In 2012 the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) had an unusual & original exhibition–Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection. This was its only venue.
As we wandered through, Ruth & I discussed whether or not it was blog worthy. Not that it wasn’t compelling, it was just that what’s on display is totally contemporary art and we had difficulty gauging the interest level of those likely to see it. We’ve been exposed to lots of Aboriginal art in Australia. When we first visited, it wasn’t exactly a focus in museums although art dealers seemed everywhere. Now it’s almost impossible to visit a museum that doesn’t prominently feature it.
But then 3 things happened. I asked a staff member how the show, which just opened May 31st, is doing and she told me that reaction has been amazing. Americans just aren’t all that familiar with Aboriginal art and are blown away by its in-your-face vividness. Secondly, we met a couple from Melbourne, Victoria, who said it was one of the finest shows about Aboriginal art they had ever seen, and, finally, I learned that many of the paintings on display are to be returned to SAM upon the deaths of the artists to become part of its permanent collection. SAM, I learned, opened an Aboriginal gallery in 2o07. So I went back through the entire display a 2nd time, appreciated the works even more, and took notes.
Like Ruth & me, Seattle-based Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi travel to Australia. Unlike Ruth and me, they’ve had the sense to collect outstanding Aboriginal art.
As SAM visitors wander through Ancestral Modern appreciating their great taste via 100 or so, mostly large pieces from several native groups and regions–Arnhem Land, the Gibson and Simpson Deserts, the Spinifex people–accompanying illustrations tell them about the artists and what to look for. For example, small circles can mean edible fungi. An arrow probably represents an emu.
It’s estimated that Australian Aboriginal groups have been around for 50,000 years making them “the oldest continuous culture on the planet,” according to SAM. The art might look random, but the opposite is the reality. Each streak and dot contributes to an overall design in a visual language that is eons old. Each work is rife with stories and symbols. Half of the artists on display are currently living in their native cultures and using synthetic polymer paints for their designs. But Levi & Kaplan have also bought many eucalyptus bark masterpieces created with natural pigments, and they’re on display too. It’s a genuine education in a very different culture for viewers who take the time to study and learn.
We watched part of Hetti Perkins 166 minute Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary called art & soul. Available on Amazon for almost $70, this special took Hetti and us to native communities to visit 6 artists.
SAM’s plan is to one day have the definitive Australian Aboriginal Art collection in North America and offer a permanent display of its acquisitions.