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Street Art Meets Fine Art

Reko Rennie paints the walls of Kluge-Ruhe

Reko Rennie Tom Cogill

Artist Reko Rennie spray-painted the Berlin Wall and the streets of Melbourne, Shanghai and Paris before he came to Charlottesville. For two weeks in January, Rennie stenciled the inside walls of the rotating gallery at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection with an intricate and colorful diamond pattern punctuated with the image of a giant kangaroo that pops out in a vibrant shade of fuchsia. The exhibit, called “Patternation,” is a dizzying 360-degree experience that draws on urban street art and Australian Aboriginal art. “While painting, we had to open the windows in the room because of the paint fumes, and the snow was falling continually. It was cold, but that was pretty cool,” says Rennie, who lives in Melbourne. His visit was his first to the United States, and he had only seen snow a few times. “My daughter came with me, and it was the first time she had ever seen snow.”

Family and history are present throughout Rennie’s work, from its conception to execution. Hailing from the indigenous Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi group in Australia, Rennie uses the contemporary mediums of spray paint and paste-ups to address the experience of indigenous people. Rennie’s father is an artist and his grandmother was part of “The Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children who were removed from their families by the Australian government in the name of assimilation. While some of his work offers overt political commentary, much of it uses traditional iconography to break down stereotypes about Aboriginal people.

“Most people just have access to a particular style that is too often stereotyped as authentic, but it’s just one small aspect of the 300 language groups in indigenous Australia,” says Rennie. The graphic diamond pattern on the museum walls is one of eight male and female symbols that represent his Kamilaroi community.

Rennie embraces his connection to Aboriginal culture, which is complicated by the fact he grew up in a city instead of the Outback desert typically imagined by Western audiences.

Kluge-Ruhe Museum curator Margo Smith (Grad ’89, ’01) explains that Rennie’s fusion of old and new bolsters the mission of the museum. “A lot of what we teach people about Aboriginal art is confronting the ideas [audiences] come in here with—that it is only an ancient practice. But Aboriginal art is contemporary, sophisticated and urban,” she says.

During his time in Charlottesville, Rennie and his curators waged a “silent campaign” of public art, using urban guerilla tactics to decorate the city and Grounds with stickers of Rennie’s iconic kangaroo. A subculture approach to fine art was exactly Rennie’s intention. “It’s a real buzz to be able to share some imagery from my culture, imagery that’s so old, through such a contemporary medium,” he says.

And while Rennie’s stenciling will be painted over to make way for new artists, it will always exist between the layers of paint, itself a literal example of the intersection of past and present—just as Rennie’s artwork connects across time and culture.

Upcoming at Kluge-Ruhe

Custodians, 2005 Ricky Maynard

The Kluge-Ruhe rotating gallery hosts Tasmanian photographer Ricky Maynard’s exhibition, “Portrait of a Distant Land,” between April 15 and August 14. Maynard’s work documents the land and society of Aboriginal people from Tasmania and Cape York Peninsula.