Seattle Art Museum presents Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection, on view May 31–September 2, 2012. With more than 100 works created from 1970 through 2009, the exhibition showcases what has been called the artistic renaissance of the world’s oldest living culture.
BURNING ISSUES: Value and Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art
MAY 31, 2012 | Symposium transcript available for download now → (PDF)
Modern-day Aboriginal Australians are the direct descendants of the first people who arrived in Australia as early as 50,000 years ago. The Indigenous Australians revere the land, and their understanding of land and water is the living cultural knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation. The connectedness extends from the past, and shapes both present and future.
The Kaplan & Levi Collection comprises art from Arnhem and the northern regions, the vast desert areas of central and western Australia, the Kimberley, the southeast, and the Torres Strait.
The Dreaming encompasses the cosmologies and belief systems of Aboriginal societies, and it also provides the great themes of their art. Even though there is no word for art in Aboriginal languages, visual literacy is an essential means of transferring knowledge over generations. Thus, from an early age everyone learns to draw and paint or weave, and although not all become practicing artists, each person is equipped to interpret the signs and symbols that appear in various forms of art. Aboriginal art is essentially spiritual in nature. Traditionally, it is produced in greatest volume on ceremonial occasions, but it can also serve the purposes of teaching, magic, and sorcery (whether to assure a successful hunt or to attract a wife or husband). And it can be made purely for pleasure.
When the British began settling the continent some 230 years ago, Aboriginal people were regarded as among the most miserable societies, possessing little in the way of culture. Without framed paintings or sculptures on pedestals (the Euro-pean archetypes of art), they were considered a people with no art at all. In fact, because most Aboriginal art was being made for the restricted context of ceremony, it was intentionally hidden from public view. During the last one hundred years, Aboriginal artists have chosen to change that. While they continue to make art for ceremonies that are part of the longest continuing tradition of art known to humanity, they now also create art that is disseminated to an international audience.
Welcome to visions of the long haul and big picture of our existence on Earth. Finally, after over 50,000 years of making art, we are able to see what the oldest continuous culture on the planet has in mind. Isn’t it about time? This art takes us into immense deserts and shimmering billabongs, into night skies and underground.
It is an aesthetic pleasure unlike any other. Utilizing contemporary mediums, these artists adapt visual languages that evolved over centuries. What may look abstract is full of symbols and stories that take on common human dilemmas—greed, desire, the search for nourishment, and punishment of deceit. Most often, this art offers veneration of the lands that are in their care and the founding ancestors who continue to provide direction.
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