Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Aboriginal art galleries in Sydney

This essay aims to provide definitions of the difference between traditional Aboriginal art, Urban Aboriginal art and commercial Aboriginal art. The history of Aboriginal art in Sydney is influenced by many factors - historical fact, cultural protocol, legitimacy and commercial sales.

In setting out an outline of how to determine what has played the largest influence in the development of Aboriginal art in Australia over the past 25 years it is important to understand the political contexts in which Aboriginal art has existed.

The under representation of Aboriginal artists in the history of Australian art was shown to be the result of entrenched racism that existed in Australia (blatantly prior to 1967 silently after this date) where Aboriginal people were excluded from many areas of cultural production such as media the arts and performing arts.

The impact of the growth and increase of Aboriginal art on the Australian commercial gallery scene over the last couple of decades has been developed largely outside of the tertiary education system. The conservatism of the commercial art industry is is evident in the skeptisism shown by many contemporary Aboriginal artists as to the actual benefits of the development of Aboriginal art as being beneficial for the Aboriginal community. Bell's theorem

That Aboriginal art has developed outside of the tertiary arts education system in Australia is not unusual in that the most commercially successfull and peer recognised Aboriginal artists are artists educated with English as a third or fourth language. This also highlights the use of the english language by an Aboriginal artist as being a factor in the determination of legitimacy in relation to whether an individual is an authentic representative of an original Aboriginal perspective.

Aboriginal art is not a unified art movement in the same context we know other art movements that have existed in Australia such as modernism. Aboriginal art in many cases arose out of the post modern and post colonial re evaluations of Modernist art history of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Left wing political influences on the development of Aboriginal art have not been as easily accepted by Aboriginal artists as is widely believed. Aboriginal academic Romaine Mortein and others have highlighted the philosophical ambiguity of the use of the term "wilderness" as excluding Aboriginal knowledge sytems from ecological frameworks and being a construction of a priveledged western engagement with land use.

Successful collaborations between green and environmental agendas and Aboriginal land rights have become bogged down in clashes between wildlife conservation groups and proponents of traditional hunting rights of Aboriginal people. Also alliances between Aboriginal communities and mining companies as well as other multinational focused corporations produces unease within green groups who have a very different agenda in relation to community and cultural development.

Outside of the political construction of an Aboriginal art industry there have been many changes in recent decades that do not have anything to do with the political advancement of a unified Aboriginal australia and are contained with in a regional and individual proactive asertion of local knowledges. In 1987 the commercial aboriginal art industry in Sydney entered a transitional phase where opportunities for artists, curators, galleries and museums changed exponentially.

International interest and in the art of Aboriginal people was either met by the serious ethnographic art specialists that had existed in Sydney since the 1800’s or by a growing network of commercial art galleries in Sydney and Melbourne that developed international connections for their galleries through

The history of selling Aboriginal culture is disturbing in that there are too many examples of people whose culture was being sold being excluded from the process at all levels. Throughout history up until the 1970's the selling of everything from artefacts, body parts, souveniers, weapons and cultural material to institutions and individuals has created a secondary market where the vast majority of these artefacts are owned by non indigenous people and can be sold in the auction markets of the world along side artefacts from many Indigenous cultures for very large profit margins is sadisticly ironic given the historical treatment of the individuals who have produced these objects.

2010 marks a new era in the history of Aboriginal art in Australia. The Indigenous commercial code of conduct and the droit de suite programs being instigated by the federal government offer to bring a new sense of accountability top the Aboriginal art market. Selling fake Aboriginal art is nothing new in the 1980’s scientific testing showed that several skeletons held by institutions and bought in the 1800's as Aboriginal skeletons were actually European skeletons that had been sold to an unsuspecting trader as Aboriginal remains - a small sign towards a positive change might be that today unscruplulous art dealers sell artworks not body parts or stolen matrrial.

The success of remote art centres based thousands of Kilometres from the urban centres is astounding. There are many Aboriginal owned art centres that turn over more sales of artworks in a month than some commercial galleries do in a year.

This is an example of the distortion that many people see when they engage with Aboriginal art through the capital city commercial galleries. The sheer volume and variety of works produced leaves the Audience confused as to where the history of the movement begins and ends.

Was it commercial galleries, government funded arts programs that encouraged increased participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the arts or was it the artists themselves that created an industry that was worth $900 000 annually in 1975 into 100 million dollar industry in the year 2000?

Factionalism and in a sense tribalism’s exist within the industry where alliances are everything when it comes to the sharing of commercial in confidence information.

Contested and manufactured histories regarding seminal points in the development of the industry remain largely unexplained and while there have been several noteworthy exhibitions in recent years that have been curated by Indigenous curators.

However in New South Wales and Sydney in particular there seems to be a disadvantage when it comes to harnessing the existing professional arts and cultural institutions programs of representing Aboriginal cultural material and sharing the progress made with this with regional based Australians. Most programming in Sydney Galleries and museums is aimed towards an international audience rather than a local audience and is reflected in programming that intensively reserachs an area before moving onto the next. this is more rewarding for the institution that for the Aboriginal communities as the development of a domestic Aboriginal art market is more expensive than"plugging in" to the existing international Indigenous art market.

as evidenced by the increasing number of commecial aboriginal art galleries During the 1980’s Aboriginal art moved from an ethnocentric to commercial context. This was the result of several competing influences, and there were disagreements as to the best waty for the industry to proceed. The existence of ATSIC provided the primary unified national representative body for Aboriginal people that acted as a mediator between Aboriginal community representatives and federal and state public service institutions. and it was during the time that ATSIC existed that a sense of trust was developed between many aboriginal communities and representatives of a federal government that benefited the careers of many unkown artists.

ATSIC worked towards rectifying issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a nationally focused and regionally coordinated approach to address recognised disadvantages faced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community such as housing, health services and proactively asserting Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people into business and professional development opportunities. Whether these policies have been succesful it is difficult to determine howevwer it is important the industry recognised that exploitative business practices where non Indigenous people and institutions profited from Aboriginal cultural information, objects and knowledge’s was not going to be ignored in a legal sense.

The work done by the Arts Law centre NSW, Viscopy and NAVA reflects the need for impertial juddgement of the business activities of all involved in the Aboriginal arts industry,

Since 1987 There have been several other non Aboriginal owned commercial art galleries in Sydney that in terms of business management have been far more successful in promoting Aboriginal art to international audiences so why didn’t an Aboriginal owned and operated art gallery such as Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative succeed?

There is two types of Aboriginal art in Sydney - there is Aboriginal art that is community recognised as Aboriginal art and then there is Aboriginal art that is commercially recognised as Aboriginal art. Commercial galleries and the Aboriginal community do not have the same agenda when it comes to the development of Aboriginal arts.

it is certainly not in any interests of a commercial gallery to work against a communities wishes but it is also not in their interests to be involved to closely either. The danger is in dividing the community un necessarily and setting up a communities expectations too high.

Failure to recognise that the Aboriginal community in Sydney and the Aboriginal community in the wider context of Australia have never been in a unified position in regards to collective decision making. Ignorance of the attitudes of "country" people and "city" people towards each other in Australia is a sign of a government propaganda that emphasises the national identity of all Australia over the local knowledge that shape the differences between the "city" and the "country"

Legitimacy is the keyword when it comes to determining Aboriginal artworks integrity.

Is there anything that we can learn from comparisons of the commercial art galleries, the Aboriginal community art centre model and the current buzzword in federal arts funding "artist run initiative"?

Why are Artist Run initiatives are classified as a different type of organisation that Aboriginal community art centres is an interesting point to start with. young urban artists are in a way being ghettoised in the sanmem way as aboriginal communities in the funding providers insistence on a collective identity that is legaly accountable to the funding provider in order to develop a relationship with the provider.

It would be hard to image that race is not a defining character in the distinctions between success and professionalism that are fundamental concerns when creating an operational plan or membership constitution for Artist run initiative or an Aboriginal community art centre.

It is obvious that some commercial art galleries dislike the fact that community art centres receive government funding to operate and are allowed to commercially sell art as well. This is protectionism that would never exist in any other industry.

One of the criteria that separate commercial art galleries from community art centres is this distinction – commercial galleries are not eligible to apply for funding to develop an artist’s work in the same way that remote community art centres are.

It is important not to transplant the remote community art centre model onto metropolitan commercial and public art galleries.

“Re territorialisation” seems to be the strategy of some state and federal arts funding bodies that use the success of the commercial art centres in remote settings as a benchmark and organisational template for the performance of the metropolitan Aboriginal art production that it encourages through its funding programs.

The “re territorialisation” of the community art centre model that has been attempted to be replicated by the commercial art gallery system through programming that favors an ethnographic nationalistic approach to the representation of of Aboriginal culture in Australia is the main barrier that prevents Aboriginal people as individuals from representing wider contexts and definitions of Aboriginality in the commercial and public art gallery and museum industry.

The optional operating model for a community based membership system of publicly funded art galleries is an organisation like Boomalli as it exists as a mid way point – a proving ground where artists who were serious about art were able to learn from more professional artists as well as learn from assisting other artists.

What set Boomalli apart from the commercial gallery system in Sydney was when peer assessment by other Aboriginal artists determined the importance and by participation and involvement in the development of their fellow artists career. Boomalli’s consistency came from its aim of an Aboriginal peer assessed artistic program and the quiet legitimacy that Aboriginal members of the gallery had determined that this was the art that they wanted to be represented by.

Legitimacy is the key to the success of an Aboriginal art gallery.

Commercial legitimacy is very different from community legitimacy and is a cause of division among many arts administrators who have no way of verifying the legitimacy of a particular type of Aboriginal art without offending the artist.

Commercial art galleries often “cherry pick” from community art centres – out of a group of 20 artists there may be one artist whose work outshines everyone because of its subject matter, composition or personal story of the artist putting the work in a context that makes it commercially viable in a way that the other artworks produced members of the group is not.

Many artists run initiatives as well as remote art centres for Aboriginal art are the same in that that the success or lack of success that comes with experienced artists exhibiting regularly needs to be part of a constructive critical feedback loop for the newer members.

It is not uncommon to see Sydney based Aboriginal artists praised for their courage and visionary mystical aspects of their work by audiences who are doing this to make themselves feel better about the plight of Aboriginal people in the remote communities. Can you imagine if artists in the different suburbs of Sydney had to run for election to be allowed to paint scenes of Sydney Harbour and portraits of the Sydney community? (Would Ken Done still occupy prime real estate underneath the harbour bridge if this were the case?)

Sydney has a fascinating and largely unknown Aboriginal history that can be told through stone tool artefacts, rock art, archeology and contemporary art yet there is a perception that because the Aboriginal people who live in Sydney today are not descendants of the Eora people who lived in Sydney prior to colonisation "why should their art be any better than other non aboriginal artists who have lived in Sydney their whole lives?". In the context of access to educational support for technical proficiency this is probably true, but this sentiment fails to take into account the community and social aspects of Aboriginal people living in Sydney today and the wider connections that family and history that these artists bring into their work.

Recently there were complaints from members of the Australia council’s indigenous commercial code of conduct committee that the membership of the administering board did not have any Indigenous members on its board.

It’s interesting that Aboriginal artists cop a lot of the blame for corruption in the industry when so few Aboriginal people or communities own and run Sydney based art galleries. The only galleries that are owned by Aboriginal people are in remote communities and are not in any of our capital cities like Melbourne or Sydney.

It is non Indigenous people that are the rogue elements in the industry, it is implied that Aboriginal artists and their susceptibility to corruption should provide the guidelines and frameworks that will be enforced in relation to determining the legitimacy of players in the industry.

It is not Aboriginal gallery owners that are responsible for the illegal practices that initially brought the senate committee to establish and implement a commercial code of conduct. It is the commercial gallery system that is entirely owned and operated by non indigenous stakeholders that have the most to lose from a commercial code of conduct so why is the burden of policing the industry put onto Aboriginal artists and not onto the thousands of non indigenous people that work in the arts industry already?

The most blatant examples of carpet bagging and insider trading were committed by auction houses and fly by night “dealers” selling artworks by established artists to art dealers for prices way higher than what the artist was paid.

It is fair to note that Aboriginal art in particular is one of the most unregulated markets to have existed in recent years. Allegations of corruption have tainted the industry to the point where a senate enquiry was called by the federal government and the Australia Council is to implement a commercial code of conduct that puts it in law that representatives of galleries are to pay artists with money rather than personal favours.

Allegations of corruption in the Aboriginal art industry are racist in the extreme – in 2005 the Australia wheat Board (read Australian Farmers) gave $300 million dollars to Sadam Hussein during a time of war. The AWB was not disbanded and its supporters vilified like what happened with ATSIC in fact the Australian Government at the time increased its financial support of the organisation to ensure administrative transparency.

Why the double standards when a successful Aboriginal industry attempts to regulate itself? The aboriginal communities and artists are the first to be blamed for all that is wrong with the industry. There is nothing remotely on this scale in the administration of Aboriginal Land councils or arts organisations in general yet the commercial art galleries in particular pass the blame onto “Rouge carpet baggers” definition: people other than them doing the same thing.

The disconnection between the Auction houses and high end commercial art galleries is so far from the lives of the people who are sustaining the industry that there is something very wrong with the administrative policies of the federal and state organisations that whose sole existence is to support artists and develop the industry.

For the scale of money involved in the Aboriginal arts industry the fact that it has been so unregulated has allowed profit to influence production in a way that has not sustained the industry.

Aboriginal artists face a contradictory attitude when it comes to commercial representation in Sydney. Both ends of the spectrum (the auction house and investment gallery) are locked into a ethnographic and historical market that is legitimate but has no conection with the everyday lives of the culture they represent.

To further compound the problem the handmade craft/tourism and souvenir market has been outsourced and commercialised by the tourism industry to the point where local producers end up with no financial model of successfully competing with the “Aboriginal style” wholesale mass produced artefacts that can be especially lucrative when at the right place at the right time.

Government arts funding providers will tell you that they spend millions of dollars each year supporting Aboriginal art in New South Wales but when you look at the actual allocation of this money more than 90% of it is allocated to established museums and galleries so that they can add Indigenous content to their existing programming of representing a nationally focused Aboriginal art.

There is no need to rehash the argument for a dedicated Aboriginal museum and gallery in Sydney – no politician will ever touch the issue, we had one for 22 years known as Boomalli and still the funding bodies would ask the organisation every year to argue its case for existence.

The National gallery of Australia will rectify this in 2010 by building ten dedicated permanent exhibition spaces for the purpose of exhibiting their collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. While this is commendable it is fair to say that it will not have the same international exposure as an exhibition space of the same calibre put in Sydney or Melbourne. A tourist art shop in Manly or Bondi will get more vistors in the long term than the galleries in canberra

every state needs an institution like Boomalli to exist as incubators – spaces where market forces or political influences cant shape the day to day operating activities of creating art for arts sake. of encouraging the growth and development of Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander art into a system that is an exemplary model for all Australian artists.

ARI’s and Aboriginal Art centres cannot become complacent when it comes to grants and government arts funding. This type funding needs to be tied to specific projects and not to annual operating budgets as it can create a welfare mentality among organisations that are not encouraged to seek income sources outside of the safe arts grant funding system.


- The formation of ATSIC – a national representative body for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (10 dec 1987) ATSIC encouraged the self determination by Aboriginal artists, performers, authors and academics
- The Aboriginal Memorial Ramangining community (d. Mundine 1987–88)
- the national bicentenary acknowledgement that was being planned by a Federal Labour government (1988)
- Magicians de la Terre centre Pompidou Paris (1989)
- The Formation of Boomalli Aboriginal artists co –operative (1987)
- This decade saw the rise of several Aboriginal owned and operated initiatives in media, art and performance such as Boomalli, Bangarra, Black Books, NAISDA, Indigenous Screen Australia

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