At the Seattle Art Museum: Australian Aboriginal art

Jul 2, 2012

A new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum invites us to experience Australia like we never have before: through the eyes of Aboriginal artists whose culture is considered to be one of the oldest in the world.

More than 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs are featured in this first-of-its kind show on the West Coast. The exhibit is called "Ancestral Modern," a title that relates to the fact that Aboriginal culture is at least 50,000 years old but the artwork on display is no more than 40 years old.

Indigenous art has flourished since 1970 when Aboriginal artists decided they would no longer keep their work private. They would make it available to the wider public.

In 2007, SAM became the first general museum in the U.S. to feature a gallery devoted to Australian Aboriginal art. "Ancestral Modern" features art from the private collection of Seattle couple Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.  He's an attorney in private practice. She's a political science professor at the University of Washington and the University of Sydney.

While on a work trip in 1984, Levi saw a painting at a private home and was floored.

"I'd never seen anything like that. Nothing compositionally like that. Nothing constructed that way," she recalls.

She tracked down the artist; commissioned a painting; and the collecting in earnest began.

The couple have about 600 items. Those at SAM are recent additions or promised gifts from Kaplan and Levi.
The work on display is an explosion of color that looks abstract. But it's rich in meaning.

"It's relationship to country. Relationship to place," says Brenda Croft of the Gurindji/Mutpurra people. She's an artist, a curator and senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales.

She says the art shows an intimate connection to the land and seeing it in very different ways. So one artist captures the heat rising off the desert and another shows you how yams look as they grow underground.

"Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection" is at the Seattle Art Museum through Sept. 2.