Aboriginal art can seem a maze for the uninitiated but it isn’t that difficult it demystify. As with any art, an individual piece attracts the buyer due to its aesthetics. But its financial value depends on the fame of the artist, the quality if the piece, and, importantly, the documentation that accompanies it when sold.
The field of Aboriginal art is diverse and full of visual surprises. Aboriginal artists work in earth pigment, acrylic paint, wood and metal, glass and even fibreglass when creating paintings and sculpture; and, since the early 1980s, they have embraced printmaking as a medium.
All Aboriginal art is based on clan patterns, ancient iconography, and the mythological stories that have been passed on throughout their 40,000 year history. Each tribe has its own recognisable style and each artist’s work is individually identifiable.
Throughout Arnhem Land artists paint on bark or paper with earth pigments. Their imagery includes the classic X-ray art of the western region and other distinct regional styles of styles derived from cave and ceremonial body painting. In the Kimberley ochre canvases and boards, originally carried in ceremonies, have been adapted into a contemporary painting style.
Desert acrylic ‘sand paintings’ are derived from ceremonial, low relief ground constructions made in the desert sand. These are painted on canvas by tribal people throughout the Central, Eastern and Western deserts. Like Arnhem Land art, they are referred to as ‘traditional’ because they come from communities where Aboriginal people continue to live a relatively traditional lifestyle and practice their ancient ceremonies to this day.
The best urban Aboriginal work is strongly identity based and references traditional themes, politics, or contemporary situations and issues. It is important when looking all ‘contemporary’ Aboriginal art to look for an individual style reflecting the artist’s heritage.
If you intend to spend an extended period in Australia, contact the main Aboriginal galleries in your city and ask to be put on their mailing list to receive invitations.
A few hours browsing in a good bookshop will be both fun and highly informative. There are many beautifully illustrated books currently in print, which cover regional art styles and individual important artists. And visit the major state art galleries and museums. During the past 30 years many have developed extremely fine collections of Aboriginal art.
You may be able to buy a painting for as little as $50, but the highest price paid for an Australian Aboriginal artwork is $2.4 million. The most important Aboriginal artworks have increased in value markedly over the past 30 years. However not all art is ‘collectable’. Prudent buyers should seek the best advice from specialist galleries. If they do so, they will not only get an enormous amount of pleasure from living with a piece of the world’s oldest continuous living culture, but they should also rest assured that their investment is secure.