The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection on Saturday invited the Charlottesville community to examine its role in local, national and international dialogues about race through the expressive power of art.
The event was held in honor of National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week, an annual Australian celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. It featured artists’ exhibitions, a panel discussion, artistic workshops and group activities, such as painting the Aboriginal flag.
“This is what the museum is all about,” said Lauren Maupin, program coordinator of the Kluge-Ruhe. “It’s about amplifying the voices of those who have historically been silenced.”
Saturday’s event centered on the work of four artists and the ways they use art to comment on race and celebrate their individual identities.
The program was spearheaded by University of Virginia graduate Holly Zajur, an intern at the museum who received a grant from the university to put it together. UVa owns the collection in the Kluge-Ruhe, the only U.S. museum dedicated to the exhibition of indigenous Australian art.
Tony Albert, an Aboriginal artist from Queensland, Australia, who sat on the panel, has had his work exhibited at the Kluge-Ruhe all summer.
The other panelists were Madhavi Reddi, a 23-year old Indian-American photographer and filmmaker who grew up in Charlottesville; Frank Walker, who attended the Charlottesville public schools during segregation and is best known for his portraits; and Gerald Cournoyer, a Lakota painter who grew up on a reservation in South Dakota and has had his work displayed across the western U.S.
Albert’s installation, which features 26 photographs of young Aboriginal men bearing red targets on their chests, is a response to police brutality toward Aboriginal people.
“This work is about issues pertaining to Aboriginal peoples of Australia, but it is also about men of color internationally,” Albert said. “I hope people draw connections to the similar political state of being in the United States.”
Margo Smith, director of the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, moderated the panel discussion, during which artists remarked upon their use of art to educate the public about both the historical and contemporary experiences of their respective ethnic groups.
“I search for historical truth in my work,” Albert said. “The country I come from was never bought, sold or traded. It was invaded and stolen, but our education system teaches us that our country was discovered by white men.”
“Dealing with these issues will come with hurt and sadness from both sides, but it has to happen,” he continued. “Our country suffers with cultural amnesia, and the more our landscape contains signals of Aboriginal existence, the better.”
The artists from the United States also found art to be a vehicle to combat historical omissions.
“I remember going to Monticello for a school trip and we were never taken to the slave quarters,” Walker said. “We had to discover our own history.”
One of Walker’s more recent art shows featured black women wrapped in the American flag, representing their strength at the hands of oppression and exploitation.
“The work is to remind people that the exploitations of slavery happened under the American flag, long before the Confederate flag,” Walker said.
In addition to exposing historical truth, the artists said art is a powerful tool for capturing present-day realities, as well.
“I think we can agree that one of the goals of life is to understand our identity,” Reddi said. “I remember, in second grade at Venable Elementary, a classmate asked me if I was black or white, and I didn’t know what to say because I knew I was neither. My work seeks to represent the voices and confusion of Indian-Americans as we try to navigate two very different cultures.”
Cournoyer said he uses his art to break the “buckskin ceiling” regarding perceptions of the achievements possible for Native American artists.
“Most people who collect Indian art want paintings of Indians on horseback and in teepees,” Cournoyer said. “I want to go beyond that.”
“I don’t want to just break the ceiling, I want to knock the whole building down,” Albert added.
Ultimately, each of the artists expressed the hope that their work would help others understand the lived experiences of different ethnic groups and cause individuals to examine their own prejudices and assumptions.
“When you go into the arts store, there is a tube of paint that has its color labeled as ‘flesh,’” Walker said. “But surely, everybody here is the color of flesh. When we change the way we look at things, we change the things we’re looking at.”
Museum administrators are excited about the community’s participation in the event and hope that community engagement drives future programming.
“We hope people walk away from today having learned something,” Maupin said. “Whether it is about indigenous culture and art, the power of art to express identity and raise awareness about racial issues, or whether it is to learn something about who you are and how you identify yourself.”