As we wandered through the galleries of Ancestral Modern at the Seattle Museum of Art last week, we encountered donors Margaret Levi and Bob Kaplan in one of the rooms. “It’s wonderful,” we told them. “If I had to choose two words to summarize my reactions, they would be surprise and delight.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had seen works from the Kaplan-Levi Collection before in other venues and was mightily impressed by the quality of their selections. They have an eye for the iconic and the quintessential. The large Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming) that was featured six years ago in Dreaming Their Way neatly epitomizes a late phase of Emily Kngwarreye’s development; Gloria Petyarre’s Leaves from 2002 is a four-meter long swirl of black and white and may be the finest example of the artist’s depiction of bush medicine, landscape, and echoes of ceremony that I have ever seen. Other paintings by the Petyarre sisters included in this show are breathtakingly superior instances of works so often reproduced that they ought to have lost their edge a long time ago. But despite the nearly endless variations on Mountain Devil Lizard Dreamings by Kathleen Petyarre that you may have seen over the past two decades, the examples in Ancestral Modern still have the power to take your breath away with their delicacy and their majesty (a pair of attributes that don’t usually sit comfortably together in a single work).
For all these reasons, it should be clear, though, why I was delighted by the exhibition. But there was more, and there was a degree of surprise involved there as well. A small room in the latter half of the circuit of galleries was given over to works by John Mawurndjul, four bark paintings and a lorrkon spanning the years 2002-2006 in their creation. This, for me, is the master painter’s peak period of creativity and innovation. There are traces of representation surviving in these works: suggestions of water lilies floating on the surface of billabongs, the graceful curve of a dilly bag contrasting with the strong verticals that provide structural support to the container. And yet at the same time they are among the most strikingly abstract of Mawurndjul’s works, full of glancing panes of light and shimmering variations on surface and depth. Perhaps it was seeing these five works assembled; perhaps it was at this moment in my wanderings that I encountered Bob and Margaret; certainly nothing else in the exhibition so neatly brought together the emotions of surprise and delight that thrilled through the entire space.
The subtle intelligence of the hang only enhances these feelings. The first galleries you enter, to the left, are filled with works by desert painters. For me, and for many enthusiasts, I suspect this recalls first exposures to Aboriginal art: I daresay that many of us were initially seduced by the formal brilliance and the spectacular colors of desert acrylics, and the initial galleries are replete with works from the earliest centers of activity: Pintupi masterpieces from Papunya Tula, day-glo Warlpiri interpretations out of Warlukurlangku Artists in Yuendumu, striking, sandy desert-toned compositions from Balgo’s Warlayirti Artists.
But even within these classic schools of desert paintings, the variety of styles is enormously satisfying to the connoisseur: this isn’t simply an exercise in overwhelming the neophyte with varieties of brilliance. A pair of works by Wimmitji Tjapangardi and Eubena Nampitjin demonstrate the aesthetic as well as the marital connection between these artists; the work by Eubena dates from 1995 and will be a revelation to those who only know her more floral designs of the 21st century. The pair of paintings by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri are relatively small works, subtle, lacking in flamboyance, yet utterly characteristic of his experiments with line (Old Woman Travels) and dots (Tjunginpa (Mouse) Dreaming).
Later developments in desert painting are equally well represented. There is a luscious green desert field painted by Maringka Baker hung next to riot of yellow and magenta, at once expansive and dense, by Eileen Yaritja Stevens. This pair of paintings fronts works from the Spinifex People and adjoins a vast swirling canvas by Warakurna’s Tommy Mitchell. The gallery they are in opens onto another one devoted to artists from the Kimberley, introduced by a depiction of the Kurtal story by Spider Snell. Kurtal is also the subject of a classic canvas by Jarinyanu David Downs. In both of these paintings the bold colors and desert dotting form striking contrasts to the translucent delicacy of rare works on canvas by Jangaroo Butcher Cherel on the one hand and on the other to the deep saturated ochres of Paddy Bedford and the stark black and white compositions of Lena Nyadbi.
At this point, about halfway through the set of galleries that comprise the exhibition, there is a turn away from desert country towards themes of water that, in one way or another, dominate the second half of the show. This shift is signaled in a small gallery dominated by the work of Torres Strait Islander Dennis Nona and centered on a magnificent bronze sculpture, Dadu Minaral–Turtle. The massive, weighty amphibian floats three or four feet off the ground, supported by four arabesques representing ceremonial initiation poles whose tracery seems almost incapable of bearing such a load, while at the same time suggesting the buoyancy of the beast in the water.
The next gallery is explicitly given over to representations of water and its thematic unity allows for an astonishing admixture of schools and styles. Yvonne Koolmatrie’s woven grass Eel Trap and Pondi (Murray River Cod) float in the middle of the space. They are surrounded by other aquatic manifestations that range from David Down’s depiction of the Whale Fish Vomiting Jonah to waterhole paintings by distinctly different desert masters Jacky Giles and Yukulti Napangati. The Top End is represented Galuma Maymuru and Waturr Gumana’s bark paintings of Yolngu waters. For one moment, you can stand in a single room and grasp something of the entire scope of Kaplan and Levi’s command of the diverse vernaculars of Aboriginal art and marvel at the unerring taste they demonstrate in drawing together the best examples of each.
The remainder of the galleries take us through the realms of Arnhem Land, moving generally from west to east, from the transpositions of rock art at Gunbarlanya through the outstations of surrounding the center and Maningrida, before depositing us on the shores of Blue Mud Bay on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The works from the western regions tend to be older examples, including two spectacular barks by Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, one from 1976 and the other from 1988. There is another early work by Dick Nguleingulei Murramurra who is (to my eyes) both the finest draftsman and the most lyrical painter to emerge from the Top End.
At the opposite extreme, geographically and temporally, are the recent masterpieces from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka: Djambawa Marawili’s epic stories of the crocodile ancestor Baru, Guny’bi Ganambarr’s startling and innovative incised invocation of Mundukul at Baraltja, the vortex of Djirrirra Wunungmurra’s Buyku, and the precise, gemlike miniature representation of Gumatj Clan Fire from 2010 by Rerrkirrwanga Mununggurr.
In the final gallery, a film by the young Ishmael Marika plays on the wall adjacent to a large sand sculpture that encloses a trio of larrakitj, mortuary poles that signal both an end and a beginning. And indeed, it is hard not to turn around at that point and begin the journey through the galleries yet another time. In the video clip below, Djamabawa Marawili leads visitors into the gallery to the beat of clapsticks, accompanied by filmmaker Marika and Jamie Wunungmurra. The yingapungapu sand sculpture is visible in the foreground, along with larrakitj by Guny’bi Ganambarr, Yanggarriny Wunungmurra, and Baluka Maymuru.
It’s impossible here to comment on every work in the show or every aspect of its presentation. Luckily the excellent catalog, published by Yale University Press, can and should be consulted to gain a fuller appreciation of Ancestral Modern. Every work in the exhibition is reproduced in full color. Fifty of them are given full-page illustrations with accompanying annotations by curators Pam McClusky and Wally Caruana, assisted by Stephen Gilchrist (now at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and formerly of the National Gallery of Victoria). The other seventy-five works are documented in an illustrated checklist that contains complete descriptive information about each.
The catalog’s three essays are indispensable guides, especially for the many people who will come to this exhibition to see Aboriginal art on such a scale for the first time. Wally Caruana’s contribution is entitled “A Brief History of Modern Aboriginal Art,” and that is exactly what it is. Starting with the roots of practice in rock painting, Caruana proceeds through the development of bark painting in Arnhem Land in response to anthropological and missionary incursions and continues through the politically inspired renaissance of the 1960s and beyond. He recapitulates the history of Papunya and the spread of acrylic painting through the deserts before recounting the story of Rover Thomas and the introduction of portable supports for ochre painting in the Kimberley. He concludes with a brief consideration of “Art in the Metropolis” (a lovely alternative to the contested description of “urban art”), represented in the exhibition by Nona, ceramicist Thancoupie, and photographer Ricky Maynard.
Pam McClusky’s essay, “Stop and Smell the Air in Blue Mud Bay,” is a somewhat more impressionistic chronicle of her own encounters with the art, the artists, and the country from which they come. She uses the device of reliving her own encounters with the art, her initial confusion and lack of context, and her growing appreciation of the subtleties and mysteries she sees in these works. She provides thoughtful reposes to the facts she gleans about the subject and the genesis of each work she approaches, neatly combining accurate documentation and description with personal appreciation. Her meditations provide an apt model for others who wish to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of the art.
Lisa Grazione Corrin tries to find another pathway by which Seattle museum-goers can approach these works by seeking parallels between the Aboriginal art and artists in the show with works by North American, European, and South Asian artists in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum. In doing so, she is both inventive and respectful. She is not content merely to seek out visual resonances, for example between Karin Davie’s swirling colors and Abie Loy Kemarre’s vortical patterns. Instead she probes for commonality of intent, seeking the possibility of shared meaning below the visual metaphors used to construct the surface of the work.
In twenty-five years I have seen my share of exhibitions and surveys of Aboriginal art, a few here in America and many more in Australia. Ancestral Modern easily stands with the finest of them both is terms of its scope and in the quality of the works selected. For American audiences, it may well be without compare. As important as the Asia Society’s installation of Dreamings was in 1988, there has been enormous growth and change in the contours of Aboriginal art since then. The Asia Society brought The Native Born to our shores fifteen years later: a superb show with a limited focus on a subset of art from Arnhem Land. Dreaming Their Way was impressive in its quality, but its focus entirely on women artists dictated the exclusion of many important artists. Ancestral Modern is the first major survey of Indigenous Australian art for Americans in far too long. The brilliance of the work contained in it, augmented by films shown onsite (including work from the Mulka Project in Yirrkala and Hetti Perkins’ Art + Soul), and the excellent catalog make this a landmark exhibition whose quality any Australian state gallery would be proud to match.