Ancestral Modern. Diametrically opposed terms? Not so … at least not with respect to the exhibit of Australian Aboriginal Art at the Seattle Art Museum. A first-of-its-kind for the West Coast, it features more than 100 paintings, prints and sculptures.
I couldn’t believe my luck — getting a chance to see ancient cosmologies so beautifully expressed by these indigenous modernists. The artists represent the oldest continuous culture in the world. More than 50,000 years old! The works are part of the 600-plus collection of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, a Seattle couple who began acquiring Aboriginal artwork in 1994. The show runs through September 2, 2012.
Walking through gallery after gallery, I felt humbled somehow. How puny the foibles of our society seemed just then, considering the magnitude of tribal knowledge, mythologies and rituals shared over the centuries. Much of the work speaks to the deep reverence these people have for their land, spiritual traditions and the wisdom of tribal ancestors. As I say … humbling.
Style and media differ from piece to piece, but there seems to be a unifying graphic vocabulary, too. Some works are subtle, others exuberant. Some use symbols, others line, pattern and shape. The most compelling were those that present the equivalent of optical illusion, never letting my eyes settle, not for a single moment. Uncanny!
Like Bush Hen Dreaming, Sandhill Country (2004) by Abie Loy Kamerre, for instance. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, almost six feet square, the work’s curves seem to radiate with the unwavering movement of Earth! Tightly wrapped rows of vibrant hues depict memories of the bird’s movements as it searches for seeds and fruit in the channeled sandhills of Australia’s outback.
The sinuous linear rhythms are very similar to the swelling belly Palouse hills in north Idaho, where I’ve lived since 1991.The plethora of dots and dashes of other artworks might suggest to a physicist wave-particle theories. Which, as I think of it, seems appropriate, since so many pieces function on some level as allegory for cosmic origins.
An entrance sign provides a single clue as to why the title of a piece, like the tip of an iceberg, typically reveals so little: “What may look abstract is full of symbols and stories.” What an understatement! These visually powerful artworks are also conceptually elaborate—mostly ungraspable.
Normally, I like to respond to artwork straight up, relying on gut instinct without background information. But I was mesmerized by the video playing in the far gallery narrated by a curator of the Museum of New South Wales. As people came and left, I stayed, my back cramped against the wall for 90 minutes, to hear the artists speak of what inspires them. So very matter-of-factly, they talked about ordinary things like heat rising off the desert, the gnarled growth of yams underground.
I was struck by how reluctant they were to explain their aesthetic choices. It’s as though by keeping secrets they protect the sacred. Besides, how in 25 words or less—or for that matter 10,000 words or more—might their creation mythologies be conveyed to secularized Westerners, or those of Judeo-Christian faiths? Isn’t it possible the difficulty might be that gains in Western enlightenment came at the price of losing our powers of enchantment?
Photo credit: Seattle Art Museum