Margaret Levi ‘68 and husband bring the work of Aboriginal artists to the American public.
By Alicia Bessette
Bush Hen Dreaming—Sand-hill Country is a swirling vortex of color by artist Abie Loy. Its stripes meet unevenly in the middle, suggesting a rift or a coming together. The synthetic polymer on linen painting is part of the collection of Aboriginal art—lush, colorful, and symbolic—amassed by Margaret Levi and her spouse, Robert Kaplan. The couple has traveled to Australia yearly since 1991 to meet artists and commission and buy art work. Their collection is a world-renowned resource. Art and Antiques magazine listed Levi and Kaplan among the nation’s top 100 collectors, and Art Auction featured them in a recent issue.
Besides Loy, the collection includes pieces by celebrated figures in the movement, such as Kathleen Petyarre (Loy’s grandmother), Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, Dorothy Napangardi, and John Mawurndjul. In all, the numerous paintings and sculptures represent more than 200 artists. They belong to what critic Robert Hughes called the last great art movement of the 20th century.
Wati Tjuta by Spinifex Men’s Collaborate, reproduced with the permission of the artists and the Spinifex Art Project.
Aboriginal art is extraordinary, Levi says, unparalleled in its history and possessing exquisite beauty. “The first time I saw it, I realized I had never seen anything else quite like it,” she says. What Aborigines traditionally paint on skin, rocks, or bark, now appears on canvas or linen: abstract images of rocks, hills, paths, or leaves, riotous with color and motion. It is fine art from an oral culture, one of complex and ancient rituals involving dance and song. Often, the art tells stories and maps sacred or familiar places. The Aborigines refer to ancestral creation as the Dreaming. “On one hand it means the period of creation, when animals, people, and places began: their origins,” Kaplan explains. “It’s also the time when the laws were created, laws that govern people and societies, so the Dreaming is tied in as well with spiritual practice.”
The art is enriched by an understanding of the culture that produces it, and this is what she wants to emphasize to American museum-goers. The stories, the geography on which the work is based, and certainly the individuals who produce it, and their groups, their communities, knowledge of all these things, Levi says, leads to a more profound experience of the art.
The Aborigines’ collaborative approach is unlike any other in the history of art. Levi’s collection includes a painting, Wati Tjuta, created by 17 men who belong to the Spinifix People. They won a land claim in the Australian courts in 1999 after documenting, in paintings, their ownership of the land, which had been the site of British bomb testing in the 1950s.
The Aborigines have a tragic history of displacement. Literally, “aborigines” means “people who were here from the beginning.” They are the original inhabitants of their continent, hunters and gatherers who lived according to their Dreaming beliefs.
British colonization began in 1788, and within a century the Aborigines had suffered massive depopulation as a result of disease or massacre. By the 1940s, most Aborigines became missionized, assimilated into white Australian society as low-paid laborers with limited rights. Routinely, Aboriginal children with white ancestry were taken from their homes and institutionalized, as portrayed in the film Rabbit Proof Fence. In recent decades, land-rights legislation has returned some autonomy to the Aborigines. They gained the right to vote in 1967, about the time their art movement began.
Today there are an estimated 350,000 Aboriginal people, and an unusually high number of them are fine artists, Levi says. “The artists are involved in their culture. Some are very traditional, sticking close to home, while others are active in the Western art scene and are very interested in the art market, traveling the world to promote their work and the Aboriginal art movement,” she says.
Levi’s political science career brought her to Aboriginal art in the first place. In 1984 she was a guest researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Australian National University in Canberra. One influential friend was fellow researcher and anthropologist Diane Bell (whose daughter, Genevieve ’90, M.A. ’92, also an anthropologist, is an ethnographer at Intel). Bell wrote the first major book on women Aborigines, Daughters of the Dreaming.
One fateful day in 1985, Levi was crossing a Sydney street with other pedestrians when an Australian Post courier car turned a corner too fast and careened into her. The accident destroyed her knee, and there ensued many surgeries to rebuild it.
Seven years later there was an in-court settlement. Levi and Kaplan determined to spend the settlement funds building a major museum-quality collection which they could share with the American public, enabling people to encounter an art that they might otherwise never have an opportunity to experience. The Seattle Art Museum has been showing work from the collection for several years, at one time displaying as many as 40 pieces. After current renovations, The Seattle Art Museum will become the first major art gallery in the United States that devotes continuous, serious space to Australian Aboriginal art—drawing largely from Levi’s and Kaplan’s collection.
Untitled by Kanya Tjapangati, reproduced with the permission of the artist and Papunya Tula Artists.
Most recently, the couple curated Aboriginal Vision in Contemporary Australian Art at Seattle’s Wright Exhibition Space, which the Bryn Mawr Seattle Club toured in August.
This year, Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts will include pieces from the collection in a show. Levi and Kaplan continue to commission artwork and buy from galleries and community art. Many commissions require trips of epic proportions. For Wati Tjuta” for example, the couple took three flights (from Seattle to Sydney, Sydney to Perth, and Perth to Kalgooli); then drove nine hours over dirt roads to a campsite where they stayed for a week, getting to know the softline artists and their country.
“This is something my husband and I do together,” Levi says. “Not only have we learned about a very important art form and become fairly expert about it, but it has also given
us access to a whole culture and a series of literal adventures that we would not otherwise have had. It’s a remarkable experience to be part of that process, to see it, to be allowed into that world.
Political science and art
Levi, the Jere L. Bacharach Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, pursued an ambitious agenda during her recent term as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA). The association claims 15,000 members in more than 80 countries and is the largest of its kind in the world. In an effort to further internationalize the association, Levi traveled in India as a guest of the Indian political science community in 2005, and she initiated a collaborative project with the World Bank.
Also, Levi supported the serious academic study of labor issues, in which she has an abiding interest, and helped improve the association’s minority programs. She appointed the APSA’s Task Force on Political Violence and Terror and mobilized a working group on the obstacles to promoting democracy in the U.S. and around the globe.
As a political science major at Bryn Mawr, Levi was influenced by Professors Paul Brass, who later was her colleague at UW; Alice Emerson; and especially Peter Bachrach.
During her sophomore year, Levi completed a year-long independent study at the Barnes Foundation under the tutelage of Violetta de Mazia. With friends Andrea Stark ’67 and Nancy Gellman ’67, Levi undertook four hours of instruction in art history once a week. “We usually went early because they gave us the run of the place, with the security guards providing ladders so we could check out anything high up we wanted to see,” she says.
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