restrained works, Sandra Puruntatameri really goes to town with the pwoja on “Jilamara Design” creating a bona fide piece of Aboriginal Op Art.
At the other end of the spectrum, Kulama’s three days and nights of body painting, held when wild yams ripen just after the rainy season, celebrates life. This is a joyful time and the works are more exuberant and less circumspect than the Pukumani pieces. Conrad Tipungwuti’s “Kulama Ceremony” seems as if it’s going to burst forth from the canvas, and Susan Wanji Wanji’s “Kulama Design,” though more restrained, is dramatic in its complexity.
It’s fascinating to learn the story behind the works and see them. They present a point of view so different from our own and yet they reach out and draw us in. If you can’t get there during the day, Kluge-Ruhe hosts “Night at the Museum” on their lawn (which boasts one of the best views in town) on the third Thursday of the month. There’s a live band, food truck rally, and craft beer. And the museum is open.