CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, part of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is the only museum in the United States devoted to showing the work of indigenous Australian artists. Located in a Colonial Revival house set on a hill, named Pantops (“all-seeing”) by early landowner Thomas Jefferson, the museum’s collection, numbering nearly 2,000 objects, focuses on work created since World War II, when the Australian desert artists rose to prominence on the world art stage.
As part of its mission, the Kluge-Ruhe mounts exhibitions of work by contemporary indigenous Australian artists. Its current show, Ngayulu Nguraku Ninti – The Country I Know: Barbara Moore and Sharon Adamson, features work by two painters, one established and one emerging, who have moved away from the well-known “Dreamtime” landscapes of patterned dots toward a new dynamic of gesture and expression that is nonetheless tied to place.
Barbara Moore, who lives in Amata, a community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia, uses broad, loose strokes of acrylic paint in her bold abstracts that carry the eye this way and that across the canvas. (Both she and Adamson use acrylic paints produced by Matisse, an Australian company.) The palette tends to be forthright, dominated by bright orange, pink, yellow, and green.
The colors are those Moore sees when she is in Amata, traveling across the APY Lands, or visiting her home in the Northern Territory. “Some people might think that the desert is only dry and sandy,” she notes in the exhibition catalogue, “but our desert is full of colors and life.” The green of trees, the pinks, purples, yellows, and white of flowers, and the red, white, and gray of sand and rocks inform her color choices.
All of Moore’s works carry the same title: “Ngayuku Ngura (My Country).” They are expressions of her memories of being in country. Yet Kluge-Ruhe curator Henry Skerritt explains, the paintings are “much more haptic — [Moore] is trying to use paint to capture the spirit of being in the desert, without trying to capture specific places.”
In one of the large (78-by-78-inch) pieces, dated 2013, more than 20 ringed circular shapes are spread across the left side of the picture plane while, on the right, a form that resembles the tail of a comet streaks between two glowing circles. The radiating concentric circles and lines refer in a general way to landscapes Moore is familiar with. “They are the rock holes and landmarks of my country,” she states in the catalogue. “We know our country. The places where the rock holes are. The tracks, the landmarks.”
Two other pieces by Moore in the show, both from 2016 and measuring 60 by 40 inches each, are more subdued in color and include gray tones. However, the paintings are no less animated in their delivery. Again, the rock hole images appear, with black centers, some of them linked by curving lines. The overall effect recalls some of Arthur Dove’s modernist “extractions.”
“When you live in a landscape that is entirely nomadic and everything is created from the ancestral realm,” notes Skerritt, “it’s a high metaphorical plane.” A tree is never just a tree, a water source is never just a water source, he says: “They’re all signs of ancestral action.”
Moore attended Yirara College, a boarding school in Alice Springs. She later moved north to her father’s country at Ti Tree where she worked as a preschool teacher. After relocating to Amata, she married, started a family, and worked in the local clinic as a nurse’s aide. She began painting in 2003 during her free time, becoming a member of Tjala Arts, a gathering place for painters. She has since won national recognition for her art. The exhibition at the Kluge-Ruhe is her first in America.
Fellow Tjala Arts member Sharon Adamson follows in the footsteps of her grandfather, the celebrated Australian artist Tiger Palpatja (ca. 1920-2012). Her three acrylic paintings in the show, each measuring 35½ by 25½ inches, are part of her ongoing series honoring his vision and telling his story of “Wanampi Tjukurrpa” (Water Snake Dreaming). Wanampi is an ancestral being, a snake that brings rain and fills the desert waterholes. In Adamson’s paintings, the serpent glides among clusters of waterholes in a rocky landscape.
Adamson starts a painting with her drawings, filling the canvas and then adding colors and layers. “Sometimes parts are more open, sometimes they’re all full up,” she states in the catalogue. “I like having lots of different shades and mixing them so each is slightly different. And I like bright colors, my great grandfather loved that too.”
Adamson notes how Moore’s paintings are “more open” than hers, adding, “but we both love the paint and how it sits up on the canvas.” The colors are warm, with yellows, blues and grays predominant, and the forms are organic, at times resembling chemical compounds. As with Moore’s paintings, Adamson creates a sense that we are looking at the land from above, the topography transformed by lively brushwork.
The installation is striking. The paintings are hung in the formal gallery spaces with their neoclassical moldings and alcoves, making for an unusual juxtaposition of styles. Several of Moore’s large canvases hang somewhat awkwardly beyond the edges of the recessed spaces. The Kluge-Ruhe Collection website mentions the space limitations of the 1934 heritage building and the fact that many of the paintings in the collection are too large to display in the galleries.
In early November, Moore and Adamson, accompanied by Annie McLoughlin, manager of Tjala Arts, did a two-week residency at the Kluge-Ruhe. During their visit the two artists painted a mural, also titled “Ngayulu Nguraku Ninti,” in the interior breezeway of the museum. Led by Moore, they created a lively, joyful and immersive space that conveys their connections to their homeland.
The mural, which covers two walls, features Moore’s signature elements: sweeping arcs of bright red and radiating circles, the paint laid on thick. The piece encompasses two doorways, reaching up and over the frames. Parts of the mural resemble bright constellations in a radiant sky.
This “intergenerational exhibition and project,” write the curators, “in many ways … articulates Aboriginal ways of teaching and learning that are such a large part of the success of Tjala artists.” Adamson, who started painting in high school, concurs: “It’s great watching [Barbara Moore] and the senior women, they are always helping and supporting us young ones and encourage us to keep going. We are always learning from them and sharing it with our children too.”
Ngayulu Nguraku Ninti – The Country I Know: Barbara Moore & Sharon Adamson continues at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia (400 Worrell Drive, Charlottesville, Virginia) through February 2.