Aboriginal art: it's a complicated thing

Aboriginal Art Directory | 27.01.09

Tim Acker's article in ArtLink:

While the art dazzles the eye and the prices make headlines, there is a fundamental disconnect at work within the Aboriginal art industry. The market's focus on the consumption of art and the profitability of its players has smothered serious and confronting issues of artist and community livelihoods, of ethics, of the art's source and the impact of market forces on this complex, shifting spectrum.

This complexity appears to be an inoculation against criticism. There is a national deficiency of clear-eyed assessment of contemporary Aboriginal artists' oeuvres, resulting in a severely limited language to assess, judge and understand works of art and their relationship to, and place within, the commercial art market. This limited critical examination has a major impact on the always intricate and often vexed Aboriginal art marketplace, resulting in very few sources of information or authority on works of art and consequently considerable opportunity for misinformation or ignorance. The result? The national narrative of Aboriginal art is often reduced to an accessible and digestible discussion of profitability; complexity and richness distilled to economics. This simplification conceals powerful questions about commerce in Aboriginal art, about its creative and cultural imperatives, its successes and its underbelly.

One of the biggest challenges in putting forward a topic as intricate as the intersection between commerce and Aboriginal artists is that for each example of unconscionable or illegal practice, there is a balancing example of collaboration or mutual benefit (even in these first paragraphs, each statement can be challenged; the sector's diversity ensures that nothing is true for all Aboriginal artists, all of the time – but there is enough wrong, enough of the time to worry many industry participants).

Unpacking the layers at work only builds the complexity – the inter-cultural terrain and resulting fraught communications ensure that the already different starting points in any commercial transaction remain far apart. Vastly different concepts of finance mean that Aboriginal artists are often willing (or, by virtue of family obligation or personal circumstance, forced to be willing) participants in transactions that are grossly unfair; yet trying to assess or compare the decisions of worldviews as different as desert artist and consumer are confounding. Compounding this is the terminology itself: Aboriginal art covers such a diversity of practice, yet issues of unethical commercial practice are largely (but, of course, not always) the domain of remote community artists, particularly from desert regions and in direct proportion to the 'fine art' qualities of the artist and their art. As another dimension in the swirling mix, commenting on the market forces at work, as both a non-artist and non-Aboriginal person, opens the way to being sideswiped by a whole other set of criticism.

The absence of accessible, informed commentary on the Aboriginal art marketplace and the strength of the profitability narrative are two of the critical drivers of the industry's imbalance, an instability with acute implications in the longer term for the ongoing inventiveness of artistic practice and the resulting livelihood choices in remote areas. Art creates critical pathways for some remote community residents; in an environment of intense marginalisation and economic disadvantage, the opportunity for equitable access to independent income, self employment, small business and the resultant nurturing of leadership and motivation is astounding, particularly as it is the only marketplace in which Aboriginal people enjoy an advantage. This enables individuals and communities to create a career or enterprise that succeeds because of its cultural distinctiveness, not despite it.

Driving the market success is the extraordinary diversity of Aboriginal art, yet the acknowledgement of the importance and difficulty of developing artistic practice, nurturing new talent, building skills and confidence, the adaptability needed to engage younger people and the stamina and resources needed to see it through are rare, elbowed aside by the focus on commerce. Without this nurturing – as varied and locally specific as it may be – the future of remote area arts practice is bleak. Current success and recognition repays the investment of money and time in past years; a real fear is that the reductionist approach by the industry now, this shift away from a deeper narrative about the many layers that make up 'Aboriginal art', will be repaid with diminishing artistic expression, diluted cultural vitality and a shrivelled marketplace.

URL: http://www.artlink.com.au/articles.cfm?id=3144

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Comments (1)

Great comments. I am concerned that if the artist is not valued in thier work and paid accordingly, then the leaders of culture will not be encouraged to participate. Such artists also leave a legacy for their families and culture, however are not usually compensated for that compromise they make.

Posted by Crock | April 3, 2009 9:54 AM

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