Frist Art Museum Presents Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collect

June 23–October 15, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (May 2, 2017)—The Frist Art Museum presents Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection, an exhibition that explores the flourishing of indigenous Australian painting and sculpture that has occurred since the 1970s. On view in the Upper-Level Galleries from June 23 through October 15, 2017, the exhibition celebrates the artistic traditions of the oldest continuous culture on earth. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection, is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Seattle Art Museum.

For millennia, the indigenous peoples of Australia have painted on bodies, rocks and the ground as part of ceremonies. In recent decades, they have also been creating more portable, less ephemeral art on a variety of media to be shared with people outside their communities as a way of gaining recognition and respect for their laws and sacred beliefs. “The title of this exhibition, Ancestral Modern, refers to indigenous Australians’ reverence for their ancestors and their concept of time as an overlapping past, present, and future unity,” says Frist Art Museum Curator Trinita Kennedy. “The title also relates to the fact that the works on view were all made within the last fifty years, yet are part of an artistic practice that dates back at least fifty thousand years.”

Ancestral Modern comprises fifty artworks: paintings on bark strips, hollow logs, and canvases, plus a small selection of sculptures made of grass, stoneware, and wood. The works are infused with an intense respect for nature. Common subjects include emus, kangaroos, and other animals unique to Australia, and traditional Aboriginal dietary staples, such as bush plums and desert raisins. Much of Australia is arid, and the precious waterholes around which life revolves are another recurring theme.

In the late 1960s, decades of grassroots activism in Australia culminated in political changes that brought increased power and visibility to Aboriginal peoples. “The early 1970s 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 culture with the wider world,” says Kennedy.

Some of the artists featured in the exhibition are still living, and most grew up in indigenous communities with vibrant art centers that provide studio space, materials, and galleries for exhibiting and selling their work.

Ancestral Modern introduces a distinctive visual language in which graphic symbols and colors create multilayered meanings. The paintings and sculptures contain a wealth of cultural, ecological, and ritual information. Works by Rover Thomas and Emily Kam Kngwarray reveal profound knowledge of their natural surroundings and geography. “Increasingly Australian Aboriginal artists find themselves confronting environmental issues in their work, too” says Kennedy. “The sculptures of Yvonne Koolmatrie, for instance, demonstrate how intensive agricultural and pastoral activity have degraded Australia’s Murray River.”

Ancestral Modern is drawn entirely from the Kaplan & Levi Collection, built by husband and wife Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi over many years of travel and research in Australia. The Seattle-based couple made their first joint visit to Sydney in 1991 and now travel there annually to buy works directly from community-based art centers and dealers that represent them with the aim of assembling a museum-quality collection of Aboriginal art. Today, they possess one of the finest collections of its kind in the United States and raises awareness and appreciation of Australian Aboriginal art by sharing artworks with the public through exhibitions and donations to museums. All the works in the exhibition have either been given by the couple to the Seattle Art Museum or are promised gifts.

For its presentation of Ancestral Modern, the Frist Art Museum is developing a special app-based tour highlighting the Australian plants, animals, and geographic features commonly depicted in Aboriginal art. A kangaroo icon will alert visitors where in the exhibition to stop and learn more.

Exhibition Credit

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.

Public Programs

Friday, June 23   
Curator and Collector Conversation: Ancestral Modern Presented by Pam McClusky, curator of African and Oceanic art, Seattle Art Museum, and Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, collectors of the Australian Aboriginal art on view in the exhibition
Frist Art Museum Auditorium    
Free; first come, first seated   
From the world’s oldest living culture comes art that appears surprisingly modern. Vivid paintings and sculptures feature a unique visual language that evolved over centuries but was rarely collected until the 1970s, when a renaissance suddenly flourished, with new media allowing indigenous views to be shared around the world. What may appear abstract and graphic can be appreciated for its boldness, as well as its unusually deep associations. Join curator Pam McClusky in unveiling where in Australia these artworks at the Frist Art Museum may take you. You’ll be introduced to the artists and their subjects, which range from immense deserts and shimmering billabongs (oxbow lakes) to underground crops. Then listen to the insights of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, who focused on collecting Australian Aboriginal art in the early 1990s and have enhanced the recognition of this artistic movement in the United States on a national level.

Sponsor Acknowledgment

The Frist Art Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of our Picasso Circle members as exhibition patrons.

This exhibition is supported in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Connect with us!  #AncestralModernFrist Art Museum

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About the American Federation of Arts
The American Federation of Arts is the leader in traveling exhibitions internationally. A nonprofit organization founded in 1909, the AFA is dedicated to enriching the public’s experience and understanding of the visual arts through organizing and touring art exhibitions for presentation in museums around the world, publishing exhibition catalogues featuring important scholarly research, and developing educational programs. For more information visit

About the Frist Art Museum
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Frist Art Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art exhibition center dedicated to presenting and originating high-quality exhibitions with related educational programs and community outreach activities. Located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the Frist Art Museum offers the finest visual art from local, regional, national, and international sources in exhibitions that inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways. The Frist Art Museum’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features interactive stations relating to Frist Art Museum exhibitions. Information on accessibility can be found at Gallery admission is free for visitors 18 and younger and for members; $12 for adults; $9 for seniors and college students with ID; and $7 for active military. College students are admitted free Thursday and Friday evenings (with the exception of Frist Fridays), 5:00–9:00 p.m. Groups of 10 or more can receive discounts with advance reservations by calling 615.744.3247. The galleries, café, and gift shop are open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.; and Sundays, 1:00–5:30 p.m., with the café opening at noon. For additional information, call 615.244.3340 or visit

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