Australian Aboriginal Art
Australia’s Indigenous people are divided into some 200 language groups, each with its own distinct culture, creation myths and stories. Their art is often about these stories and creation myths, which differ from group to group, so the artistic “languages” of the indigenous people are as varied as their spoken languages. Art is the lifeblood of Aboriginal communities, the glue that connects them to the past, the present and each other. Their art is set apart from modern western visual culture by its freedom of composition. The artists do not seek to copy what they see, but portray the inner core of the story they are relating through their work. Visual arts offered indigenous communities a culturally appropriate and economically viable way of living in the 21st century.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people settled in the island continent between 60,000 and 120,000 years ago. Theirs is the longest continuously surviving living culture in the world. For centuries, each generation has handed down cultural knowledge and technical expertise to the succeeding generation, and through this rich tradition, successive generations of artists have forged individual aesthetic expressions to mark their experience, paying homage to the presence of their ancestors. There is a living link between the 28,000 year-old ceiling fresco in the Gabarnmung cave in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and today’s artists.
The Tali Gallery in the suburb of Rozelle in Sydney’s Inner West is a multi-award-winning art gallery run by Di Stevens and her husband Yhanni Anthis as a retirement project. Stevens says she came to the field of Aboriginal Art because once, while overseas, she was asked about aboriginal people and realised she, as a white Australian, knew nothing about them.
European settlers to the island continent had made the Aboriginal people invisible through the legal principle of “terra nullius”, meaning “empty land” in Latin. In International Law, the term terra nullius is used to describe territory that nobody has ever owned, so that the first nation to discover it is entitled to take possession of it, as “finders, keepers”. The principle of terra nullius remained in place until 1992 when it was overturned by the High Court of Australia. Until then, the presence of over a million Aboriginal people militated against this principle, so they were put out of sight and out of mind, and their culture forgotten by the white settlers. Stevens was one of millions of white Australians whose knowledge of the indigenous people of their country was severely limited. Consequently, she studied them, their art and their culture, and became an expert, being called upon by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to contribute to their publications on Aboriginal art.
Aboriginal art renaissance
Her emergent awareness of aboriginal art and culture took place at about the same time as films such as Walkabout signalled that the white Australia had began to wake up to the existence of this vibrant culture and realise the value of its hidden treasure. Australia’s national and state art galleries began to hold exhibitions of Aboriginal art. Before this, works by individual artists, such as Binyinyuwuy and Jabbarrgwa Wurrabadalumba of Arnhem Land, were only of interest to anthropologists, although they are immensely valuable today. It was in the 1970s that elders such as Uta Uta Tjangala, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurulla, Nick Namarari Tjalpajari and Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi from the Northern Territory government settlement of Papunya, who with their legends of the “Dreamtime” translated into graphic form, broke through the veil of invisibility that characterised the white Australian perspective on the Indigenous people and their way of life, and put Aboriginal art firmly on the world’s cultural map. The Tali Gallery holds a number of Aboriginal artworks in a range of media, including handicrafts that display both the skill and culture of their Aboriginal creators. As an example, Stevens draws the attention of visitors to the gallery’s selection of ceremonial Banumbirr (Morning Star poles). The Banumbirr is a ceremonial emblem, most commonly used in mortuary ceremonies, held by men while dancing.
It is an essential part of Aboriginal ritual, and a statement of the spiritual and religious bonds that connect people in life and death. Individual poles differ, depending on the ceremony, the artist’s clan and their stories, and are declarations about identity and can represent specific stretches of the country and the people to whom it belongs. The poles at the Tali Gallery were created by Gali Yalkarriwuy Garruwiwi, a leader of a Mala (mob) and a representative of the Galpu clan of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land.
To buy an Aboriginal art object of value, one needs to establish the reputation or profile of the artist, how the artwork compares in quality with other works by the same artist, and whether it would be possible to re-sell the artwork, either with the current seller or at auction. So it is very important to establish the history or provenance of a work of Aboriginal art. Where and when was it made? How has it come into the market? It should be properly documented with a certificate of authenticity. How was the artwork certified? Were Indigenous people involved in the certification? Tali Gallery works with Aboriginal Community Art Centres to promote their artists’ work, as well as selected independent urban artists. Since the 1970s, government-funded art centres have been established throughout Australia, mostly in remote areas, which have supported the artistic life of the communities to which they belong. They are social enterprises with common ownership, and are responsible for marketing the works of the artists in their particular community. They also certify art. Many dealers work on commission and don’t get arts centre certification, issuing their own certificates. The buyer of an un-provenanced art object, says Stevens, is simply overpaying – art dealers may make a 200% margin, which does not necessarily translate to added value for the purchaser. Proof of provenance is essential for selling through prestige auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which generally mean art centre certification.
Today, the value of Aboriginal art is gaining appreciation throughout the world. This is evidenced by an award by the Australian government of the Order of Australia to Dr Margo Smith, Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia, for her work in promoting Aboriginal art and culture in the US – it is rare for a non-Australian to be awarded this honour. Stevens says, because of economic uncertainty, purchases of aboriginal art among Australians has dried up somewhat, but according to another of Sydney’s Aboriginal art galleries, the number of overseas visitors looking to purchase their stock has increased dramatically, which has contributed to the rise in value. There is increased global appreciation of Aboriginal art as investment objects.
Works by known and established indigenous artists such as the famous Petyarre sisters of Utopia can command premium prices. Even the works of relatively new artists can be quite costly: Helen McCarthy Tyalmuty’s Family Tree is priced as high as A$49,000. Stevens says a work of art by a recognised Aboriginal artist can appreciate as much as 400% over a decade. However, she cautions that it is necessary to be very careful when purchasing Aboriginal art. The very success of the genre has led to the mass production of Aboriginal “kitsch”. Copying and mass-production, she says, reduce the value of the art, since each should be a separate individual work. Some art dealers pay artists simply to sign the work, which they are not responsible for creating.
So how is a purchaser to ensure the object they buy is of value? Today, there are a number of art galleries specialising in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in Australian cities and online, and not all of them are ethical in their trading. In Melbourne, a centre for Australian art of all kinds, there is a Code of Practice for galleries and retailers of Indigenous art. If purchasing an item in Melbourne, it is first necessary to ascertain whether the retailer has adopted the Code of Practice, which can be done by asking the staff or looking for the certificate of subscription to the code.
To ensure the artwork was created by an Indigenous Australian, one should look for the artist’s biographical details, whether they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, where they come from, and whether they have signed their name on the artwork. If the object is a craft work or a souvenir, check the packaging and labelling to ensure that the item was made in Australia, and has been attributed and licensed to an Indigenous artist. It is also necessary to make sure that the artist has a belonging or association with the traditional imagery used in the work, because no imagery, story,theme or style from a different region or community can be used by an artist without the permission of that community. The value of a work is added to if an Indigenous organisation endorses it. Evidence of their logo or labelling demonstrates the work’s authenticity.