Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: Dollar Dreaming

Interview with Author Ben Genocchio

This is one of the best books on Aboriginal art published in recent years. Dollar Dreaming is an intriguing look at a very under reported aspect of the actual mechanics of the Aboriginal art industry in Australia. It presents the unprecedented bloom of Aboriginal art in Australia in both its local and international contexts and shows how these two very different aspects of the business are in some ways tearing each other apart in a race to be the first to live up to the impossible expectations of art and its supposed role as an economic saviour for Indigenous communities negleted by failures of state and federal policies.

That many of the regions in which the artists mentioned in this book live in are currently undergoing a federal goverment intervention brings to the fore the contemporary implications of not making the rights decisions in regards to the regulation of Industries such as visual arts but it seems Aborigional artists are puling more than their fair share of the load when it comes to the national represenatation of Australia as a modern 21st century global citizen however the reality behind this image is that Aboriginl people are still not reaping the benefits of this apparant sucess.

This book reminds us that there are more pressing isues other than the actual production of art that are affecting the industry. This history of Aboriginal people throughout this period (1955 - 2008) is fascinating in itself but Genochio presents a series of events and personal interventions that artists and those who worked with with them used as strategies to use art to engage with the wider communhjity on their own terms. Aboriginal art as we know it today as exploded onto the worlds stage during the early 1980's yet there are many examples of the foundations for this industry being built in seperate locations at different times fore many years before then.

The success of the aboriginal art movement in Australia is primarily gauged by the economic aspects of the industry – not surprisingly this is the main area where government policy making has being so scrutinised in relation to perceptions among some in the community that some of the art that is being sold as "Aboriginal" is in fact inauthentic. Commercial galleries and "Carpet baggers" seem to get all the blame for the negative aspects of the indusrty when in fact they are responsible for the most succesful defining factor of the industry - artwork sales

In light of the federal governments recent senate enquiry and the new commercial code of conduct this book is a timely primer on why careful decision making that takes place on behalf of Aboriginal people in general need to be well planned for.

The success of some aboriginal artists would be on a par for global award ceremonies if they were in the more sound bite friendly fields of music or acting. Many Aboriginal artists who are held in esteem by the industry and have exhibited in prestigeous institutions or in significant art collections are themselves still fringedwellers of the arts community in Australia through lack of business and financial management experience.

Intrernational interest and engagement with Australia is increasingly through the acedemic and tourism industries. Interest in Aboriginal culture rathern than contemporary post colonial culture is what creates the grey zone that undermines Aboriginal peoples direct involvement in the legitimization of what is an uthentic Aboriginal art.

Not to mention the networking between representatives of international first nations that has been initaited by Aboriginal Australians.

What this book shows though is that there is a real discrepancy in the attitudes of the participants that shows that there is no level playing field among the distant regions and the urban centres in regards to Aboriginal people becoming empowered by the success of Aboriginal art

Aboriginal artists like all artists are prone to the eccentricities that are associated with the emotional baggage of being recognized as a genius on one side of the street and an economic liability on the other.

The way that government funded community art centers have been gate keepers in regards to the most sacred of all aboriginal arts - the "authentic" visually artistic representation of the dream time creationist stories that are community owned and are a privilege bestowed upon the artist by the community they live in. There is no Aboriginal artist living outside their community that dares speak on behalf of that community and expect it to be presented as an authorized artistic expression. This is the art that sells for big dollars straight away and skews the preception of many Aboriginal artists new to the feld that this is the only type of art that people are interested in.

Australians don't seem to take to well to community figures who dare to move on from their communities that sustained them. In the sporting area rugby league stars who take on lucrative contracts in Europe are branded traitors in the headlines of the main steam press (just ask sonny bill Williams or Anthony Mundine). The obligations of your community's perceptions versus public obligations was very familiar to Albert Namatjiri and a sad ending in the personal life of a remarkable Australian.

A point in case is the artist Tommy Watson whoose career is now being reassed after having left his original community arts centre and As an Australian citizen in the year 2008 Tommy Watson has the right to do what ever he wants with his art and his money, tribal obligations are none of the outside coimmunities business and the artists who boycotted the exhibition should have found a more direct interpersoanl way of communicating their message to him rather than of one of our few national Aboriginal art prizes to air their grievance.

Some representatives of commercial galleries are not liking what they are hearing regarding the soon to be introduced commercial code of conduct and fear thei entire industry is being maligned on behalf of a few rouge operators.

"However, as to art museums opting out of the code, the assurance ... that there is to be a meeting in February of the Cultural Ministers Council in which this matter is to be discussed is frankly not good enough. On this absolute foundation point I retract none of my earlier statements and assertions. Holding a meeting between Ministers at some date hence is delayed action far, far in away removed from the reality of participating in a relevant draft code of conduct.

A significant number of the working committee- blithely ignored on this issue- firmly believe that art museums should have been held accountable in the fourth draft of the code- as they were in its early incarnations. After all that was the assigned role, of the good half dozen or so public gallery working party attendees, who actively participated the working party sessions. One can only assume that in order to balance out procedure transparency that there will be a number of commercial art gallery representatives observing and participating in the conference of art Ministers and the ensuing discussions as to the ethical participation of art museums in the commercial world. I would be available to address the Ministers on this point."

Dollar dreaming shows the raw face of this division among the pillars of the industry - commercial versus community. The unfortunate boycott of the recent 25th anniversary Telstra art awards is another recent example of how commercial industry practices are at loggerheads with an existing industry of artwold weary Aboriginal people who just want to know how to get on with the business of being artists but also being members of their community or any community at all for that matter - as is their right as Australian citizens.

The message in the mainstream press was that seven artists choose not to submit their work to the art prize in protest to the inclusion of another art centres inclusion. The reason being that the Irritjir community had lured Tommy Watson away from his community against his best interests.

This case is unique in many respects most notably the work of Watson himself one of the six living artists chosen to be included in the Mussee de quay branley. Watson also being the first Aboriginal artists to sell one of his own privately owned works at auction for $240 000.00 (way before Damien Hurst sent shivers down the commercial galleries spines by directly auctioning his own work) an irony all the more apparent given that Damian Hurt is Brittish and lauded in sections of the financial and arts press as a visionary whereas Watson taking direct control over the sale of his work and not automaticly putting the money from the sale of the work back into the art centre has caused such a furure among established sections of the Australian commercial galleries.

Its almost like the government funded art centres are like an ATSIC era sedan loaded with a caravan of baggage on the high way to international glory, infuriating the commercial galleries in their luxury vehicles in the single lane behind them.

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