The Aboriginal Arts ‘fake’ controversy

29 July 2000 – For audiences around the world, earthy dot paintings from Papunya in the western desert represent everything that is awe inspiring about Australian Aboriginal art.

“What’s made it such an exciting art form is that it has transformed the way we understand the land and the country,’’ says Art Gallery of New South Wales curator Hetti Perkins, who organised an exhibition tracing the Papunya Tula art movement for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival.

The exhibit reveals how the western desert art movement has placed Aboriginal art firmly in the international arena.

The first dot painting murals, telling the story of the honey-ant, a key totemic animal of the region, were painted in 1971 by a small group of senior men at Papunya, a central Australian government settlement established as a marshalling point for Aboriginal people displaced from their traditional lands, including the Pintupi, Anmatyerre, Lutija and Warlpiri. With these murals, the local Papunya elders discovered a way to re-assert their connection with the lands they had lost — they had again found a voice in the world. They were called the “Painting Men’’ and news of their “modern’’ art — which actually drew on ancient practices of painting ceremonially on the body, on rock-surfaces, bark, tree and drawing in soft earth — spread like wildfire across the country.

The shimmering dots and lines and earthy hues of western desert paintings appeal to a wide public. But these works are more than pleasing patterns and colours. The Aboriginal artists are also telling stories about their country, their ceremonies, their past and their Dreaming.

Some of these paintings have a ritualistic significance understood only by the artists and fellow initiates in tribal law. These meanings are encrypted or encoded within the symbolic designs of swirling dots and pulsating lines. Says Perkins, “While those meanings are kept hidden from us, we can sense that the paintings have some special significance and that does give them an added dimension.’’

Recently, Australian indigenous art has taken on another meaning. Over the past decade, the market has boomed — auction sales have tripled in value and some paintings have reached record prices for indigenous art. Aboriginal art is now the strongest sector of Australia’s fine arts industry, with around 5,000 artists producing art and craft works worth more than $30 million a year.

But a rising market brings pressures as well as blessings. When demand for a successful artist to produce more and more work meets a tradition in which art is a communal activity — with elders like the late Emily Kngwarreye authorising others to assist with her paintings — the outcome at times has been scandals over bogus works. These range from Kathleen Petyarre’s disputed first prize in the 1996 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (claims by Petyarre’s former de facto husband that he had painted most of Storm in Atnangkere Country II could not be proved) to more recent furores in 1999 over the authenticity of works by fellow Western Desert artists Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

Gossip about forgery and deception has sparked intermittent warfare in the art world over the past few years, but the bad publicity has had little impact overall on Aboriginal artists or on art lovers and collectors of the art, according to experts like Hettie Perkins: “I think they (the scandals) are a very minor part of Aboriginal art practice and they’ve received undue attention. It’s important to acknowledge that these artists have made a wonderful contribution to Australian art and have in fact put Australia on the map internationally.’’

Such confidence in Aboriginal art’s long-term bouyancy was reinforced by the results of a major Aboriginal art auction held in Melbourne in June 2000. Sales at Sotheby’s achieved a total of $4.1 million and price records were smashed for several artists, including Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, whose 1972 work Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa brought $486,500.

This boom is recent but the trade in Aboriginal art is quite old. It started centuries before white settlement when Arnhem Land Aborigines exchanged bark paintings and carvings with visiting Macassan fishermen from Indonesia. Later, a few European colonists acquired Aboriginal art as curiosities; and, in the 20th century, anthropologists (such as Baldwin Spencer, who traded tobacco sticks for painted barks) collected it as ethnographic evidence of Aboriginal life and mythological world-views.

Only over the past 50 years has Aboriginal art appealed widely to people with no knowledge of its cultural context, resulting in a viable art market. From the 1930s, mission Aborigines in the Northern Territory began to produce art and crafts for sale; Albert Namatjira, from the Hermannsburg Mission near Alice Springs, was the first Aboriginal artist to achieve international success with his central desert watercolours.

The indigenous art market really took off, however, in the early 1970s as a range of art works — acrylic dot paintings from Papunya, bark paintings from Arnhem Land, Tiwi wood sculpture — began to intrigue buyers accustomed to modern art. Collectors who saw in the abstract, often geometric, designs of Aboriginal art qualities akin to the work of a Picasso or a Pollock encouraged the growth of an expanding market.

Today, there are about 44 indigenous community art centres across central and northern Australia, and scores of specialist Aboriginal art galleries in our major cities. Aboriginal art also has transformed the souvenir trade, currently estimated to be worth around $170 million a year.

Despite such success, though, the indigenous arts industry has had its critics — such as Australian expatriate writer Germaine Greer, who a few years ago blasted the commercialisation of Aboriginal art as “crass, flashy, predictable and ‘eartless’’.

But art dealer Michael Micallef, who runs an Aboriginal art and crafts dealership in Queensland, Australia and Switzerland, says comments like Ms Greer’s are misplaced. Critics fail to recognise the benefits to indigenous people of the arts industry, which provides a strong source of money, reinforces traditional culture and promotes pride, he says, in “the amazing artistic talent in about 95 per cent of Aboriginal communties’’.

“Australia is one of few places in the world offering as souvenirs very special, hand-made art and craft works, such as hand-painted didgeridoos, of which artists can be proud,’’ Micallef says.

Yet many in the industry say that alongside the inspirational works being produced, there is a problem with unscrupulous businesses and individuals producing pseudo-Aboriginal art and crafts, such as “Indonesian didgeridoos’’.

Queensland Aboriginal Creations is among many outlets and artists hoping indigenous art fraud will be lessened with the adoption of the recently launched Label of Authenticity, a rigorous national certification system to authenticate Australian indigenous cultural products. Indigenous artists, designers and manufacturers now can apply to the National Indigenous Arts Advicacy Association for permission to use the label. Queensland Aboriginal Creations’ manager, Ms Nancy Bamaga, comments: “Tourists come over here to buy real Aboriginal art. We retailers and galleries have to be responsible to make sure they’re getting the real thing, not some stuff made in Thailand or Taiwan, or by someone who says they’re an Aboriginal artist when they’re not.’’

With all the talk of fakes and cheap imitations in a strong indigenous arts market, there is a perception that indigenous artists are profiting hugely. But only a handful of senior artists sell canvases or barks for big prices and most of these follow the Aboriginal custom of supporting a large network of family members. Emily Kngwarreye, for example, was said to earn thousands of dollars a day from her paintings but gave away all her earnings to some 80 or more relatives who depended on her for food, blankets and cars.

And the biggest fine art profits are all going to buyers and sellers on the secondary auction and dealer market, where artists receive no share of resales of their works. The most commented-on, if not scandalous, example of inflated profits to the marketeers has been the recently auctioned Water Dreaming work by Paunya dot painting pioneer, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula. This work has set two sales records: in June 2000 it fetched almost A$500,000, more than double the A$206,000 it was auctioned for three years ago. What did Tjupurrula receive? — just A$150 when he first sold the work almost 30 years ago.

Tjupurrula, who was still working up until a few years ago but now has cataracts that prevent him from painting and lives in an Alice Springs nursing home, is said to not understand why so much money can be paid for his work without his receiving any of it. Now the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and other groups are calling on auction houses and other dealers to pass on some of the proceeds of sales to indigenous artists by paying resale royalties.

The push for royalties is one that has been listlessly debated for the past decade, but the proposal now has its best chance of succeeding, with some qualified support expressed recently by Sotheby’s indigenous specialist Tim Klingender, and a promise for a “discussion’’ from Federal arts minister Peter McGauran.

Amongst other moves to stamp out exploitative practices and secure a better deal for indigenous artists, last year Sydney dealer Adrian Newstead formed Art.Trade, an indigenous art industry body of some 70 members that has devised its own code of ethics.

Newstead says that in the long-term education is the key to ensuring manufacturers, art dealers and retailers deal fairly and honestly with indigenous artists: “An Indigenous Protocols Kit will soon go out all over the country to the arts industry, schools, libraries and government departments,’’ says Newstead. “A lot of problems are caused by ignorance and people floundering about how to do things properly. The kit is virtually a `how to do it’ manual which will give manufacturers and others all the procedures and contacts to do the right thing.’’

Yet Art.Trade and other groups are very focused on activities in the retailing centres for Aboriginal art in Sydney, Melbourne and Alice Springs. One might ask how the Queensland indigenous art scene is faring, 1,000 km and more from the primary marketplaces?

Quite well, if you ask many Queensland indigenous artists and craftspeople. At Michael Micallef’s The Original Aboriginal Art Company’s (TOAAC) headquarters at Narangbah, north of Brisbane, local Aboriginal artists bring in their painted art and craft works each Thursday. Micallef started the business in his house three years ago. With the financial support of a Swiss partner, the business has grown to encompass a large wholesale shed (with a retail gallery, due to open in August) at Narangbah, as well as a retail outlet at the Gold Coast and a gallery in Lausanne, Switzerland. “Our long-term vision is to support east coast artists who are very talented but are not as recognised as desert artists,’’ says Micallef. “And we’re trying to spread Aboriginal culture in Europe.’’

The company, which receives no government subsidies, employs 10 people and 30 indigenous artists and families, who earn on average $20-30,000 a year.

TOACC’s artists include Adam Baird, who specialises in painting didgeridoos; and Nambour-based painter, Nuuna, who exhibits her paintings every couple of years, but relies on the regular money she earns from painting boomerangs and other craft works with some help from her daughters, Renee, 15, and Jillian, 14. “We all like painting: for me it’s an income, it’s pocket money for the girls’ teenage things, and we enjoy doing it at home,’’ says Nuuna.

In Brisbane, Queensland, 31-year-old painter and glass craftsman John Smith Gumbula is an artist much in demand, currently finishing a major glass commission for the new Criminal Justice Commission building in Creek Street. But art making for indigenous artists has an importance beyond commerce, he stresses: “Aboriginal art now has a monetary value, but what’s important to Aboriginal people is that our culture has survived for over 40,000 years.’’

These Queensland artists belong to a new generation of indigenous creators whom collectors, art lovers and specialists are watching with interest. Darwin museum curator Margie West says this new wave of artists is all ready producing fine work: “The range of new artists included in each year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award — and their willingness to experiment with new media such as ceramics and glass — indicates the present vitality of indigenous art.’’

In Sydney, the Papunya Tula exhibition includes many fine paintings by women artists (who have played a strong role in Desert art over the past six years) as well as works by younger artists. “The Papunya Tula show has a very strong message for the future,’’ says the AGNSW’s Perkins.

That is an assessment that may well be true for indigenous art all over Australia.