When you roam the galleries of a modern art museum, there tends to be a whisper travelling through the visitors. There they are, staring at a piece like Cy Twombly’s scribbled “Olympia” or some of Picasso’s heavily brush-stroked self-portraits, and they make the remark — “I could’ve done that.” British artist Susie Hodges wrote an entire book defending modern art from detracting statements such as this, titled “Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That.” It’s a natural part of the human condition to assume you know everything, but the curators of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection’s current exhibit, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” take the opposite approach.
“In the traditional art of curators, the curator is the master of the exhibit,” said College graduate Addie Patrick, who co-curated the exhibit alongside College graduate Ashley Botkin and Henry Skerritt, the Curator of Indigenous Arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe. “But, in no way were Ashley, Henry or I the custodians of this knowledge in any of the exhibits that we did. We always had to defer to the aboriginal artists.”
This act of stepping back was at the heart of the “From Little Things Big Things Grow” curatorial talk on Sept. 24, which began with an acknowledgement that the museum stands on Monacan land. The talk was moderated by Fenella Belle, Museum Educator at the Kluge-Ruhe and focused on the combined efforts of Patrick, Botkin and Skerritt in presenting aboriginal Australian art in a modern context. The Kluge-Ruhe is the only museum dedicated to Indigenous Australian art outside of Australia, and as such demands a different kind of viewership.
“There’s certain things about aboriginal art that we as non-aboriginal people will never know,” Botkin said. “It’s not like you can just open a book and learn about cubism, or something like that, some kind of Western art movement. You really have to dive in deep.”
Entering an exhibit knowing that you simply will not be able to fully comprehend the art is unfamiliar territory for many audiences, but that element is precisely what makes this show so refreshing. Walking through the galleries is a profound experience, made more resonant by the silence, as each tour is private due to COVID-19. The curatorial talk made this experience virtual, describing each of the three galleries through a slideshow. First, Botkin and Patrick described their curation process, showing photos of a miniature 3-D model of the museum. The two originally planned to further explore the intersections of Indigenous history, art and gender. One room would be dedicated to female artists, one to male and one to their shared contributions. The process played out a little differently, however, given limitations in funding and ability to preserve more delicate pieces. The art was in control.
The result of this yielding to the art is an exhibition that intertwines politics, ancestral history and artwork. The major theme of the show is land rights — specifically how Western concepts of land ownership clash with the ancestral connections Indigenous people have to the land and to each other. The show shares a title with a protest song by Australian musician Paul Kelly, which tells the story of aboriginal activist Vincent Lingiari, who led an eight-year-long strike that led to the return of some ancestral lands to aboriginal people. The refrain of the song, the titular “from little things big things grow,” seems to refer to the way individual actions sparked a movement, but applied to the exhibit, the phrase emphasizes the way each piece of art and each artist communicates with the ancestral landscape.
This draws out an intersection of art and politics. The two are often pitted against each other as opposite ends of the spectrum, but Skerritt sees the two as intrinsically connected, describing them as “two strands, like a DNA helix kind of circling around each other.”
This is particularly present in one of the first pieces seen upon entrance to the exhibit, a bark painting by John Mawurndjul titled “Drought in Dilebang.” From afar — and from a Western perspective — the piece simply looks like an abstract geometric painting done in earth tones. The truth of the work is far more intricate. Dilebang is a place that belongs to the Kurulk people, whose myth paints the land as a sacred burial site for deceased ancestors. According to the Kurulk mythology, the ancestral people were turned to dust and rocks, literally ingrained into Dilebang.
“In the work itself, you can see the faces of the ancestors as they make up the land” said Patrick. “Stepping back, we have this idea again of Indigenous knowledge of something that is separate from Western knowledge of land but which is used in order to prove and counteract the Western knowledge.”
Another piece in the first entryway to the exhibit is “Jack Kelly’s Rockhole” by Queenie McKenzie, one of the most prominent female Indigenous artists. The thick, textured layers of the piece depict two mountainous boulders, joined by a valley. The story goes that thousands of years ago, a husband and wife died in the spot where the rocks formed. Their tears formed an everlasting waterfall between the rocks. The site is more infamously known as the site of a horrific massacre of aboriginal men, women and children by white cattleman Jack Kelly. McKenzie painted “Jack Kelly’s Rockhole” with natural pigments, likely ground from the rocks taken from the Indigenous land she lived on. This is very literally a piece that would not exist without personal ancestral connections.
The next room — affectionately dubbed “The Yellow Room” by Patrick and Botkin — is focused around the blending of traditional technique with the modernist art genre. The centerpiece of the room is a large glass-blown bowl by Jenni Kemarre Martiniello, titled “Yellow Rushes Fish Basket #2.” The piece is meant to be a modern take on traditional basket weaving, an art form passed through generations of aboriginal Australian women.
“This is one of my favorite pieces in the whole collection,” said Botkin. “One of the things I love about Jenni is that she involves in her work something that she calls Grandmother’s Law. She grew up watching women in her family weave baskets. It’s really a collaborative work. You’re not sitting there weaving by yourself, you’re weaving with other women. In the same way, glass blowing is also very collaborative. It’s almost impossible to glass-blow by yourself.”
This collaboration between women is central in the third gallery, which features only work by women artists. There is a series of paintings by sisters Angeline, Polly and Kathleen Ngal adorning one wall, three large canvases that all represent anwekety, a wild plum plant. The plant holds a lot of physical and spiritual significance for aboriginal women, who not only harvest the actual fruit, but also celebrate the plant in their transitional ceremonies. The paintings by the Ngal sisters emphasize women’s connection to the ancestral landscape.
The undeniable centerpiece of the gallery, however, is the 2013 “Nganampa Ngura, Our Country” painting. 13 women artists worked on the massive piece, all at once. The end result is a magnificent amalgam of vivid pink and orange swirls that are interwoven, carrying the eye around in an endless loop.
“If you look at it all as one thing, you may not guess that it’s by 13 artists,” Botkin said. “In terms of depictions, it looks very abstract but it references the ‘Dreaming.’ It is kind of referred to as … something that has happened in the past, will happen in the future, is happening now. And powerful ancestors, when they were creating all things during the Dreaming, would walk across the Earth and create different features … and their trips when they were creating these things were called songlines. These women, part of what they are depicting is their songlines and the way that these 13 women are all connected together. You really get that sense from the painting, the way everything is coming into each other, everything flows into each other.”
In a time characterized by distance, Patrick and Botkin made this curatorial talk a connected experience. The two made sure to use the privilege of museum curation to elevate the work and culture of aboriginal artists over the colonizing systems that suppress them. By choosing pieces that blend the personal and the political, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” paints a holistic image of the Indigenous Australian experience that has the capability to turn the art world on its head.