Who really benefits from the multi-million dollar Aboriginal art trade?

The world of Australian Aboriginal art is one of extremes. As Emily Kngwarreye’s ‘Earth Creation I’ goes under the hammer on Tuesday, expecting to fetch anything between $2-3 million, proceeds from the sale of grassroots APY Lands artwork are being used to fund two dialysis machines for remote communities. From wealth to extreme poverty, it is the art dealers who stand in the middle. 

Who really benefits form the multi-million dollar Aboriginal art trade?
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It is Thursday afternoon in Oxford Street, Paddington, one of the most affluent shopping strips in Australia. As the Sydney rush-hour traffic takes over the city’s main arteries, a crowd of Aboriginal art fans and VIPs congregate to admire some of the world’s most outstanding contemporary art.

From delicate dots and lines to the boldest colours and daring brushstrokes, attendees stand in awe of some of humanity’s oldest creation stories and ceremonies, beautifully documented on sizeable canvases of the finest Belgium linen. The works are nothing less than abstract, coded tales of survival, presented as some of the most attractive and exciting contemporary art expression.

As the art connoisseurs converse and admire the works, while sipping wine and snacking on cheese and crackers, it is impossible not to notice this world is a universe away from where the works originate — some of the most remote and financially deprived communities in Australia.

The event marks the launch of a five-day viewing period prior to one of the most anticipated Australian Aboriginal art sales: Cooee Art’s, Australia’s oldest Aboriginal art business, and Fine Art Bourse’s upcoming Auction of Aboriginal & Oceanic Works of Art, which includes the seminal painting ‘Earth’s Creation I’ (1994) by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, a piece that set the record price for an Aboriginal painting in 2007 after having sold for $1.056 million, and has held the record of any Australian female artist for a decade.

“In addition to this magnificent centrepiece, there will be 83 other lots encompassing many regional Aboriginal styles and periods and several oceanic pieces drawn from twenty private collections. Amongst them paintings by Nyurrapaya Nampitjinpa (Mrs. Bennett), Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Bill Whiskey, Tommy Watson and the renowned Kimberley painters Rover Thomas, Queenie Mckenzie and Freddie Timms,” the auction catalogue reads.

“This auction is a first. The auction is entirely online and this has never been done before that we know of, not in Aboriginal art, so we’re desperately trying to introduce Aboriginal art to new buyers,  especially overseas and Australia, but also a younger demographic,” Cooee Art founder, Adrian Newstead told NITV News.

“The people that I started selling Aboriginal art to 40 years ago were in their 30s, 40s and 50s when they started collecting. They’re now in their 70s and 80s and are selling. If the Aboriginal art industry is going to continue to grow and prosper and provide jobs for Aboriginal people, we need to find new 30 somethings that get excited about it, and it’s worth getting excited about it. It’s the most diverse and attractive art being produced in Australia today,” he says enthusiastically.

All proceeds from the Cooee Art auction sales will go to the artwork owners, except for the lots that include a special collection of works from the APY Lands, donated by a private collector, which will be sold to raise funds for a remote renal dialysis clinic in Central Australia, part of the Purple House initiative.

But all of this fanfare begs the question, who benefits from all this?

Who benefits?
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The contrast between the glamour of the international art auction world and the disturbing reality of the communities where Aboriginal art stems from couldn’t be more blatant. But the reality of how one world could benefit the other is much more elusive.

For NSW Aboriginal Contemporary artist Blak Douglas (Adam Hill) international art auctions such as this one are key to keeping the Aboriginal art movement alive and healthy.

“Auction houses have become 'the go-to' for the layperson wanting to collect Aboriginal art. That is usually a lay person that is cashed up and they might not know otherwise than to google ‘Aboriginal art’. And if you google ‘Aboriginal Art’ in Sydney, you‘re probably going to come up with Cooee’s reference, and so you end up talking to Adrian [Newstead] who’s a seasoned auctioneer,” he told NITV News.

“The reason why it’s so important it’s because you look at these artworks in this room here and they’re exquisite period works. The optimistic thing I think about these auctions is that many of these artists produced these works from an era where they were considered pagan and they weren’t appreciated.

“If you go back 30 years, it was an era when there was not much appreciation of Aboriginal culture in general, now it has become fashionable to have works. But this kind of thing here, this auction gives great accessibility to people who hopefully are of an educated ilk, and by collecting these types of works, they hold their swanky dinner party and educate more people. And what I stand for as an NSW Aboriginal artist is that we hope that trickles down to us mob,” he said. 

Cooee Art Director Mirri Leven is one of the engines behind the auction, which has been at least five years in the making. She says auctions are essential to foster a secondary market where collectors can re-sell Aboriginal artwork. This, in turn, ensures the survival of the Aboriginal art movement at the grassroots level, or primary market, where collectors buy straight from the artists or community art centres.

“I think without a secondary market platform there isn’t anywhere for the primary market – I mean, it’s short-lived,” she explains.

“It’s well and good to create a healthy, young, first market. You know, younger people buying art and going to exhibitions and feeding that wheel of artists being able to create and create again … but if there isn’t a secondary market to back that up, if that drops off, then so does the primary market, so it becomes more of a tourist trade,” she told NITV News.

Ms Leven, a passionate advocate for community empowerment through art, said that before the art gallery even considered going down the auction road, it had to create a tool to be able to educate and inform potential art collectors about the importance of the work and who the artists were.

“We’ve got our marketplace [tool] we launched back in 2010 as part of the Australian Indigenous Art Market Top 100 (AIAM) which looks at the top 200 artists of the Aboriginal art movement, people like Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas and the like. We spent a lot of time writing artist profiles and market analysis and how those artists perform on the secondary market and using a ranking system,” she explains.

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But for Ms Leven, the motivation behind Cooee Art’s auction is distinctly unlike that of the big names in the international art auction business, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

“There are plenty of auction houses and some of them do Aboriginal art, but it’s just a commodity for them, it’s just another 100 lots they have to do. They don’t make much money from it, but it’s just something they do because they want to have that tick of having Aboriginal art in their portfolio.

“We were sort of sick of seeing it (Aboriginal art) being used in that way — not given its true respect. So that’s why we looked at the AIAM platform that we developed, because … it helps buyers to be able to buy with confidence,” she adds.

For a long time, there have been many questions raised about how Aboriginal people are still largely excluded from participating in the economics and prestige of the international art world, despite their prominence within it.

Last year, Sotheby’s auction of Aboriginal art held in London fetched over AUD $2.75 million, while earlier this year, Emily Kngwarreye's floral work ‘My Country’ (1993), which had been owned by Sir Elton John, sold at a Bonhams Fine Art auction in Woollahra for $414,800, including a premium.

Sydney University and Macleay Museum Curator for the Indigenous Heritage and Repatriation Project, Matt Poll, says no auctions of non-Aboriginal Australian art held internationally have come close to garnering this sort of attention.

“The [Sotheby’s] auction also highlights the grossly disproportionate allocation of the financial rewards deriving from the sale of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island arts and artefacts,” Mr Poll explained in an article written for NITV News at the time of the auction.

“Many of the works included in the auction are exempt from the resale royalty scheme, a system lobbied for by Aboriginal artists and industry representatives.  This scheme has redistributed $4.3M to 1,200 artists since 2010,” Mr Poll wrote.

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But Ms Leven says in Cooee Art’s case, they’re going to great lengths to make sure their auction benefits the artists and their communities.

“We are paying the artist resale royalties where applicable because it was something we felt was important for us. We don’t legally have to because the sale is actually taking place in Hong Kong, so we’re under no legal obligation to do so.”

Ms Leven adds that communities benefit from auctions even if they’re not directly receiving the financial benefits of the sales.

“Without the people like the Elton Johns, for example, and people like that buying and collecting, without those sorts of people, it becomes less and less attractive for your mum and pop walking past, and they’re the people who feed the industry. 

“The collectors and the people who really love the movement, we have a lot of passion and a lot of drive, but us on our own; we’re not going to keep it sustained. And I think … if that high end disappears, then so does the middle crowd. That middle crowd goes, ‘well, it’s gone out of vogue, no one’s buying it’, so that dries up. And that means that down on the local level that also dries up because less and less people want to buy it.  And then you do become more [of a] tourist [trade] or institution exhibitions.”

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Detaching from the stigma
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A questionable colonial history riddled with the unethical acquisition of Indigenous artefacts by European museums, coupled with the subsequent advent of an Aboriginal art trade that equally engaged in shady practices before being regulated, has meant that there is a pervasive stigma attached to Aboriginal art dealers, which is difficult to shake.

It was only last month, in October 2017, when the Namatjira family finally recovered the copyright over Albert Namatjira’s work after an 8-year campaign. Albert Namatjira’s art boasted national earnings of over $10 million by 2010, but since the 1980s, the Namatjira family had not earned anything from copyright or royalties from reproductions of his works.

The copyright was in the hands of the trustee for the Northern Territory Government, who sold the rights in 1983 for $8500 to a Sydney family who run an art dealership business. The family claim they were not aware at the time this had occurred.

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For Ms Leven, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the Aboriginal art industry to detach itself from the stigma of the ‘evil art dealer ripping off poor Aboriginal artists’.

“I think the industry is tainted with it. I think there were quite a few journalists who did some real disservice to the industry some years ago by telling part of the story, and it helped build this level of mistrust. And there were some people doing wrong deeds and there still is, but, as a whole, the industry is quite healthy. And without dealers, Aboriginal art would not be where it is today.

“Without that connection between the community and the fee, that’s where the dealer is … And we’re the ones going there and bringing it to the city. And we do it at our expense,” she said.

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Blak Douglas.

“The stigma of disreputable dealing of Aboriginal art is pretty much been capped. The people in the know, they know who the carpetbaggers are today. So, you could actually walk down Todd Mall [in Alice Springs] and point out the carpetbagging galleries, so you don’t buy from them. Pretty simple,” he said.

“Also, the other thing is that we now have a very fine group of individuals at Arts Law overlooking what happens with works and the sale of works these days, and through the implementation of the copyright scheme, then the offspring of this mob here will benefit from the sale of these works,” he explains.

Watch: Terri Janke, 'The Cultural Crusader' 

For Ms Leven, the negative language used in campaigns to protect Aboriginal art also affects the industry. She references the example of the Arts Law Centre of Australia's ‘Fake art harms culture’ campaign, arguing that although widespread education around this pressing issue is mandatory, positive narratives should be encouraged.

“All this negative language is used around Aboriginal Art and it doesn’t help. It stops people from buying fake art; it [also] stops people from buying Aboriginal art. It’s so frustrating!”

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In this regard, she believes changing the message to a constructive one, along the lines of ‘real art helps culture thrive’, would motivate potential buyers to acquire more artwork.

“If you tick all your boxes, if [the art] is coming straight from the source, if it’s coming from the artists, if it’s coming from the community, it’s good! If you’re getting it from a reputable gallery, its fine,” she adds. 

Art for empowerment
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Cooee Art’s auction also includes a collection of works from the APY Lands donated by an Alice Springs-based philanthropist. The sale of these works will go to fund the acquisition of two dialysis machines to service remote communities in Australia, as part of the Western Desert Dialysis ‘Purple House’ initiative.

This facility, launched in Kintore in 2004, was established after senior men and women created four collaborative paintings which raised over $1 million at an auction at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, supported by Papunya Tula Artists, Sotheby’s and the NT government.

The service allows Elders and artists to stay in remote regions, as it prevents them from having to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres to access treatment.

When asked about this aspect of the auction, Blak Douglas says that fact alone “should shine a light on selling works to rectify that situation in all of those communities”.

“It’s just a damn shame that it (the money) has to be for medical treatment, and not for a condo on the east coast. That’s an unfortunate thing. The Purple House set up there … in Alice and that’s benefitting the people, but do we have to sell these extraordinary artworks to pay for kidney transplants? I guess we do,” he complains.

Watch: The Purple House Story

“There’s only one bus out there at the moment that goes to communities in the Centre, so you know, come on and step up to the plate Triguboff and Gina, and Collette and the rest of the mob, the billionaires coming into town, support the community and get behind it. Provide a bus … and actually benefactor the Aboriginal communities.”

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Getting on the bandwagon
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But despite the plethora of views regarding the benefits or pitfalls surrounding Aboriginal art, the undeniable truth is that it remains the most profitable and prestigious expression of Indigenous art in the world, and this is partly due to the work of dealers, institutions and art auctions in promoting the art in high circles.

“The thing about the savvy auctioneer, the savvy purveyor of Aboriginal Art, is that they have moral values that see that they promote the new products coming out from those art centres, who are carrying these names of these pieces on these walls. And a savvy dealer will do that,” Blak Douglas said.

For many, auctions represent a means of survival, just like the ancient knowledge depicted in the artworks themselves

“We’re trying to cultivate a new breed, a new demographic of young collectors. Aboriginal art is fascinating. It talks about our unique landscape, it talks about our fragile environment and there are stories from the oldest continuing culture in the world. It’s such a great story and such an important story for all Australians,” Cooee Art’s Adrian Newstead concluded.

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