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A Passion for Australian Aboriginal Art

Story by
Nancy Joseph

While doing academic research in Australia in 1984, Margaret Levi saw a painting by an Australian Aboriginal artist in a colleague’s home. It made an impression. “I’d never seen anything like it,” recalls Levi, professor of political science and Jere L. Bacharach Professor of International Studies. Levi made her first purchase of Australian Aboriginal art soon after.

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Wilkinkarra, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, 2007. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Australian Aboriginal, Warlpiri people, Western Desert, Northern Territory, born ca. 1940, 78 3/4 x 120 1/16in. (200 x 305cm), Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

Levi and her husband, UW alumnus Robert Kaplan (BA, Political Science, 1966; JD, 1969), have since amassed a large collection of works by Australian Aboriginal artists. More than 100 are featured in the current Seattle Art Museum (SAM) exhibit, “Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection.” The works include paintings on canvas and bark, sculptures, and earthworks.

Growing up in a community of collectors, Levi had always envisioned building an art collection, but her modest salary as an academic made collecting a challenge. She was excited to learn that Australian Aboriginal art, just beginning to gain attention, was still affordable.

An accident in 1985 gave Levi’s collecting efforts a jump start. While crossing a street in Sydney, she was hit by a car. Her knee was shattered and needed rebuilding, leading to a settlement of “a goodly sum” in damages. When the settlement was finalized, she and Kaplan, by then married, decided to use most of the money to purchase Australian Aboriginal art.

“The minute they said I was getting the money, I literally jumped into a cab, went to a gallery, and committed to buying a piece that I’d been coveting,” recalls Levi. “It cost $5,000, which was a lot of money for Australian Aboriginal art in those days. That piece is worth more than ten times that now.“

Levi explains that while Australian Aboriginal people had been doing art for more than forty thousand years—on their bodies, on bark, on rock walls—they had been nomadic and had not painted on canvas and large barks. Their contemporary art, while based on traditional work, was new to the art world. Little had been written about it, beyond anthropological monographs that provided some clues to the iconography and materials used. When it came to assessing the quality of various works, Levi and Kaplan were on their own.

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Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi hold up a painting by Judy Watson in this 2002 photo from Yuendemu, Australia. The painting now hangs in their Seattle home..

“We had to look at the art, and a lot of it, to develop an understanding of the art form,” says Levi. Adds Kaplan, “We worked hard to develop our eyes. We went to Australia annually, went to see every show we could see.” Levi now spends a substantial part of the year in Australia through a half-time appointment at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

When collecting, Levi and Kaplan often travel to Australian Aboriginal communities, many in remote locations that require days and multiple forms of transportation to reach. For a visit to the site of a recent commission, the couple traveled from
Sydney to Perth to Kalgoorlie, a mining community, and then drove eight hours to the remote town of Tjuntjunjarra. From there it was another two to three hours on difficult roads to reach their final destination.

Despite the site visits, Levi and Kaplan rarely have in-depth conversations with artists. “There’s a language problem and there’s a cultural problem—a lot of shyness,” says Kaplan, who explains that more than 150 extant languages are spoken in Aboriginal Australia. But through conversations with the art center staff of various communities and by observing the artists creating the work, the couple has learned a great deal about Australian Aboriginal art.

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Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming, Kathleen Petyarr, 1996. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Australian Aboriginal, Anmatyerr people, Utopia, Central Desert, Northern Territory, born ca. 1940, 48 1/16 x 48 1/16in. (122 x 122cm). Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

Paintings that may appear to the uninitiated as random dots and squiggles are in fact rich with symbolism and complexity. Each work has “a public story, a community story, and a sacred story,” explains Kaplan. As an example, a painting
with two wavy lines snaking through it tells the origin myth, in which snake-like men walked through the country to create it, but the lines also represent tire tracks, recalling a tragic time in modern history when outsiders relocated Australian
Aboriginal communities after atomic bomb tests were conducted near their land.

Other artworks serve as custodial claims to land and water. Done collaboratively by large groups of men and women, with each person painting a section pertaining to his custodial ownership, these works involve singing to the canvas and sometimes passing the paintbrush. “The artists can document unbelievable knowledge [of the land] through their paintings,” says Levi. “And they are the only group in the world that does this kind of collaborative painting. It comes out of their tradition of doing earthworks. “

The Seattle Art Museum exhibition has both individual and collaborative works —including an earthwork--on display, cocurated by SAM’s Pam McClusky and Wally Caruana, a noted Australian Aboriginal Art specialist. Some works will be familiar to SAM visitors, since they are part of the museum’s permanent aboriginal art display. Levi and Kaplan have pledged all the artworks from the current exhibition to SAM.

“We hope that people enjoy the exhibit,” says Kaplan, “but we also hope that it garners critical attention for this art form. The art world really doesn’t know Australian Aboriginal art. We’d like to see it recognized as a major contemporary art form, deserving of attention.”