RAlive and Kicking! The Current State of Indigenous Visual Arts

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 25th August 2010

Following 15 years of uninterrupted growth the Indigenous art market suffered a number of frustrating setbacks during 2010. The failure of Sotheby’s annual Aboriginal Fine Art auction prompted Nicholas Rothwell in The Australian to declare that the ‘Aboriginal art boom has run its course’. The market was jinxed, according to Rothwell, by the on-going GFC, the introduction of the “Code of Conduct, the long-promoted resale royalty scheme, and uncertainty surrounding art in self managed superannuation funds. He echoed concerns expressed by a number of industry insiders and independent dealers that the ‘fast-expanding, somewhat intrusive indigenous cultural support archipelago’ was treating art production as an employment strategy thereby leading to the oversupply of mediocre art, as well as inexorably changing its nature, and perhaps even its legitimacy.

Rothwell’s Australian article followed closely on the heals of a very disappointing Sotheby’s mid year sale in which only 40.47% of the 341 lots sold on the night, generating just $2,036,730 (its worst result since 1991). However the fact that Sotheby’s specialists Tim Klingender and D’lan Davidson apparently sold another $1.5 million over the following week in private treaty sales went unreported.

As the Melbourne Art Fair approached its organizers refused to give half a stand to the Save Super Art lobby group for fear of jinxing sales.  This turned out to be academic however. The Labor party finally relented, rejecting Jeremy Cooer’s recommendation that self managed funds be required to divest art and other ‘collectables’ within 5 years. As a consequence the art fair benefited from a jump in buyer confidence.

The fair was generally well received with organisers reporting $11 million dollars in sales, a 56% increase compared to 2008. Indigenous art was sprinkled throughout as exemplified by Raft Art Gallery and Utopia Art Sydney, both of which made no distinction between their important black and white artists by interspersing them seamlessly.  By far the most impressive booth dedicated entirely to Indigenous art was that of Sydney long time dealer Gabriella Roy. Her Aboriginal and Pacific Art Gallery featured rigorously selected western Pitjantjatjarra artists of whom Harry Tjutjuna from Monika Arts, Dickie Minyintiri from Ernabella, Marinka Baker from Tjungu Palya and Ngipi Ward from Kayili stood out. Harry Tjutjuna’s punchy piece was purchased by National Gallery of Victoria. Roy, who has worked in Aboriginal art for more than 30 years, put together a convincing display demonstrating her credibility the finest of all Sydney dealers.

William Mora assembled a carefully chosen selection of Yulparija artists from Bidyadanga in collaboration with Broome dealer Emily Rohr of Short Street Gallery. Though the display of several works as triptychs was unconvincing, those by Lyida Balbal were spectacular with at least one being acquired by the Monash University Art Collection.  Of the three works by Jan Billycan, one was purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and another went to a prominent international collection based in France.

Alison Kelly Gallery’s Tiwi collection impressed with a large work by Jean Baptiste Apuatimi as its centerpiece. However this work, and those of the very talented Angelina George shown by Darwin dealer Karen Brown carried overblown prices in the current market. Paintings offered at the unsustainable levels achieved during the swollen tide of the boom are destined to end up caught in tree forks when the floodwaters recede.

Michael Eather ‘s Brisbane based Fireworks Gallery had a far more relaxed feel showing excellent paintings by gallery stalwarts Joanne Currie, Ian Waldron and Laurie Nilsen. All have all made a significant contemporary leap in the look and presentation of their work. Eather did particularly well with prints and the limited edition book created as a memorial to the late social realist painter Vincent Serico.

Dianne Mossenson’s Indigenart exhibited a mixture of paintings and sculptures themed around AFL football by Utopia husband and wife Dinni Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre. The National Gallery of Victoria reputedly beat the National Gallery of Australia in attaining an artwork created from a found 1950’s garden gate by Nyungah artist Sandra Hill. Painted in white, the inset panels depicted glamorous women of the period in domestic situations that their Aboriginal counterparts could only dream of attaining.  Apparently Sandra Hill has only recently returned to making art. She is the mother of highly successful Nyungah artists Ben Pushman and Chris Pease. Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery showed artists from Mimili Maku including Militjari Pumani whose work, first exhibited at AP Bond, impressed in the recent exhibition Tjukurpa Pulkatjara, The Power of the Law, exhibited at the South Australian Museum.

Unfortunately those two galleries that devoted their entire booths to single artists failed to generate a similar level of excitement to that achieved by Gallery Gondwana, whose Mitjili Napanangka made such an enormous impact at the previous fair in 2008. Caruana and Reid showed last year’s NATSIA Award winner Dannie Mellor whose iconic imagery on uniform deep blue grounds would have been far better served by half the number of works given plenty of room to breath. Similarly Beverly Knight’s intention to create a symphony with Sally Gabori’s cacophony of colour simply ended up a loud noise. Its failure to convey basic emotion seemed due to its playing the same melody over and over again without apparent movement. Gabori, has been the most sensationally successful of all Queensland artists due to Beverly Knight’s patronage. However her recent paintings are progressively less structured and thinner. She appears to be painting too much too fast in order to meet market demand.

As alluded to in Rothwell’s article, there are certain cultural forces at work in this drive toward over speculation and overproduction. Commonly, as public institutions buy, speculators go in to a frenzy. Insider members of benefactor groups see all the new purchases made by the state galleries and their counterparts. However at least for the time being, the speculators have gone to ground and the loss of energy in the primary market is palpable.

This was quite obvious to those attending the 27th Telstra NATSIA Award in Darwin the following week. The influx of Aboriginal arts industry insiders and supporters has, like the Indian Market weekend in Santa Fe, New Mexico, spawned a number of satellite events and exhibitions creating a festival like atmosphere. However, NATSIA is also preceded by the Gama Festival in Yirrkala and followed by the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair leaving enthusiasts to chose one event or another unless they can afford to neglect other interests closer to home for up to 20 days.

The poor coordination between NATSIA and the larger Darwin Festival held over the same weekend is nothing short of astounding, and revelatory in terms of the importance attached to the art awards by the local media. By the morning of the opening event the names of the winners in each category had already been leaked to the press robbing the opening event of its usual tension. Regardless, you had to look to page three of the largest circulation newspaper, the NT News. It thought so little of the event that the entire front page featured a story under the banner ‘Man killed by Prawn’. Attendance at the opening was significantly diminished this year as was the ceremony itself. It lacked the usual sense of occasion, and the gallery doors were locked as early as 8 pm in order to save the gallery paying overtime to its attendants. This is simply not good enough for the premier event on the Indigenous art calendar. With Telstra’s funding ending in 2012, MAGNT will need to make some significant decisions in regard to the Award as the centre piece of a range of satellite events or risk the vitality and relevance of the entire enterprise.

Of the original 300 entries ninety-six finalists had been chosen with the overall winner being Pitjantjatjarra painter Jimmy Donnegan. Though his Papa Tjurkupa and Pukara was a fine painting and stood out due to its scale and vibrancy, it was no better than a dozen others from the Western Pit lands that have been exhibited throughout the year.  My own choice, in what was a pretty lackluster field, would have been the lovely creamy, soft, and quirky painting created by Angkaliya Curtis, which was purchased by the host institution. MAGNT also acquired works by Yirkala’s Djirirra Wunungmurra, and Yulparija artist Jan Billycan. Other paintings to impress were created by Timothy Cook, Angelina Pwerl (Ngal), Judy Mengil and Ian Waldron. The standout piece in the entire show was the winner of the New Media award, an installation of Mokoy spirits created by Nawurapu Wunungmurra. By setting these figures in a darkened area illuminated with soft light and an old black and white film of the artists‘ ancestors dancing in the 1920’s the organizers created a work of International standard. Another award winner was Dennis Nona (who has now achieved the rare distinction of winning the overall award in 2008 and the works on paper award twice). He is fast becoming the single living Australian Indigenous artist of world stature as a printmaker and sculptor.  Glen Namundja won the bark painting award for the second time in succession, and Wukun Wanambi won the Wandjuk Marika 3D memorial award.

As usual NATSIA was accompanied by satellite exhibitions at various galleries and an art fair at the Darwin Convention centre. Here collectors and dealers could meet artists, and buy from art centre staff located throughout the desert and top end. Elsewhere, successful exhibitions were held by Papunya Tula, Outstation Gallery (now occupying the former Raft Artspace in Parap), Northern Editions, and Kevin Kelly’s Red Rock Arts, which sold out works by Lloyd Quilla from the exhibition space in Frog Hollow. APBond showed new works by Murray River artist Ian Abdulla in conjunction with Papunya Tula, whose sale of a work by Naata Nungurrayi surprisingly marked the first time a work by this significant artist has been acquired by the National Gallery of Australia. The only other show of real note was that organized by the Tiwi network in which the standout artist was Timothy Cook.

As the Indigenous art caravan moved on, those weary travelers who made it across to Cairns for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, CIAF, were joined by a host of others who chose to attend this fair over NATSIA, and hundreds of locals enjoying the Cairns Festival. Here was an event with a much more egalitarian feel. Though not fully conceptualised in its current form, its location in three old world war diesel storage tanks nestling in to the tropical slopes adjacent to the botanic gardens make it a much more exotic and tighter production. Though less vigilant in maintaining the highest possible standard, and confused about its mission, it had a lovely low-key vibe as artists, collectors, and the local Indigenous community mingled. However this inclusiveness has its drawbacks. It definitely works against the finest capitol city based galleries in their efforts to benchmark the most talented artists in the state. Exhibitions at Kick Arts, Djumbunji Press, Umi Arts, Canopy Artspace and the Regional Gallery all complimented the fair, which included a symposium on the Saturday with keynote speaker Brenda L. Croft. For the second time in as many years the Queensland government funded significant national and international collectors to attend the fair in order to build its long- term cache and generate immediate sales. Notable international visitors were Parisian Dealers Stephane Jacob and Morteza Esmaeli, and London dealer Rebecca Hossack.  The major point of distinction with this fair is the seamless melding of visual and performing arts which imparts a real cultural experience that visitors are far less likely to forget.

By far the most successful element of this fair is the community tank where art centres and their artists inhabit a space with an entirely welcoming feel. Here the vast majority of visitors responded positively and good sales were recorded throughout the 3-day event.

Of the stands in the tank occupied by exhibiting galleries, those that stood out were Jan Manton’s exhibition of the work of deceased Lardil Elder Goobalathaladin (Dick Rouhsey) Accompanied by an excellent catalogue and essay written by Simon Wright it repositioned this artist to achieve the recognition that he deserves as being the seminal figure of Far North Queensland art.  The Australian Art Print Network stand featured exquisite prints by Dennis Nona and Alex Tipoti with Nona’s NATSIA award winning work of the previous week recording more than 30 red stickers. Also featured were Ken Thiaday Senior’s dance ‘machines’.

It did not go unnoticed that National Gallery of Australia staff attended all of these events having continued to purchase eclectically throughout the last few years in order to fill gaps in their collection. Recent have included Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s magnificent Warlurkulong 1976 for $2,400,000 at Sotheby’s in 2007 and Dennis Nona’s Telstra award winning bronze Crocodile sculpture for $193,000 in 2008, right through to the Natta Nungurayai painting during this year’s NATSIA, and sets of Aurukun Dogs and Bagu sculptures from Girringun in the Queensland rainforest.  All is in preparation for the most significant event of all. The opening of the new Indigenous art gallery at the NGA.  At long last, in eleven rooms permanently dedicated to the art of the first Australians, the finest Indigenous art collection ever assembled will be located in the premier showcase of Australian art. This, more than any other single initiative, will cement the place of Indigenous art in the heart and soul of our nation and underpin its status as one of the most significant international contemporary movements in the history of art.

Body Marks 2001 by Prince Of Wales
Body Marks 2001
Prince Of Wales


The Coming of the First Missionary 1981 by Dick (Goobalatheldin) Roughsey
The Coming of the First Missionary 1981
Dick (Goobalatheldin) Roughsey

46 x 61 cm