Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection (2017-2019)

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection introduces American audiences to the spectacular efflorescence of Indigenous Australian painting and sculpture that has occurred since the 1970s.

In the late 1960s, decades of grassroots activism culminated in political changes that brought increased power and visibility to Aboriginal people. The years that followed marked the start of an artistic renaissance, fueled both by the end of government policies that demanded assimilation into white society and by the growing desire of Aboriginal artists to share their ancient culture with the wider world. This exhibition, curated by Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Seattle Art Museum, will engage museum visitors throughout the United States with these arresting works and the intriguing stories they tell.

Ancestral Modern contains approximately 50 artworks, including paintings on bark strips, hollow logs, and canvases, in addition to a small selection of sculptures. In many cases, artists have translated motifs from traditional art forms, such as rock and body painting, to media that can be more easily shared with viewers around the world. Most of the works in this exhibition represent subjects related to the Dreaming, the supertemporal realm of the ancestors. Knowledge of particular Dreamings may be accessible only to certain individuals, kinship groups, or peoples; artists often adapt or encode existing symbols and motifs to arrive at representations that are appropriate for sharing with outside audiences.



Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN
June 23–October 15, 2017
Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
January 26–April 22, 2018
Blanton Museum of Art, UT, Austin, TX
June 3–September 9, 2018
Audain Art Museum, Whistler, BC, Canada
October 5, 2018–January 28, 2019

Number of works: 50
Minimum space required: 4,500–5,000 square feet
Venue Presentation Period: 12 weeks
Kirstin Purtich
212.988.7700 x 226


Two Australian and two American curators each contribute a distinct perspective on this collection of over one hundred artworks that span the Australian continent and the varying approaches to art pursued by diverse Aboriginal communities. Acrylic paintings from the desert, bark canvases from the north, and ochre-painted canvases from the west are joined by new uses of fiber, clay, and photography. Complementing the fully illustrated essays and catalogue entries are a visual glossary, which offers glimpses of the real-life creatures and landscapes that helped inspire the artworks, and a glossary of terms defining some of the essential concepts of Aboriginal culture. Ancestral Modern is dedicated to a vanguard effort by artists who are showing the world another way to experience not only their own country and worldviews but nature itself, wherever it is encountered.

Authors: Pamela McClusky, Wally Caruana, Lisa Graziose Corrin, Stephen Gilchrist
Publishers: Seattle Art Museum, Yale University Press (2012)
Dimensions: 11 ¼ x 10 ½ x 1 in.
Format: Hardcover, 176 pp
ISBN: 978-0300180039


Pamela McClusky is Curator of Art of Africa and Oceania at the Seattle Art Museum, where she helped to establish the African and Oceanic Art Department and the museum’s permanent galleries for African and Australian Aboriginal art.


This exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Seattle Art Museum.

It was made possible by the generosity of Mrs. Donald M. Cox, the Wolfensohn Family Foundation, and an anonymous donor.