Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 20.09.03
The Age - September 20, 2003
As the value of Aboriginal art increases so, too, do claims that artists are being exploited, reports Gabriella Coslovich.
An incredibly interesting article about the impact of the boom of Aboriginal Art sales globabbly in The Age.
Quoted from article:
Australian stories rarely make it to the front page of The New York Times. Cathy Freeman cut it, almost three years ago to the day, in her lycra bodysuit, holding aloft the Olympic torch. In July, Australia scored another page-one mention, again courtesy of our indigenous people. This time, the focus was on Aboriginal art and the record takings posted by Australian auction house Sotheby's.
The story centred on Louisiana secretary Jo-Anne Walker, an accidental beneficiary of the Aboriginal art boom. Thirty years ago, when she and her husband were in Central Australia, Walker bought a small Aboriginal painting for $30.
The work, Water and Bush Tucker Dreaming, by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, fetched $US78,145 ($A117,000) at Sotheby's July auction. "I felt the floor drop out from under me," Walker said.
Walker's story encapsulates the meteoric rise in the market for Aboriginal art, which first took off three decades ago when teacher Geoffrey Bardon encouraged desert artists at Papunya to take up acrylics and immortalise their ancestral dreamings on canvas.
After hitting a rough patch in the recession-rocked early '90s, Aboriginal art auction sales exploded between 1994 and 1997. The Australia Council report, The Arts Economy, 1968-98, notes that from 1996 to 1997, Aboriginal art auction sales almost tripled from $1.4 million to $3.8 million. But the report warned that, while indigenous art appreciated more than mainstream works when resold, "whether the artists benefit is another matter".
In an industry worth about $200 million a year, only $50 million goes back to indigenous artists, according to Rupert Myer's comprehensive 2002 report for the Federal Government on the visual arts and crafts.
This week, The Age reported that a group of Central Australian Aboriginal artists had been brought to Melbourne by art dealer Tony Hesseen, owner of the Original and Authentic Aboriginal Art Gallery in Bourke Street. The artists were housed in isolation in the Dandenongs and left there, allegedly short of money and transport, while producing paintings reportedly worth at least $100,000. One of the artists, Adrian Young, said the group was promised $25,000 for three months' work, but was still owed money from a previous trip.
Artists Marlene and Adrian Young, from Central Australia, who say they were housed in poor conditions in the Dandenongs by a Melbourne art dealer.
Hesseen denies the claims of ill-treatment and has said the group was not isolated and had received $22,000 worth of travel, art materials, accommodation, food, medical care and entertainment.
In the broader Aboriginal art industry, meanwhile, many believe exploitation of indigenous artists is on the rise.
"Oh yes, definitely," says Cathy Craigie, director of the Australia Council's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Board. "You hear more stories when you get out there in the field now, probably more than five to 10 years ago."
A typical central Australian "recruitment" drive would involve Aboriginal artists being offered cash for food or alcohol, or a new "Toyota", to whip up some cheap canvases.
One desert art co-operative representative, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, says: "(Artists) have come up to me and pulled out photos of cars with mobile phone numbers on the back. They're asked to paint 10 canvases, 15 canvases, whatever, in exchange for a car." When the "Toyotas" materialise, he says, they often arrive with a flat tyre, no spares, no jack and no fuel.
Scams are not new to the art world and exploitation is not restricted to Aboriginal communities, but, says Craigie, "in many of those (central desert) communities, there is no employment and art is often the only source of income outside of government money".
Melbourne gallery director Gabrielle Pizzi, who has been exhibiting Aboriginal art for more than 20 years, has also noted the increased activity of "carpetbaggers".
Artists who need some quick cash for food may sell a $5000 painting for $100, says Beverley Knight, director of Alcaston Gallery in Fitzroy. Even coming to town for medical treatment, such as dialysis, can make an artist easy prey for dealers wanting to make a quick profit who congregate in Alice Springs, she says. Less common, though, according to Pizzi and several other gallery directors, is the practice of uprooting Aboriginal artists and bringing them to Melbourne to work.
"I absolutely discourage it," Pizzi says. "I am a great believer in artists painting in their country on their sites close to the inspiration, and the difference in quality is marked. The work produced in other circumstances has a dullness to it and a formulaic quality, a lack of vibrancy."
Tim Klingender, director of Aboriginal art at Sotheby's, points to the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye as an example of an Aboriginal artist who was relentlessly pursued by carpetbaggers towards the end of her career and produced a large but inconsistent body of work.
"We take about one in every 20 paintings of hers, and with those we look for provenances that we can be 100 per cent sure of," Klingender says.
Will Stubbs, co-ordinator of the Yirrkala art co-operative in north-east Arnhem Land, which has so far been spared the attention of carpetbaggers because of its remoteness, says customers and artists bypassing the art co-op system are doing themselves a disservice.
"The co-operatives work hand in hand with the relatively small number of reputable galleries, and a customer who thinks that they are doing themselves a favour by bypassing those channels really deserves what they get."
And what do they get? "The product of other people's misery, as opposed to something that enhances their lives and the lives of artists."
So what can be done to stop the exploitation of indigenous artists? The National Gallery of Victoria's senior curator of Aboriginal art, Judith Ryan, says the establishment and funding of more art co-operatives is one solution. Collectors must also become more responsible and do their research before buying.
Aboriginal Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway sees the answer as three-pronged: two parts legislative, and one part voluntary code. The industry could devise an index of art dealers and rate them according to their ethics, in much the same way that companies are now rated for their environmental consciousness, he says. He believes the introduction of resale royalties and communal moral rights legislation is also paramount.
Geraldton-born Colin McKinnon, who runs the Mia Mia Gallery in Templestowe, agrees. "Why can't we have a database so international buyers can be reassured and they can look up there and see faces, not names to businesses but faces? Then communities, too, can identify them, so when they come in there to take our elders away we too can say no . . . you're on the sheet, the blacklist, see you later."
Resale royalties (or an artist's right to be paid a percentage of the increased sale price of a work) was also recommended by Rupert Myer. First introduced in France in 1920, resale royalty rights now exist in many countries including Belgium, Italy and Tunisia. A spokesman for Federal Arts Minister Richard Alston says the Government hoped to respond to Myer's recommendation this year.
Following calls by Ridgeway, the Government will be amending copyright legislation later this year to introduce communal moral rights for indigenous people, giving communities (not just individual artists) the right to bring court actions regarding the inappropriate treatment of indigenous cultural material.
While acknowledging that problems exist, Ryan is dismayed whenever another negative story about Aboriginal art surfaces. For Ryan, the positives prevail. "It's really the greatest art that's happening in Australia at the moment. It's streets ahead of any other."
Better, say, than the work of contemporary artists such as Patricia Piccinini, Australia's representative at this year's Venice Biennale? "Of course it is." Why? "Because it belongs to this country. It is unique to Australia. It issues from the artist's sense of themselves and their belonging to the land. It's a 50,000-year-old tradition that has been passed on."
As a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code we are committed to ethical and transparent business dealings with Indigenous visual artists and abide by the standards set out in the Code.