Buying Indigenous art comes with a choice: support the artists, or support those who exploit them

The Guardian Opinions 6 days ago

Many are saying that this is a conversation that needs to be had. The talk of a second boom in Indigenous art and what it might mean for artists and communities has been a subject of discussion for months. The market is back! We feel it.

The energy and enthusiasm in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) studios is palpable. Not only are works selling like never before, but an extraordinary period of artistic innovation and committed practice is being supported by industry events such as the Tarnanthi Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts festival and the Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Artists such as Mike Williams hold their own within the national context of visual arts superstars and are exhibiting alongside the best of the best in prestigious mainstream events such as the National at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Overseas celebrities such as Steve Martin, Christian Louboutin and Beyoncé are joining the celebration and are enthusiastically embracing the beauty and power of Indigenous art.

The Indigenous art market has always been fraught with scandal. Alongside showcasing the beauty of the Western Desert painting movement, Australia has celebrated stories of the pioneers, cowboys and thugs. Stories of Clifford Possum painting at gunpoint are shared with a “Sopranos of the desert” kind of romanticism.

Over the past 50 years, a culture developed that included the proud and noisy celebration of cheap works. Some smugly boasted about the bargain basement price of their desert masters painting and what they might sell it for later. These stories are shared in a similar fashion to individuals getting lucky by finding a $10 Picasso in a thrift shop. Of course, as the market matured, it was discovered that this is not a victimless crime. The boasting rights of whitefellas who got rich at the expense of Indigenous artists quite suddenly vanished with the uncomfortable reality of Indigenous disadvantage and non-Indigenous Australia’s complete inability to support solutions to “close the gap”.

It’s 2019, and the art centre studios in APY communities are humming with productivity. The market is now more grown up, so let’s have the grown-up conversation. It’s a conversation that perhaps was always coming – the one about ethics.

So let’s start with the basics.

You will often hear lines such as: “The Indigenous art industry is a complex industry that it has always been tough to navigate.”

But it’s not complex. It’s simple – if you want to buy an Aboriginal artwork, there are two models in the central desert:

  • Indigenous owned and governed art centres;

  • the private dealers model.

The Indigenous owned and governed art centres have supported the incredible internationally celebrated APY art movement for more than 70 years across seven APY communities. They are not-for-profit organisations that operate with financial transparency and are considered the beating heart of the communities on the APY lands, as they are places where culture is celebrated and instructed every day. They are the only economic driver for communities and the only place of non-government income and meaningful employment. Most importantly, they are the vehicle Aboriginal elders use to impact the disadvantage they face in their communities. In an environment of dire social challenge which includes high rates of substance abuse, significant health issues, family violence and high rates of incarceration and suicide, all resulting from intergenerational trauma, Elders work with a committed and ambitious vision to create a better future for their children and future generations. Elders are acutely aware they are running out of time. This is a high-stakes issue, and for Anangu this is personal.

In contrast, private dealers are enterprises owned and operated by non-Indigenous people based in Alice Springs. They generate a profit for the non-Indigenous business owner. There are no requirements for transparency, or requirements of fairness in remuneration. Commitment to Indigenous employment outside the role of being an artist is almost unheard of. The commercial interests of the individual business operators are prioritised at the expense of the Indigenous artist.

You will hear people say it’s important to support an open marketplace.

It’s not.

Be clear: these are competing models, and it is impossible for both to thrive. By supporting the private dealers model, you are supporting the removal of the only source of non-government income and the only meaningful employment from APY communities.

This is a deeply naïve or deeply irresponsible position to hold, given what’s at stake.

Other things to consider about the private dealers model when it comes to central desert artists work:

  • This work is not acquired by museums and institutions in Australia, because the provenance is not trusted.

  • This work will not have a life outside the primary sale point, as any reputable auction house will not sell the work on the secondary market.

Artworks mark time. Artists such as Sidney Nolan, Margaret Preston, John Olsen and Ben Quilty have made work that embodies the spirit and the stories of the time they were made in Australia. Similarly, the works of APY desert masters Jimmy Baker, Wingu Tingima, Hector Burton and Tiger Palpatja embody the spirit of their time on the APY lands, pre-contact. This is the visual language of the ancestors; it is Tjukurpa. The term “Dreaming” is too frivolous and too small to capture the meaning or magnitude of Tjukurpa. It is better described by Anangu of all ages as culture, land, lore and story, but also Anangu identity, reason for being and explanation of the world.

Today in the studios of APY art centres, the talent flows from artists of all ages, and the diversity of aesthetics and commitment to new stories and new mediums in storytelling is more exciting than ever before. Works with a political punch from leaders like Mike Williams and Robert Fielding dare Australia to reflect and think about how much it respects Indigenous art. Does our respect exist beyond the surface? Mike Williams states in his work: “Don’t touch what is not yours.” He asserted this position with a meaning that extends beyond that of culture and country; it was a warning to all those interested in taking an opportunity away from Anangu. Like all Anangu Elders, Mike Williams felt that any model established to take opportunity away from his community needed to be dealt with. The best way to deal with the private dealers, the carpetbaggers, the cowboys and thugs is to not support them. Without the sales they will go away and leave Anangu to hone the vision of the Elders to make the current opportunities count.

There has never been a time more important than now to stay in the conversation. Ask questions, keep talking. The first question you should ask is: “Was this work made for an Aboriginal owned and governed art centre?” If the answer is no, ask to be shown the works that are! Stand behind Aboriginal artists and support them to harness the opportunities they have worked so hard for.

Sally Scales is a Pitjantjatjara woman from Pipalyatjara in the far west of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in remote South Australia. She is the youngest person ever elected as chairperson of the APY executive board council, and the second women to hold the position

Skye O’Meara is general manager of the APY Arts Collective. The APY Arts Collective is the Anangu voice; Indigenous voice for the APY Art Centres and is indigenous owned and governed


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