Visual Art

First Look: Ancestral Modern – Australian Aboriginal Art at Seattle Art Museum

Sneak a peek at modern art from the world’s oldest living culture.

By Laura Dannen May 31, 2012


Seattle Art Museum now boasts one of the country’s largest collections of Australian Aboriginal art—more than 100 vibrant, modern paintings from the world’s oldest living culture. In a way, the artwork comes to the city by accident. In 1985, while on a business trip to Australia, Seattle’s Margaret Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier car; she recovered and was awarded a settlement in 1992, which she and her husband Robert Kaplan—both art lovers—dedicated to acquiring a museum-worthy collection of indigenous paintings.

And let it be said: They have great taste. The Aboriginal artwork covers the walls (literally—these pieces are massive) with a wash of colors that seem to be squeezed from the earth: rich oranges, browns, greens, pinks, and yellows, covering everything from canvas to bark. Though the pieces are modern, created from 1970 to 2009, the artists use a centuries-old language of artistic expression to address contemporary issues. With the same pinpoint-perfect swirls and crosshatches used to paint rock walls or bodies during ceremonies, the artwork reflects recent Aboriginal history across the country, from the central and western deserts up into the Northern Territory. And it’s a complicated past.

About 230 years ago, when the Brits started colonizing Australia with boatloads of prisoners, there were some 600 Aboriginal dialects spoken. Sadly, Aboriginal clans have long been displaced from their home territory or forced to assimilate; children of "the stolen generation" were taken from their families and placed in the care of white foster families or missionaries. It wasn’t until 1967 that the country’s indigenous people were made citizens of Australia.

As a consequence, the 1970s mark the start of an "artistic renaissance of the world’s oldest living culture," says the curators, with newly empowered Aboriginal artists making art for the public rather than just for each other. In addition to addressing the difficult road from assimilation to reconciliation, their work also tells colorful creation stories. There’s the tale of the blue-tongued lizard man, of shape-shifters, of surly ancestors. Nature figures prominently, as well as the deferential relationship the indigenous have with the land. (They don’t own the land; the land owns them.) You’ll never see a painting about tubers that looked this good.

View the slideshow for a preview of the exhibit.

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan and Levi ­Collection
May 31–Sept 2, Seattle Art Museum
SAM Remix: June 1

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