In Seattle for the Opening of Ancestral Modern

We’ve been in Seattle since Tuesday for the opening of Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art: The Kaplan & Levi Collection, and it has been a thrill a minute for the entire time.

Harvey Wagner arrives at Ancestral Modern in Seattle

First of all, the exhibition itself is stunning: beautiful works, selected with obvious care from two decades and more of collecting, hung and lit to showcase their majesty, their jewel-like qualities, their brilliance of form and color.  Curators Pam McClusky and Wally Caruana have done the collection and the collectors (Bob and Margaret) proud.  This show will be a major step forward in teaching American audiences about the profoundly contemporary nature of Indigenous art from Australia in addition to demonstrating the profundity of the art itself.  I’ll have more to say about the exhibition and its catalog in weeks to come, but time is short today, and I just want to offer a bit of the flavor of the week that we’ve had.

We missed the opening discussion on Tuesday about maritime law and land rights, but managed to arrive in time for an informal dinner at Bob and Margaret’s home for the out-of-towners, which included a sizable contingent from overseas.  (See the photos below for a small selection of the luminaries in attendance.)

On Wednesday evening we were invited to attend the Contributors Circles Opening Celebration.  Bob and Margaret spoke briefly after being introduced by the Hon. Kim Beazley, who is currently the Australian Ambassador to the United States.  Pam McClusky’s introductory lecture provided an introduction to the art for audiences who might have had only limited exposure prior to this show; she was amusing, insightful, and emotionally stirring by turn.  Following her remarks, Native American Joe Seymour led the crowd upstairs to the exhibition gallery, where he sang a welcome song that urged our hearts to be strong.  Then Djambawa Marawili led the processional into the galleries and around the large yingapungapu sand sculpture containing three larrakitj that he had constructed earlier in the day.

The opening panel at the Burning Issues symposium (l. to r): Tlinglit artists Preston Singletary, Brenda Croft, Djambawa Marawili, and Liyawaday Wirrpanda

On Thursday a day-long symposium entitled Burning Issues: Value and Comtemporary Australian Aboriginal Art featured twenty speakers from around the world discussing topics that included, the artist’s voice, cross-cultural aesthetics, value determination, and art criticism and the canon.  By the end of the day the audience was fully engaged, to the point where moderator Roger Benjamin had to call time-out to make sure we left the auditorium before five o’clock.  The discussions that were initiated there have, needless to say, continued in the days since.

On Friday the Seattle Art Museum, with Bob and Margaret’s expert assistance, led a large group of us through private collections of contemporary art, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Centre, the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park.  After seven hours of immersion in the city’s culture, we were shuttled back to Bob and Margaret’s home for a few more hours of conversation and art.  The braver, stronger souls went off to a DJ party at the Seattle Art Museum, where Brenda Croft and Chris McAuliffe offered commentary on their favorite works in the exhibition.   Others took off to take part in the Seattle Grunge Festival that seems to be in progress this weekend.  Others of us gave in to exhaustion and went back to hotels.

There’s one more event at the Museum this evening, and across the water, on Bainbridge Island, there will be a showing of films from Yirrkala prior to the opening of Barrku! Treasures from a Distant Land, sponsored by Harvey Art Projects at the Roby King Galleries.  I should be out investigating this wonderful city, but I’m saving my strength.

What follows is a selection of photographs, mostly taken at the Olympic Sculpture Part yesterday afternoon.  I realized to my chagrin that I haven’t captured a single portrait of our hosts the entire week!  But I had best get this posted now, or you won’t be hearing from me at all this weekend.  There will be plenty more reporting to come, so for now, let me close by thanking Bob and Margaret publicly, and recognizing the enormous contribution of the Seattle Art Museum and curators Pam McClusky and Wally Caruana to what has been an exhilarating and educational experience here on America’s west coast.  I can hardly wait to come back.

Note: In the original version of this post I neglected to give Wally Caruana the appropriate credit for his role with Pam McClusky in the selection of works and the installation decisions for Ancestral Modern.  Such a lapse would be embarrassing in any circumstance, but more so given that one of the highlights of the week for me was meeting Wally for the first time and spending several fabulous hours in his company.  His Aboriginal Art (Thames and Hudson, 1993) was one of the first books I read on the subject, and the catalog for The Painters of the Wagilag Sisters Story 1937-1997 (NGA, 1997) was the crucial text I followed when I first succumbed to the beauties of bark painting.  My apologies to all, especially Wally, for the oversight.

Gerald McMaster and Roger Benjamin

Frances Morphy, Stephen Gilchrist & Brenda Croft

Liyawaday Wirrpanda and Djambawa Marawili

Howard Morphy

Jamie Wunungmurra and Ishmael Marika

Stephen Gilchrist, Brenda Croft, and Will Stubbs

Margo Smith and Brendan Wall

Henry Skerritt



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2 Responses to In Seattle for the Opening of Ancestral Modern

  1. Robert Kaplan and Margaret levi says:

    Will, Thank you for the kind words. It was wonderful to have you and Harvey here to celebrate Aboriginal art in America. One note I have to make to your entry is that the exhibit was co-curated by Pam McClusky and Wally Caruana. See you in September at Dartmouth for the show of your generous contribution to the Hood Museum. Bob and Margaret

  2. Hi there,

    It is nice to see some people that I usually see in the NT having made the trip over there.
    Makes us down under feel less at the end of the world.

    Have a good day.

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