SAM celebrates the simple, yet complicated beauty of Australia’s Aboriginal art

SAM celebrates the simple, yet complicated beauty of Australia’s Aboriginal art
Courtesy of SAM

What might resemble the abstract pointillism of Western societies, Australia's Aboriginal art has a deeper meaning and significance that begs viewers to look beyond the painted surface. On May 30, the Seattle Art Museum will unveil Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan and Levi Collection, a collection generously donated by Seattle couple Bob Kaplan and Margaret Levi.

Organized by SAM and featuring more than 100 works created from 1970 to 2009, the exhibition includes paintings on canvas, ochres or bark, and sculptures on wood, fiber and bronze. The exhibit demonstrates an artistic renaissance of the world’s oldest living culture.

“This exhibit requires a very different approach when looking at it from a Western perspective,” said SAM Deputy Director Maryann Jordan. “It’s very exciting.”

Indigenous art has flourished in Australia since 1970, when a group of men in the central Australian Papunya settlement painted a mural on a government school building honoring the Tjala or “Honey Ant Ancestors.” Never before has the Tjala been depicted in art for outsiders.  This landmark painting was one of many that marked a change in Australian culture, as a wave of art production flourished across the continent.

Ancestral Modern immerses visitors in the richness and vibrancy of the Australia’s indigenous culture. The show progresses from East to West, which allows visitors to experience the variations in styles, color and texture among tribes across the continent. Although the paintings take on a simplistic nature, they actually depict significant symbols in Aboriginal culture, such as a mountain devil lizard, emu or a spiteful ancestor.

“They aren’t just creating art. These artists are showing the intrinsic link between people and the land,” said Wally Caruana, an Australian expert of Aboriginal history and art.

The exhibition will introduce several artists in depth, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, and John Mawurndjul. All selections are recent additions or promised gifts to the Seattle Art Museum collection and derived from Bob Kaplan and Margaret Levi, a Seattle-based couple who have developed the collection over the last 20 years.

This American debut is especially appropriate in Seattle. In 2007, SAM became the first general art museum in the country to feature a gallery devoted to Australian Aboriginal art. This exhibition and its accompanying publication will provide a deeper look at this new chapter of art history.

“These pictures are about landscape, country and the power of ancestral forces,” Caruana said. “The western world often views art as a decoration in their lives, but art in Aboriginal culture is an integral part of life.”