Everything in Repetition: Ancestral Modern at SAM

The paintings of Ancestral Modern capture the explosive color of a fireworks display as well as the mesmerizing quality of a zen garden.  On loan from Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, this new exhibit at the Downtown SAM offers a trove of aboriginal pieces from Tasmania to the Northern Territory of Australia.

The exhibit is roughly organized into two main areas.  On one side, the paintings have kept to a more traditional medium.  They use natural pigments, such as dirt, ochre and resin, and are painted painstakingly onto flattened cuts of eucalyptus bark.  The gathering and preparing of such materials must’ve been a careful craft in itself, but what is painted is remarkably intricate and often dizzying to look at: spiraling patterns of water holes, rainbow serpents writhing, ancestral spirits dancing, tangled reeds of “silky pear.”

On the other side of the exhibit, the paintings use the modern, museum-friendly medium of synthetic paints on cloth canvases.  These paintings are often covered with galaxies of brightly colored dots.  If you’ve ever gotten the chance to look down a microscope at stained cells, you will find that same awe-inspiring repetition here.

Reading the plaques next to the paintings I expected them, at first, to have titles like Untitled #14 or Blue in C#, without any further explanation.  But in fact many of the paintings, though very abstract in style, were titled after very specific things, such as water holes, reeds, salt, possums, cats, the Milky Way, sand dunes, yams, crocodile skin, and bush hens. And every piece had a paragraph of information, explaining the sacred shapes and mythologies that they reference.  There were also several video documentaries on display that gave further insight to the history and process of aboriginal art.  I was pleasantly surprised at how educational the whole experience was.

Presenting indigenous art in an interesting way inside the sterile environment of a museum is often a difficult challenge.  Aboriginal Australian art, however, seems to translate very easily into the gallery space.  It is certainly an exhibit worth checking out, if not for the opportunity of learning about the world’s oldest continuous culture, then for the spectacular visual feast that is displayed.

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