Seattle's Child

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A Parent’s Review: Aboriginal Art at Seattle Art Museum

See things differently.

No one is better at doing that than a child, so I think children will appreciate the wildly colorful, swoopy, sinuous, high-energy paintings in "Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art" now showing at the downtown Seattle Art Museum. They'll also enjoy looking for all of the animals, birds, fish and insects – both realistic and imaginary.

We adults generally expect a landscape painting to look a certain way: painted straight-on with recognizable hills, trees and bodies of water. But what if you looked at it from above, like a bird, and, at the same time, from below, like a worm, and concentrated on the textures instead of the forms? You'd get the stunning representations of the Australian landscape painted by the aboriginal people.

You'd see tightly packed rows of vivid orange and pink and green and purple, intensifying the colors of the desert rocks. The bright elliptical shapes outlined in black represent the sleeping holes that the family would scoop out for protection from winter winds while they were camping and hunting. You'd see a tangle of red and pink lines tightly packed against dark brown. Those are the roots of yams underground.

You enter the exhibit past a subtle white-on-white fabric screen, and encounter elaborately painted poles set in the sand (sorry, you can't play in it). The chanting that accompanies dancing on the video screen sets a background mood for the whole exhibit.

I suggest going down the central hallway before looking at the individual rooms. The photographs of the Australian landscape and its animals and birds, as well as the artists at work, will give you a frame of reference for looking at the paintings and the few sculptures. Australian aboriginal art is the oldest on the planet. It was buried and set aside during European colonization, but has enjoyed a renaissance from 1970 to the present, as represented in this exhibit of 100 works by modern indigenous artists.

About a third of the artists use natural pigments in ochre, brown, black and off-white, rendering intricate patterns and fantastical creatures on eucalyptus bark. The others use bright paints on canvas, but may apply it with sticks or finger tips as well as brushes. Most use lines of dots or dashes to render the shapes of the land in great folds and stripes, in curves of color or in black and white. People are sometimes recognizable, but are often represented as abstract shapes. The message is this: nature is big; people are small.

Some of the paintings look like tapestries and others like mind-boggling optical illusions. In one of the rooms there's an explanation to help you decode some of the symbols. Concentric circles represent a site camp, ceremonial ground or freshwater hole. Straight or meandering lines can be traveling tracks, lightening, rain or vines. U-shaped blobs can be people or ancestral spirits. An e-shape can be a possum track and an arrow a bird track. See if your kids can find those shapes and see those patterns in the accompanying paintings.

You can look at the titles and explanations next to the artworks to get clues as to what you're seeing, or you can just let your imagination go. Keep in mind the quote on the opening explanatory panel: "What may look abstract is full of symbols and stories."

After you've seen the works, why not encourage children to interpret our own Pacific Northwest landscape in a similar way? They can use the crayons, markers and collage supplies in the free Chase Art Studio on the lower floor staircase area of the art museum, or go home and paint with finger tips, leaves or sticks on paper, wood or even bark, if you can find it. If you want to be more formal about it, there are Do-A-Dot art kits ($16 at the SAM store or $15 through Discount Art Supply online).



Where: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 1st Ave., downtown Seattle.

When: Through Sept. 2. Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday and Friday evenings until 9 p.m. (closed Monday and Tuesday).

Admission: Adults $17, teens $11 ($5 with Teen Tix pass, available at, children 12 and younger free. Free for everyone on the first Thursday of the month, and free for teens on the second Friday of the month from 5 to 9 p.m.

Family Events: Ancestral Modern Family Festival with art-making, creative tours for kids and performances on July 29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (free for kids with paying adult; no registration required). Connect the Dots Family Fun Workshop to tour the exhibit and create paintings inspired by the designs on Aug. 18 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Chase Open Studio ($15 for one adult and up to two children; $5 for each additional child; register online). Dreamweave: Film and the Australian Landincludes Walkabout (1971) on July 27, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) on Aug. 10 and Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) on Aug. 17, 7:30 p.m. ($8 per show or $23 for all three films).

Contact: 206-654-3121;

Wenda Reed is a Seattle-area writer and art lover.