The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is one of my favorite places in Charlottesville. I like its serene setting on Pantops, the simplicity of the museum’s purpose, and the way the staff is either unobtrusive or delighted to see me and whichever of my little art-critics-in-training I may have along. I’ve enjoyed becoming more familiar with Aboriginal art and culture; it helps me atone for the summer I spent before college hostessing at the Outback Steakhouse. The current exhibition, Mount Liebig Photography Project 2004, helps focus attention on the realities of life in a small community 150 miles northwest of Alice Springs, Australia. Nineteen youths were armed with 35 millimeter disposable cameras to document life among these 285 people, who live in an area accessible only by an unpaved road.
Photographer Simon Davidson was dispatched to Amunturrngu to work on an art project that was devised as a petrol sniffling (to Americans, gasoline huffing) diversion program. Pictured is Patrick Collins Tjapaltjarri’s “Untitled 20.” 2004, courtesy of Watiyawanu artists of Amunturrngu and Peta Appleyard Gallery, Alice Springs.
Only a few of the c-type prints (which means these images are taken directly from negatives, not digitally altered or enriched) are landscapes; it’s in the images of the community residents that the show’s purpose is achieved. Amos Wheeler Tjapangardi’s two intimate photographs of people inhaling petrol neither glorify nor vilify the act, which is unsettling. In one image, a short boy-man gazes out at the photographer, wrapped in a dirty blanket printed with an image of a beluga whale. The can wrapped in his hands covers his mouth and nose as he breathes in the fumes. It’s night, and aside from the structure of the building’s porch, the setting is completely black. Next to this photograph, a group gathers in that same black setting to inhale from soda bottles and cans. In the right foreground, a man pulls away from a ragged glass bottle, his closed eyes and open mouth in a private release. A woman is engrossed in watching him while behind her a hand of a concealed person emerges and gestures threateningly.
There is no escaping the material poverty of Mount Liebig, where unemployment is about 90 percent, and Dianne Reid Nakamarra’s image of a young child at the kitchen sink, grinning for the camera in garishly colored clothes, underscores the ways in which modern conveniences are not necessarily improvements. As water runs from the faucet, two eggs and a bag of white sugar are all that’s visible on the stained and grimy shelves. Janastine Gorey Napangardi’s photo of a naked, sand-covered toddler on a dirty carpet with a stereo system and speakers behind him feels even more intrusive. It’s not necessarily the formal qualities”the soda bottle shining its bright orange contents in the dark room, the forthright gaze and chubby cheeks of the toddler”but rather the sociological conveyance that creates memorable discomfort.