The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is unveiling a large painted rock, seven feet high by five and a half feet wide, on March 30 at the Millmont Art Storage facility. The rock has been in storage since it was given to U.Va. by John Kluge in 1997. It will be examined by Kaitlin LaGrasta (Class of 2015), a U.Va. student who is researching depictions of the Rainbow Serpent in artworks in the Kluge-Ruhe Collection for her Distinguished Majors Program in Anthropology. LaGrasta was an intern at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection in 2014 through the Institute for Public History Summer Internship program and took a class on “Australian Aboriginal Art and Culture” taught by Margo Smith, Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Collection.
Examining the rock is major undertaking, involving a team of professional art handlers, a conservator and a photographer supervised by Kluge-Ruhe Collections Manager and Registrar Nicole Wade. “Providing access to this particular work is problematic in that it weighs approximately one ton and is painted on both sides with natural ochres,” said Wade. “We’re fortunate that Kaitlin’s needs dovetailed so well with our own, giving her an opportunity to further her scholarly research, and providing us an opportunity to photograph, rehouse, and assess the work’s overall condition.” LaGrasta received a grant from U.Va. College Council to cover some of the costs of accessing the rock. The Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts also contributed support to this project.
LaGrasta said, “I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to Australia, but the resources provided by the Kluge-Ruhe Collection have allowed me to undertake this project. As an undergraduate student, I’m excited to have the opportunity to participate in original, independent research that not only will prepare me for my professional future, but also will add to the scholarly work on Aboriginal art and support its global appreciation.”
Kluge acquired the painted rock from CAZ Gallery in Los Angeles, where artists Bobby Barrdjarai Nganjmirra (1915–1992) and Thompson Yulidjirri (1930-2009) painted it in 1988. Nganjmirra and Yulidjirri were members of the Kunwinjku language group from the community of Gunbalanya in Western Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The Kluge-Ruhe Collection has many works on bark from this region depicting Rainbow Serpents, ancestral beings associated with the creation of other ancestors and sacred sites. LaGrasta’s research will augment the museum’s understanding and documentation of differing representations of Rainbow Serpents in its collection.
The rock, which has never been publically exhibited, will remain crated until the Kluge-Ruhe Collection has space to accommodate it. “This object is absolutely unique to U.Va.,” says Smith. “The artists came from a long tradition of rock art seen in amazing sites like Injalak Hill near Gunbalanya, but there is no other comparable example in any museum collection in the world.”