Seattle Art Museum now boasts one of the country’s largest collections of Australian Aboriginal art—more than 100 vibrant, modern paintings from the world’s oldest living culture. In a way, the artwork comes to the city by accident. In 1985, while on a business trip to Australia, Seattle’s Margaret Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier car; she recovered and was awarded a settlement in 1992, which she and her husband Robert Kaplan—both art lovers—dedicated to acquiring a museum-worthy collection of indigenous paintings.
And let it be said: They have great taste. The Aboriginal artwork covers the walls (literally—these pieces are massive) with a wash of colors that seem to be squeezed from the earth: rich oranges, browns, greens, pinks, and yellows, covering everything from canvas to bark. Though the pieces are modern, created from 1970 to 2009, the artists use a centuries-old language of artistic expression to address contemporary issues. With the same pinpoint-perfect swirls and crosshatches used to paint rock walls or bodies during ceremonies, the artwork reflects recent Aboriginal history across the country, from the central and western deserts up into the Northern Territory. And it’s a complicated past.