White privilege and black disadvantage in the Aboriginal art industry

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The recent revelations of “white hands on black art” underscore the authenticity myth that persists when it comes to Aboriginal art

Early this month The Australian published Greg Bearup’s investigation into allegations of art malpractice in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, a vast area of sparsely populated country in the extreme north-west of South Australia. The investigation has since trailed through the newspaper as new allegations, denials and updates have surfaced. The stories cumulatively point towards a potentially widespread practice of white studio advisers associated with the APY Art Centre Collective (APYACC) physically working on the canvasses of celebrated Anangu artists. Asked for comment in a follow-up story by Bearup, the respected Indigenous curator, writer and artist Djon Mundine referred to the practice, if it was indeed true, as “the ultimate bloody sin”.

Should one be tempted to scream “conservative bias”, The Australian provided video evidence. Filmed in a cyclone-fenced open-air studio in the APY community of Amata, it makes for somewhat squeamish viewing. A well-known senior artist, Yaritji Young, stands to one side as a conversation about the compositional merits of a large painting in progress unfolds between two white advisers. One asks the other, “Could it do with another rockhole there, or is that going to be too circular?” Young seems unfazed: at one point she asks in Anangu for soft drink from a compatriot offscreen. Eventually one of the advisers, identified as Rosie Palmer, manager of APYACC member Tjala Arts, says, “Can I juice this one up a little bit?”, before taking up a large brush and firmly emphasising a circular form in red at the centre of Young’s work. If Young is watching, she is doing so from off camera, and says nothing. Palmer would later claim she was simply painting background washes, but the video says otherwise – the red circle constitutes an expressive central form, and an integral part of the overall work.

The APYACC, which is managed by long-term APY worker Skye O’Meara – whose own conduct in the studio is similarly drawn into question by Bearup’s articles – issued a statement on Instagram strenuously denying any wrongdoing. “We believe our professional studios meet [the] highest standards of integrity and professionalism,” it read, before claiming that assistance with “background washes” was “not unusual”.

In terms of the background wash, heavily diluted paint is poured, sprayed or slopped onto the canvas, including with large ‘house-painting’ brushes. Professional assistants may or may not take part in this process to some degree, at the artist’s direction. Multiple layers are then applied only by the artist following the underpainting stage. Yaritji Young’s work is so successful because of the complex layering involved.

The statement is instructive. To look at one of Young’s paintings with it in mind is to immediately understand how they are made. Take, for example, Tjala Tjukurpa – Honey ant story, 2021, in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. The dominant composition is formed by a tangle of thick plum and aqua coloured lines that knot around three large central circles. All this, one assumes, is the “underpainting” (although “scaffold” or “structure” may well be better terms given their importance to the resulting composition), while the more detailed filigree of linework that thinly covers it constitute the “multiple layers” applied “only by the artist following the underpainting stage”. The iconography of the work is instantly recognisable as part of a well-established canon of desert Aboriginal painting, but it’s the differences that are most revealing. Young’s work is painterly in a way that most desert paintings are not. In this, it strongly recalls the work of the late John Olsen, who was similarly known to layer expressively brushed and washed aerial depictions of landscape with more detailed linework.

To be clear, if Young had indeed directed studio assistants (as opposed to being directed by them) in the creation of her paintings there would not necessarily be anything amiss: it has long been unremarkable that contemporary artists use assistants to realise parts, or even all their work. The reasons for this vary. Sometimes it comes down to pure pragmatism – it allows in-demand artists to work more quickly by outsourcing repetitive and time-consuming aspects of their practice – while other times it means they can draw upon different skill sets that in turn shape their work in new ways. In some instances, assistants are credited, as in the work of Melbourne-based painter Helen Johnson, who is not alone in listing the names of her studio assistants on the verso of each painting, but mostly they’re not; it’s just part of the process. So why is the issue treated so differently for Aboriginal artists such as Young? Why did the publication of the video spark a sequence of strident denials and legal threats from the APYACC? And perhaps most interestingly, why did the National Gallery of Australia, where a major exhibition of APYACC artists, Ngura Pulka – Epic Country, is poised to open on June 3, immediately launch an urgent independent review panel into issues of authorship and assistance?

The answers cluster around the colonial underpinnings of Australia’s celebrated Aboriginal art movement, in which long-held notions of authenticity are often shorthand for elaborate mythologies about Aboriginal people and the art they make. The presence of a white hand in the work of an Aboriginal artist risks deflating these myths immediately, but a white presence – overt or not – has long been the norm in the work of artists such as Young. In its current form, the entire industry hinges upon non-Aboriginal intermediaries. (This is in spite of the fact that the NGA’s website proudly states that “All parts of Ngura Pulka are being entirely conceived, created, directed, and determined by Aṉangu people.”)

There is a historical aspect here. Some of the earliest Aboriginal artists to practice in colonial Australia made work that was sparked by the pressing need to communicate with the colonisers. Well-known 19th century artists such as Tommy McRae and William Barak forged firmly cross-cultural practices that drew in aspects of Aboriginal and settler Australian iconography. Like many others, both artists benefitted from colonial patrons: for McRae, it was the Scottish settler Anne Fraser Bon, while for Barak it was, among others, the artist Teresa Walker. In the Yolngu community of Yirrkala – now the epicentre of the one of the most beguiling chapters in Australian art history – it was mid 20th century interactions with the Methodist Church that led to the current art industry. For Albert Namatjira, the Arrernte watercolourist who for a brief period in the 1950s was Australia’s most famous artist, it was lessons from fellow artist Rex Battarbee that set him on his path. None of this is to deny the agency of each of the artists. If anything, it makes us understand their vision more clearly. At times in which the most pernicious aspects of colonisation were in full swing – invasion and massacre in the time of McRae and Barak, and assimilationist ideologies in the instances of Namatjira and the early Yirrkala artists – both they and their intermediaries found a way to speak across the cultural divide.

Resulting works show us moments of genuine exchange and dialogue; they are concrete evidence that even the most appalling passages of our country’s history are scattered – albeit thinly – with discrete examples of meaningful rapprochement. Such works were never “authentic” in the way the term is used in primitivist circles, where it is intended to designate something wholly untouched by non-Indigenous worlds. They were made with a colonial audience in mind; they were traded and swapped; they became a currency. Because of this they were imprinted by the ideals of both cultures to whom they came to hold value. It’s for this reason I would argue for their importance, and I’d make a similar argument for much of the Aboriginal art that has since followed.

But we would be wrong to trace too straight a line between the art-enabled encounters of colonial history to the deeply wrought authenticity anxieties that have been sparked by Bearup’s reporting. There is a difference, one that comes down to the economics of Aboriginal art. Namatjira made significant money from his paintings, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that talk of a bona fide Aboriginal art market truly took hold. By then, the famous Papunya Tula art movement had begun to stake its ground in the popular imagination and policies of self-determination were in full swing. The idea that a culturally based art form might create a cottage industry that enabled Aboriginal people to make an income on (or at least near) Country appealed to artists and funding bodies alike.

By the mid to late 1990s many larger communities such as Yuendumu in Central Australia, Balgo in Western Australia and Warmun in the East Kimberley counted government-funded art centres among their core community infrastructure. As this system spread, it reached ever-more remote places; the APY Lands were among the last and have thus only risen to the fore over the last decade or so. Skye O’Meara has been at the centre of the region’s success, first as manager of Tjala Arts from 2007, and then from 2017 as the founding general manager of APYACC. She has helped cultivate influential supporters, including the painter Ben Quilty, who has called APY painting “the greatest art movement on the planet in my lifetime”. Bearup’s articles include testimony from ex-employees and artists – including Wynne Prize winner Tjungkara Ken – that practices similar to those depicted in the video from Amata are not only common in an off-Country APYACC studio in Adelaide that O’Meara oversees, but that they began during her tenure as manager of Tjala Arts. If this is true, then O’Meara has been central to the movement as well. (O’Meara has denied the allegations.)

Back in 2003, the celebrated Brisbane-based artist Richard Bell won the prestigious National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Prize with a text painting that read, “Aboriginal Art. It’s a White Thing”. It was a statement of the kind that had been whispered in the art industry for years and was at one level low-hanging fruit. But Bell picked it with characteristic aplomb. The work, titled Bell’s Theorem, is now widely known, but its blunt message – that Aboriginal art in Australia is produced for largely white audiences, and therefore reflects the tastes and cherished cultural myths of those audiences – has somehow passed most of us by. Bearup’s reporting shows that the same authenticity myth that Bell was critiquing prevails today. It would have us believe that Aboriginal art is an untouched expression of ancient tradition that springs unabetted from Country like some life-affirming fountain. Yet although the revelations in The Australian might be jarring, they’re hardly surprising for anyone with more than a glancing interest in the Aboriginal art world.

The trajectory of the art itself says it all: in step with a burgeoning market, the most commercially successful paintings have gotten bigger and often brasher. In recent decades, popular styles have more and more closely echoed Western precedent, consciously or not. Sometimes this can work brilliantly, but other times it simply layers an increasingly derivative approach with a veneer of cultural difference. Take this difference away, and too often all that remains are overtly stage-managed paintings that appear thin, lifeless and manufactured; works, that is, that would struggle to find footing in all but the most second-rate commercial galleries, let alone our major cultural institutions. The video from Amata, which makes the studio appear like a production line, only underscores this perspective.

Community-based art centres such as those in the APYACC might perform various roles, including nurturing the cross-generation passing of traditional knowledge, but it’s always instructive to keep in mind that, as per Bell’s provocation, one of their core remits remains marketing art to white audiences. This art is made in some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities. The artists are black, but their work is sold by white gallerists to wealthy white collectors and most often comes to grace the walls of white-owned houses in largely white suburbs, many of which constitute the wealthiest enclaves in the country. The resulting money rarely makes a lasting material difference to the lives of the artists themselves, but if they play their cards right, art dealers, collectors and other white intermediaries can reap significant economic benefit. In step, art institutions enjoy benefits of the non-economic variety, among them the appearance of cultural progressiveness.

There are many good stories of this economy being harnessed for community benefit – several key collectors, for instance, have parlayed an interest in Aboriginal art into other kinds of support and patronage, while a number of key Native Title claims have been quickened by community art initiatives. But there is an undeniable starkness to the majority of exchanges that characterise the Aboriginal art market. That this starkness illustrates the structural prevalence of white privilege as clearly as anything is too often ignored by the art world in favour of more palatable narratives of cultural resilience, endurance and symbolic reconciliation. In this, the current stoush over authorship in the APY Lands can’t help but highlight a bracing pragmatism at the heart of the Aboriginal art movement. Artists such as Young too often accept the implicit or explicit edicts of the far-off market through white intermediaries for a simple reason: although they may have significant cultural power, their economic power is limited. Individual artists might receive significant income from their work, but in economically depressed communities such as Amata and its surrounds it must stretch impossibly far. This is how paintings like those from the APY Lands come to be indirectly shaped by the vagaries of white viewers and quickened by their appealing echoes of Western cultural forms. It’s also why they attract supporters such as Quilty, who, one assumes, can recognise their own ideals about painting (and, specifically to Young’s work, painterliness) reflected back at them. The way all this works might sometimes be invisible, but it’s far from magic. It’s simply the relative poles of white privilege and black disadvantage at play. At its best, the Aboriginal art industry has transcended this blunt fact, but at it its worst it has only underscored it.

On this evidence, we can understand that Aboriginal art is not so much a white thing as a cross-cultural thing. This is the “authentic” reality that the current debate has highlighted, and which Bearup’s reporting in The Australian has so far missed. Culture clash is often stark and unsettling, especially to the eyes of those who live a long way from its bleeding edge. Yes, the video shows a particularly egregious example of creative interference, but Aboriginal art is not made in a vacuum: it is ushered forth by many players. This begins in the studio, where art advisers must tread uncertain ground between facilitation and influence. Even if most never pick up a brush, their impact on the resulting work is difficult to downplay. As the late American anthropologist and cultural critic Eric Michaels once pointed out, such impact might come down to as little as a glance, the choice of colour provided in the studio, or even something as seemingly innocuous as a work’s scale, but it’s nonetheless there. Between 2007–09 I worked as an art adviser on the Tiwi Islands, followed by a year-long stint in the East Kimberley. Although I never did anything like what is depicted in the video, I understood how easy it would be to prime the interest of gallerists and collectors by doing something similar. Did I influence the work in less direct ways? Undoubtedly.

Aboriginal art has long been accepted by our major art institutions, where it has rightly been championed as a truly Australian art form. Now, with the NGA review panel set to decide how and where the processes exposed at Tjala Arts have crossed some unspoken line between so-called authentic and inauthentic Aboriginal practice, it stands to be seen if the more difficult cross-cultural aspects of the movement can be accepted too – the aspects, that is, that don’t align with long-held ideals about what Aboriginal art should or shouldn’t be. What if the practices shown in the Amata video are established as par for the course? What if artists are not as enthused by the process of sharing sacred knowledge as white audiences might like to think? What role does coercion – well intentioned or otherwise – play in the translation of Aboriginal thought worlds into fine art?

We may think this is simply a matter for the art world, but these issues cut to the troubled centre of our national identity, to the mess of relations that define Aboriginal and settler Australian interactions. It’s about colonial power as much as anything; about how, even in the most well-intentioned interactions, this power can still reign supreme. The question is what’s at stake if we admit that some of the key paintings of the Aboriginal art movement – not just the recent works from the APY Lands, but others too – may have been touched by a white hand. Is it simply an outmoded colonial myth at risk of being struck down, or something even deeper, and harder to let go?

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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