Several weeks ago, as we often do, my husband and I decided to take a weekend drive, this time to our south. Before we left, we checked event listings for Charlottesville, a place we visit periodically and always enjoy. We found an item about an exhibition at Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. Always game for an art discovery, we agreed to make Kluge-Ruhe — until then unknown to us — our first stop in Charlottesville. I am delighted to say that we were well-rewarded. The only museum in the United States dedicated to exhibiting and studying Australian Aboriginal art, Kluge-Ruhe, located in a lovely area away from the university's main campus, is a gem. (For a separate post about Kluge-Ruhe, go here.)
On view through August 18 is a small but marvelous show, "Black Prints from Cicada Press"*. Part of the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales in Sydney, the press was established in 2004 by Michael Kempson, who is its director and head of printmaking. Educationally focused, Cicada Press promotes practical research into printmaking processes and practices and undertakes custom projects with local, regional, and international artistic communities. To date, according to its Website, Cicada Press has worked with approximately 100 artists to create nearly 1,000 editions. (Small numbers of prints are available to purchase; sales help generate income for future projects.)
The works in "Black Prints", most of which were created within the last two to three years, came out of workshops and residencies with contemporary indigenous artists who collaborated with Kempson and his students. It is Kluge-Ruhe's — and our — good fortune that the prints are in Virginia.
The prints on view are by artists Tess Allas, the show's curator; Graham 'Nudge' Blacklock, Gordon Hookey, Vernon Ah Kee, Roy Kennedy, Brett Nannup, Laurel Nannup, David Nolan, Frances Belle Parker, Reko Rennie, and Jason Wing. Some of the prints, all of which are beautifully made, are narrative-based; some relate stories of memory, identity and tradition; and some are wholly conceptual but uniquely Australian Aborignal.
Brett Nannup's Self-Portrait (2012), an etching, is striking. It stands out because self-portraits by Australian Aboriginal artists are not common and because of its intensity; it rivets the viewer's attention. In the excellent handout accompanying the show, Nannup writes in his Artist Statement, "In Self-Portrait, I have used a silhouette image of myself as an emerging printmaker with a commitment to the exploration, as an Aboriginal man, of who I am and where I belong." Indeed, Nannup's face emerges strongly from the center of the print, the aura darkening against the background representing (to me) multitudes of possibilities; fittingly, we do not yet see the man or the artist as fully realized.
Brett Nannup, Self-Portrait, 2012
1-Plate Etching, Aquatint and Stencilled Viscosity Roll on Velin Arches Paper
37.5 cm x 50 cm (Image Size), 50.5 cm x 62 cm (Paper Size)
© Brett Nannup
Courtesy of Michael Kempson/Cicada Press
PLEASE DO NOT COPY
PLEASE DO NOT COPY
Jason Wing takes on history with his Captain James Crook (2013). The attentive viewer cannot miss that "r" in the captain's name, nor its implications. Wing comments that it was Captain Cook who, in 1770 "sailed into Camay (Botany Bay). . . and promptly took 'possession' of the country on behalf of the Crown." The institution of a subsequent Intervention Policy, which exists still, caused hardships and left the the Aboriginal peoples "dispossessed of land, culture and family"; adds Wing, "nothing has changed in 224 years." Interestingly, Wing has mostly disguised Cook's face. I took this to show how we ignore what we find discomforting, and how history, especially the experience of colonialism, gets covered up and rewritten, becoming a false but acceptable narrative to those in power.
Perhaps the most conceptual of the prints is Vernon Ah Kee's let's be polite about aboriginal art (2012). A play on positioned text (and, by extension, position in society, politics, etc.), the image comprises five stacks of the same six words of the title against a black background; cleverly employed visually, the word "aboriginal", being the longest, exerts its claim to the space while bearing the burden of the words above it. Ah Kee, without need to elaborate, makes his point that in Australia, "Aboriginal art suffers under the weight of a kind of national politeness"; "a dearth of critique", he contends, leaves the art "mired in mediocrity". While the print is by no means mediocre in execution, its reductive image itself exemplifies Ah Kee's premise.
Reko Rennie, a gifted interdisciplinary artist who integrates in his stencil work Aboriginal symbols and animals and flora native to Australia, addresses similar concerns with his aquatint Big Red (2013), who "stands confidently upright, defiantly staking his claim to space, power, land and culture." Big Red — the image is a kangaroo, perhaps the quintessential symbol of Australia, centered in a background of repeated geometric patterns — is a witty appropriation, reminding us that the habitat of this long-survived animal, the deserts, is also the home to the indigenous peoples, who, despite institutionalized efforts that marginalize and destroy, have never been eliminated, and refuse to go away. Like Big Red (Australia's largest native mammal), the indigenous are survivors.
Tess Allas, in her metaphorical dogma (2011), a two-plate etching and aquatint, more subtly makes a political statement, in this case drawing on personal experience — a nun's response (a slap) to her failure, during Allas's first week of kindergarten, to "color in circles correctly" — to highlight, very broadly in Allas's words, "the mass control of a people by the systems installed, generating fear and conformity". Hers is a lovely print (the image is a color-filled sphere) that takes on darker meaning when viewed through the artist's own personal, cultural, and historical prism. That it was by the hands of a religious that Allas was cruelly treated adds one more nuanced layer of interpretation.
Another etching that held my attention is Graham 'Nudge' Blacklock's etching and aquatint Gunya 3 (2012). The title references a place of dwelling, or "humpy", in this particular instance, Blacklock explains, the Taree/Port Macquarie area of New South Wales that belongs to the Biripi mob (tribe); it's his "grandmother's country". The image, says Blacklock, "depicts all the humpies scattered across the vast land." Cast from above, his vision of that land uncontained, so to speak, Blacklock manages to impart to this viewer a sense of exuberance and hopefulness.
I am grateful for the Artists' Statements that accompany this exhibition. While the brochure is not necessary to appreciate the quality of the printmaking, the artists' own words help to inform viewer perspective on their approaches to subject matter. Going from a first view of the images and then to a reading of the artists' commentary impelled me to return for a second and third look at the prints. These are artists who understand how to speak through their art to reclaim the voices they do not or would not otherwise have. To paraphrase David Nolan, whose nostalgic and somewhat elegiac print is View from the Kitchen Window (2012), they force us to "stretch" our eyes so that we "in the outside world" can see the bigger picture that includes them.
My husband and I also had an opportunity to see the excellent "Past Forward > > Contemporary Aboriginal Art", which concludes July 21 at Kluge-Ruhe, and the stellar experimental beds series of three-plate etchings by indigenous artist Judy Watson that are being shown through July 31 at the Harrison Institute on the main University of Virginia campus. In the former show are several terrific paintings by Watson.
* The exhibition title, as the take-away brochure explains, is "a wordplay on the Australian childhood summer obsession of collecting cicada carcasses. 'Greengrocers' are the most common cicada and many of their carcasses can be traded for just one carcass of the rare and high prized 'Black Prince'."
All artist quotes come from the exhibition brochure.
Jason Wing was resident at Kluge-Ruhe in 2012. Information about his residency is here; also see this article. Reko Rennie, too, visited Kluge-Ruhe as an artist-in-residence. Information and a video about his work at the museum in 2011 is here. Judy Watson's Kluge-Ruhe residency is described here. Some work by Frances Belle Parker may be seen here. Also of interest is this video "Vernon Ah Kee Digital Story".