Travelling on Interstate 64 through the heartland of Virginia, a sign appears: The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Exiting the highway, you arrive at a large white neo-Georgian house, surrounded by hedges, on the former estate of Thomas Jefferson. The museum, owned by the University of Virginia, is the only public collection in the US devoted to Australian Aboriginal art.
Entering the museum is like walking into a charming and affluent family home. There are Persian rugs and wing chairs in the foyer, which leads to cream wood-panelled rooms that serve as exhibition spaces. A pin-board with photos of recent events shows children making ‘silly dilly bags’ by weaving together coloured paper.
Margo Smith, the curator and director of the museum, is an attractive American woman with red-blonde hair and brown eyes. She talks very fast and is so knowledgeable it’s disconcerting. A cultural anthropologist by training, Margo teaches a course at the University of Virginia called Exploring Indigenous Australia. She recently returned from a trip with 15 undergraduates to Pitjantjatjara land. “We pulled up and the students were like, ‘We’re camping here?’ They thought we were going to an Aboriginal community, but there was sorry business and we couldn’t impose ourselves in the midst of that.”
Nonetheless, Pitjantjatjara people taught them some of their language; how to make fire; how to carry a dead kangaroo and then butcher it. The students ate the heart and the liver without complaint. “We want to drink the blood!” they chorused. They also stripped off – “It was optional whether they went the whole enchilada, but they all did” – and painted up to dance. “Can you imagine what I went through getting that cleared by the university?”
The museum’s current show is Yilpinji: Love, Magic and Ceremony, a series of prints by artists from Balgo, Yuendumu and Lajamanu that has been touring the US. The prints depict some of the great love stories that are the Dreaming stories of the Tanami Desert. They tell of forbidden love, obsessive love, doomed love, love of community, love of land.
On the walls of each room are quotes:
“I went to the Garden of Love, and saw what I had never seen …”
William Blake, 1794.
“Love must be light as a Flame.”
“Love me still, but know not why.”
“It’s fun to talk about love and how it’s conceived in different cultures,” Margo says. “The basics are the same, it’s part of being human, but the restrictions and parameters are differently conceptualised. We feel things in our heart: we have heartache, a broken heart, a full heart. Aboriginal people say when they fall in love with somebody it’s located in the throat, it’s ‘throat sitting’.”
We go downstairs to the basement where the Kluge-Ruhe collection is stored. Here seems to be the mother lode of Aboriginal art: around 1600 objects. There are burial poles, mimih figures, fish nets, a large canoe, bark paintings and stacks upon stacks of canvases. In a small room, Margo opens a drawer and shows me a love charm from Yirrkala. It is a beautiful carved bird, painted with a yellow beak and a black, white and red torso attached to a long piece of feathered string.
“It’s used when someone wants to make someone fall in love with them who isn’t returning their affection,” Margo says.
It occurs to me to steal it.
In 1988 billionaire John Kluge, a pioneer of mobile phones and cable television, saw Dreamings, an exhibition of Aboriginal art in New York, and started collecting with great energy. In 1993 he acquired the love charm as part of the large collection of Ed Ruhe, an American professor who had been a Fulbright Scholar in Adelaide. Ruhe amassed the bulk of his collection in the mid-1960s from a Darwin public servant, Geoffrey Spence, after the Northern Territory government and assorted Australian museums declined the purchase. It is now considered by some to be the best collection of Central Arnhem Land art in the world.
“This is an incredible piece,” Margo says, pulling out a carved rifle totem painted with fine white dots, dated 1961, that was apparently used to re-enact a massacre around Daly River in the Northern Territory.
In the room are countless other treasures. Browning price tags are still attached to many objects. The pieces were bought for $10 or $20.
Upstairs, a class on mapping from the University of Virginia is due to arrive, but the students are lost. Finally, they spill in. The class is made up of anthropology, fine arts and interior design students. They look like the casually dishevelled members of a rock band.
We stand around a map. “Okay, this is Australia, Central Australia, Yuendumu is here, Lajamanu is here, Balgo is here. And between them is the Tanami Desert.”
Below the map is a display case. A fur and hair-string pubic apron is on exhibit. “It’s not to hide anything, because if you’re walking around naked in the desert it’s not going to do much,” Margo says. “The stories say that when someone falls in love they make this apron or belt and in some of the stories it’s men making them, and in some it’s women. So they make the belt out of their hair and cover it in red ochre. It’s supposed to convey their love.”
We turn to an etching by Samson Martin Japaljarri of the Warlpiri group, Ngarlu Jukurrpa (Love Story Dreaming; 2003). It has a central core of red and strong black U-shaped lines. The label reads:
Ngarlu is a site south east of Yuendumu. The word Ngarlu means red rock. The dreaming site of this place tells of a man Lintyipilinti who was traveling west to another country for men’s ceremonial business. On his travels he saw a woman who was his mother-in-law, and therefore forbidden to him. He saw her urinating in the bush, and was so smitten he decided to woo her. While sitting at Yumurruluwanu he spun some wirrjtiji (hairstring) and sang a love song. He used magic to send a bird to the woman so when the two met at Ngarlu they made love and as a result of violating the taboo they were turned to stone.
“It’s really interesting what is considered a turn-on,” Margo says to me. “Often this male ancestor will see a woman squatting down to urinate and he’ll be like, ‘Wow, she’s a hottie!’”
The students seem unfazed.
Margo explains that it was not Lintyipilinti’s actual mother-in-law. In the desert, skin names draw everyone into familial relationships. People who are not genetically related to you become your mother, father, sister, brother, and so romantic relationships with them are illicit. “You can only have romantic relationships with people who are the right skin for you. They are the ideal partner for you, but they’re not necessarily the people you fall in love with. A lot of the Dreaming ancestors actually play this out in their stories.”
In the Yilpinji series there are other prints depicting stories of ancestral figures “looking for love in all the wrong places”. Abie Jangala represents, in a striking black-and-white etching, the Rainbow Men who fought with their older brother Lightning because they were pursuing young girls to whom they were inappropriately related.
Margo tells us that the information on the labels is “the shortened, public version, something that is okay to tell women and children. But for each of these stories there are other levels of interpretation that go much deeper.”
The students ask questions: “Can only men possess songlines?” “Did they paint bowls and stuff? Did they paint, like, other objects?”
Out the French doors are the rolling hills and wooden fences and poplars and dogwoods and holly trees of Jefferson country. Would Thomas Jefferson find it ironic that his architectural and agrarian expression of Enlightenment ideals now provides a home for Aboriginal art? Maybe not in the case of the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence; but for the Jefferson who owned hundreds of slaves it might be like hearing bongos in the drawing room of Monticello.
The teacher of the mapping class asks: “Why paint? Why draw the ancestral tracks?”
Margo is authoritative: she explains that although there is evidence of body painting and rock art from tens of thousands of years ago, this art movement came out of the desert in the 1970s. It shifted from men to women and became a source of income and a way of expressing knowledge.
“Are the artists seen as selling out?” one student asks.
“No. People are proud of the artists and the artists are big providers. The selling isn’t just about the money, although that is a big motivator. It’s also about teaching people outside their culture what’s important to them. There’s almost a kind of evangelism going on. They believe if we understood the way they understood, we would honour their relationship with the land, and we wouldn’t treat them the way they’ve been treated for so long.”
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