Accompanying an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum on view through Sept. 2, Ancestral Modern celebrates the gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi's collection to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). This marks the first substantial gift of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art pledged to a major US museum. A useful and beautiful addition to the literature on indigenous Australian art, the collection uniquely focuses on works produced in the last 15 years. The collectors' main interest is the art of the Central and Western Deserts, Kimberley and Arnhem Land—that is, limited to Western Australia and the Northern Territory, excluding the continent's rapidly colonized but artistically lively southeast region. Notwithstanding this specialization, Ancestral Modern depicts both the continued importance of cosmology to Aboriginal art, the introduction of more permanent mark-making techniques, and the growing empowerment of women in Aboriginal communities.
In his essay, "The Bridge: A Brief History of Modern Aboriginal Art," Caruna says of Aboriginal art: "To look at these paintings is like looking into a body of water: if you have the knowledge you can read the currents, tides, winds, and depth; if not, all you see is sunlight reflected off the surface—that is, the pure aesthetic effect." The result is art that is formally striking, if hermeneutically veiled. Old Woman Travels (1995) by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri consists largely of fine white and ochre stripes nested in a gentle curve. A complementary story features an episode in which the legendary Kutungka Napanangka, resting at a spring, is set upon by a group of boys whom she chases and kills. Suddenly the reductivist vocabulary appears considerably less serene.
The work is one of 50 that are reproduced full-page and annotated. Among the oldest is Nadulmi the Kangaroo (c. 1970) by Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurra, rendered in natural pigments on eucalyptus bark in the so-called "X-ray" style. The creature's solid white silhouette appears to be changing, section-by-section, breaking up into irregular patches of closely spaced parallel lines. The text explains that this graphical treatment indirectly refers to Nadulmi's ancestral status and prominence in initiation ceremonies; no guidance is required to appreciate the work's exquisite balance of muscularity and delicacy.
Enormous change was brought to Aboriginal art in 1971 by way of Geoffery Bardon, a law student-turned-art instructor who put acrylic paints in the hands of the elders of several clans that had been forcibly resettled at Papunya, near Alice Springs in the continent's midsection. The Western Desert art movement followed, propelled by the artists' new-found ability to give permanent form—in synthetic polymer paint—to an oral tradition of land ownership previously bolstered only by ephemeral works, such as sand drawings, which Australian governmental authorities had disregarded. On top of being archival, those new painted documents are often larger and more colorful than was ever possible using natural pigments and binders.
Among the latest in a series of successful land claim actions, in 1997 the Spinifex Men's Collaborative won their claim for repatriation of lands in the Great Victoria Desert using their paintings as evidence. The 17-man collaborative is represented in the book by the dazzling, 7-foot-tall painting Wati Kutiarra (Two Men Story), 2003, depicting an enormous pair of snakes wriggling companionably around a concentrically-ringed circle amid a spotted and striped field of dots. Those snakes, the reader is informed, are the protagonists of a revered initiation narrative centered on an ancestral rockhole, or desert-bound source of fresh water.
Art was traditionally limited to Aboriginal men, but recently a number of women have picked up brushes and assumed prominent positions in the field. Among them is Ningura Napurrula, whose husband was among the elders at Papunya who worked with Bardon. Napurrula began painting in 1996. Her 4-foot-square painting Wirrulnga (2006), which recall sand drawings, represents a creation narrative in which a pregnant ancestor is prepared for birth. Symbolic intimations of Outback midwifery such as ceremonial hair-string skirts and plump red desert raisins enclose her distended form. Of the recent changes in the ancient traditions of Aboriginal art, surely the addition of womens' perspectives is among the most significant.