Thursday, February 4, 2010

what happened to Boomalli ?

“Boomalli was an Aboriginal art movement that saw ten artists galvanize a number of initiatives. Currently, there are huge historical gaps; my association to Michael Riley has been reduced to a sentence, which states, “Fiona Foley was picked up by the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery”. What this means in effect is that there is little analysis of the social, economic and philosophical contribution that we made during this time. “

Fiona Foley 2007

For Many people “Real” Aboriginal Australia is in the Northern Territory or in the “outback”. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art is the largest collective art movement in recent Australian art history. There has never been a movement so diversified both geographically and aesthetically yet also having a unified common cause of representing the artistic practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in order to accurately tell a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia that is acceptable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Black Power activists in Redfern in the 1970’s who were influenced by social justice actions taking place in the USA and in South Africa at the time saw gaps in the Australian system that directly led to Indigenous disadvantage. This led to the Aboriginal Legal service and the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Centre being founded to provide services for Aboriginal people and more importantly, to be administered by Aboriginal people.

This was hugely influential for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Sydney. The formation of Boomalli was no different to today’s artist run initiatives. Artists who had been excluded from the commercial art system formed their own exhibition space to exhibit their art on their own terms.

This was not unusual as during this decade many Indigenous cultural and media organizations were formed primarily for the promotion of Aboriginal cultural expression in media (CAAMA and Indigenous Screen Australia) Dance (Bangarra, NAISDA) politics (Aboriginal Provisional government, ATSIC).

From around mid 1970 some of them had been included in shows that were just too general, they were included in shows which centered on Northern Territory artists, or criticized because they didn't make paintings that dealt with a traditional or spiritual subject matter. The urban Aboriginal artist's cooperative was for artists who had their own story to tell. For artists who didn't believe the tourist brochure representations of "genuine" Australian Aboriginal culture.

Boomalli was a gallery for Aboriginal Artists and Curators to have the freedom to own the means of representing art which represented the living history of Aboriginal people. There were many aboriginal and non Indigenous people who didn't believe the hype of a unified nation celebrating 200 years of 'progress' and achievement during the bicentenary.

Aboriginal people renamed the Australia day celebrations in 1988 Invasion day and used the opportunity of world media attention to highlight Australia's history of oppression of Aboriginal people was in fact apartheid plain and simple. Even in the year 2010 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face serious opposition to their version of history by academics and Government lobbyists.

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 savior for Indigenous communities neglected by failures of state and federal policies. This leads to the question was it commercial galleries or 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?

“ Aboriginal owned and operated art centers emerged in an era of Indigenous self determination and in response to strong community need. Nationally their numbers have grown from a handful in 1970 to an estimated 16 in 1980 to over 100 Australia wide today”

Christina Davidson CEO ANKKAAA – Australian Art collector 2009

The answer lies in the fact in New South Wales and Sydney in particular there seems to be a disadvantage when it comes to harnessing the progress of existing institutions programs of representing Aboriginal cultural material and developing Sydney as a place where Aboriginal people can draw on the local knowledge’s relating to political, ecological or ideological influences in the production of art.

Sydney has a fascinating Aboriginal history yet there is alsoi the perception that the Aboriginal people who live in Sydney today are not descendants of the Eora people who lived in Sydney prior to colonisation so why should their art be any better than other non aboriginal artists who have lived in Sydney their whole lives.

A lot of Indigenous arts programming in Sydney Galleries and Museums is aimed towards educating an international audience rather than a local audience and in the end this is more rewarding for the institution that for the Aboriginal communities represented. The commercial art gallery system also links into government subsidized arts programming that favors an ethnographic nationalistic approach to the representation of Aboriginal culture in Australia and is the main barrier that prevents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as individuals from representing more fluid and dynamic contexts and definitions of Aboriginality in the commercial and public art gallery and museum industry.

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 favors.

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.

The Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co operative has juggled the interrelations between the commercial gallery system and federal government influences in the industry for over 20 years, however not being able to secure a permanent tenancy over this time and genuine exhaustion and frustration by many dedicated and committed members and stakeholders involved over the years has lead the organization into a necessary introspection as to how the organization is to exist in the future.

What sets Boomalli apart from the commercial gallery system in Sydney is that it is recognized in the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal art gallery. Boomalli’s legitimacy came from its aim of an Aboriginal peer assessed artistic program and the not insignificant achievement that Aboriginal membership and stakeholders of the gallery had determined that this was the art that they wanted to be represented by.

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