The fortunes of Aboriginal art outside Australia: ethnographica or art?

Aboriginal Art Directory | 24.06.02

Author: Sebastian Smee
News source: The Art Newspaper

When Australians with even the most glancing interest in art meet overseas visitors, Aboriginal art is invariably a pressing topic. Tourists routinely buy Aboriginal work from all sorts of vendors, ranging from airport shops to Aboriginal-owned cooperatives. But many Australians are deluded about the health of the international market for Aboriginal art, according to some experts. Wally Caruana, senior curator of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Australia, says “the acceptance of contemporary visual indigenous art practice is far from common in European art institutions.”

“Aboriginal art,” he continues, “is often regarded either as an ethnographic curiosity or as an expression of mystic qualities associated with ‘new-age’ thinking.”

The health of the market in Australia is, for now, not much in doubt; but Dr Caruana says that “it is vital for the market to be strong abroad,” too. He emphasised the importance of financial returns to the artists “and the flow on effects of this in terms of the potential for communities and their art centres to become self-funded... and all the social benefits that entails.”

The director of Aboriginal art at Sotheby’s, Tim Klingender, is more sanguine about the international situation. Last year at the auction house’s annual auction of Aboriginal art in Australia, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s “Water dreaming at Kalipinypa” went to an American collector for A$486,500—a record price for an Aboriginal work.

62% of works by value at that auction sold to buyers in the US and Europe. The high figure was partly explained by the acquisition of 38 works by

Karl-Heinz Essl, of the Sammlung Essl, near Vienna, Austria’s largest privately owned contemporary art collection. The works are now showing there in a survey exhibition of Aboriginal art.

Nevertheless, there is no “broad base” of collectors in potentially large markets like the UK. London dealer Rebecca Hossack, who founded the first commercial operation specialising in Aboriginal art in Europe, says she has had to “create a market totally from scratch.”

Part of the problem is the old bugbear of geographical isolation, and hence, visibility. “A disincentive for [international] collectors,” says Dr Caruana, “is the number of ‘shops’ that sell Aboriginal art in Europe and the US which often deal in mediocre work. There is [only] a handful of serious Aboriginal art galleries... Now if collectors in Europe and the US only see mediocre work in the flesh, what are they to assume about the quality of all Aboriginal art?”

But the more serious problem involves the category confusions that have long plagued the reception of Aboriginal art. Gabrielle Pizzi, a long standing and very well known dealer in Aboriginal art in Australia, was caught up in one of the defining controversies around this question when she was barred from inclusion in the Cologne Art Fair in 1994, and then again in 1998, on the grounds that the artists she represented were making “folk art” (The Art Newspaper, No.86, November 1998, p.74).

After waging a “vigorous battle” against the rejection, Ms Pizzi and the Aboriginal work were reinstated. “I went on,” says Ms Pizzi, “to exhibit successfully that year and ensuing years until 1998, when I... was informed that I could only exhibit work by urban Aboriginal artist H. J. Wedge, and not the acclaimed bark artist and sculptor John Mawurndjul, as I had proposed.”

Ms Pizzi, whose private collection of Aboriginal works has just gone on display at the Palazzo Bricherasio in Turin, hopes one day to return to Art Cologne, but only “when the organising committee has changed its makeup to one that is less manipulative and dictatorial.”

Dr Caruana believes the Cologne incident had “grievous repercussions for Aboriginal artists and the acceptance of their art in the European art world,” including Europe’s “potentially vast market. If serious collectors and art institutions in Europe are being told Aboriginal art is ‘folk art’, then they simply will not collect it.”

Galleries devoting their resources to Aboriginal art are, however, beginning to make themselves known in Europe and America. As well as the recent developments at Sammlung Essl, the Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf and the Sprengel Museum in Hanover are both planning exhibitions of work by the two [late] giants of Aboriginal art, Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye for 2003.

In the US, various benefactions have led to strong collections of Aboriginal art in the Seattle Art Museum, the University of Virginia, and the St Louis Art Museum, and Tom Spender has three shows scheduled in the next three months at his recently opened Australian Exhibition Center in Chicago.

On the commercial front, very few galleries have managed to establish themselves by selling Aboriginal art exclusively. Hossack in London sells Aboriginal work alongside a variety of other work. Songlines Gallery, which had branches in Amsterdam in San Francisco, is currently closing down the Amsterdam operation. Director Thomas Vroom, who claims to be the biggest collector of Aboriginal art in Europe, says, “Educating clients is difficult. They have no references. They don’t know what’s good and why it’s good.”

Mr Vroom worries about the future, “The quality is not really improving. The youngsters are not taking over. It’s getting too commercial.”
Gabrielle Pizzi believes there has been “a gradual increase in the number of collectors of Aboriginal art” due to “an increase in art museum shows, publications and biennales.”

Still, says Bernhard Luethi of the Museum Kunst Palast, “Beside the Essl Museum, there is not a single European art gallery dedicated to contemporary art with works by Aboriginal artists.” With some rare exceptions, he says, “Aboriginal art is still considered [by directors of European Museums] to be of ‘anthropological’ value only.” Attitudes might change, he says, “if the Australian side really makes some strong efforts to change this situation.”

Mikhail Pietrovsky, director of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, was instrumental in mounting a show of Aboriginal art from the National Gallery of Australia in early 2000. “The exhibition was caught up in some polemics,” said Dr Pietrovsky. “We had to overcome some people here, who wanted to make the exhibition ethnographic. But I said, let’s curate this like an art exhibition, not an ethnographic one, because once Aboriginal art is shown in a context of ethnography it’s not so interesting. We wanted to show that it is a living tradition and an important part of the artistic legacy of this world.”

“We had young people who are interested in installations and abstract art, and other people who are interested in this ancient culture... Quite a lot of art critics said this was the best temporary exhibition we have ever had.”
Nevertheless, almost all the Aboriginal art in major public collections around the world is in ethnographic museums, in cities such as Basel, Leipzig and St Petersburg.

The Louvre recently acquired a painting by Rover Thomas measuring 6x3 feet from a New York dealer for the Musée Quai Branly, a $400- million museum devoted to world indigenous art which opens in 2004.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York owns a single work by Anatjari Tjakamarra, but has otherwise shown scant interest. Their assistant curator of Oceanic Art, Eric Kjellgren, who did field work in Australia’s eastern Kimberley and has written extensively on contemporary Aboriginal art, is an enthusiastic advocate. But other sources say the department will not buy items not used in ceremonies. The modern art department could not be contacted for comment.

Musings by Sotheby’s Tim Klingender seem to confirm that Aboriginal art is falling between cracks in the market: “I think it is great that it is collected and exhibited by many as contemporary art, and in many ways this has been a key to its international success.

“However, the more traditionally based art which is internationally popular is clearly not part of the post-modern Western art tradition and it would be naive to think that it will ever be accepted as such.”

Nor, he says, is it “often collected by collectors of ethnographic art, as they prefer things actually used in ceremonies and pre-contact material.”

Mr Klingender prefers to look at it “more like World art (a bit like World music), an art of world interest.”

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