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Sacred Warlpiri objects arrive in Central Australia for last stage of journey home from US

Seven objects that hold sacred significance for Warlpiri men have arrived in Central Australia on the last leg of their return to Yuendumu through the AIATSIS Return of Cultural heritage program from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.

The Kluge-Ruhe collection specialises in First Nations works sourced from Australia and it holds around such 2200 items in what is the most significant such collection outside of this country.

This return of seven objects to the Warlpiri community is the latest from the Kluge-Ruhe collection since AIATSIS formed a partnership with the museum to begin identifying the provenance of sacred objects it holds with a view to repatriating them. 

Warlpiri project men’s group at the South Australian Museum (left to right): Geoffrey Jagamara Mathews, Tommy Jangala Watson, Warren Purnpajardu Williams Japanangka, Barkey Jungarayi Wilson, Simon Japangarti Fisher, Karl Japaltjarri Hampton, Dione Jangala Kelly, Ned Jampitjinpa Hargraves, John Carty and Simon Japanangka Fisher Jnr.

Photo: Dr Iain G. Johnston, AIATSIS.

In mid-2020 AIATSIS began research of this sacred material to establish its provenance. The seven Warlpiri objects in the current return travelled initially to the South Australian Museum in Adelaide for storage pending final arrangements to receive them in Yuendumu. A delegation of Warlpiri men travelled to Adelaide in recent days to collect the objects and a private ceremony to mark the return of the material will occur once it arrives in the community. 

Senior Warlpiri men – Geoffrey Jagamara Mathews and Warren Purnpajardu Williams Japanangka, Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Warlpiri Project Men’s Group – said in a statement:

‘We stand strong and will take all our things back, not just in Australia but from overseas. All the objects overseas, if they belong to Warlpiri, they need to come back to our Country, where they come from.

‘We are glad to see this material come back to Australia from America, but we need more help for all our material to come back. We need help make a keeping place for all our material coming home. their final resting place is on Country.

‘We’re opening the gates for other tribes as well, to help people in other places to get their things back. Showing a way for other tribes.’

AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie acknowledged the partnership with Kluge-Ruhe Collection staff, who responded very positively to the AIATSIS Return of Cultural Heritage program. 

‘The primary aim of the program is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodians to make decisions about their culture heritage,’ Mr Ritchie said. 

‘We aim to influence the development of changes to institutional repatriation practices, policy, and guidelines and to foster relationships between collecting institutions abroad and Indigenous communities in this country.

‘We facilitate the return of materials – whether tools, audio-visual items, artwork, documentary cultural heritage material – from collections held overseas by museums, universities, governments, and private holders. The program recognises Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over our cultural heritage material – to determine what material is significant – and determine what material should come home. 

‘Discussions with staff at Kluge-Ruhe is ongoing regarding material from the other Central Australian language groups. We are impressed with the commitment shown by the staff at the museum to giving priority to the wishes of the communities from which those materials were sourced.’ 

AIATSIS would like to acknowledge Jamie Jungarrayi Hampton and Professor John Carty of the South Australian Museum for their support and care of the material before it was returned home.

The Kluge-Ruhe Collection receives its name from the two American men who collected most of the objects in its holdings. Some 1600 of the paintings, ornaments, weapons, tools, and other items were acquired by US media mogul and philanthropist John W. Kluge. He was an enthusiast for Australian Indigenous art himself, but he also purchased objects from academic Edward Ruhe who had collected them during field work in Australia in the 1960s. This is the only museum outside of Australia dedicated to the exhibition and study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

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Warlpiri men’s group with their cultural heritage material at the Alice Springs airport (left to right): Karl Japaltjarri Hampton, Tommy Jangala Watson, Geoffrey Jagamara Mathews and Warren Purnpajardu Williams Japanangka. Photo: Shaun Angeles Penangke, AIATSIS.


Last updated: 16 August 2022