Collecting And Understanding Aboriginal Art
Issue 1/June 2013
Interview by Tatyana Leonov
Vivien Anderson has over 27 years of specialised experience in the field of Australian Indigenous art. After returning from London in 1985, where she produced music video documentaries, she became the manager of the Australian Aboriginal Art Gallery in Melbourne. Later she managed and directed a number of acclaimed contemporary mainstream art galleries in Sydney and Melbourne, before re-establishing her own gallery, Vivien Anderson Gallery, in Caulfield North. Her Melbourne gallery represents a unique group of artists from remote desert communities, Arnhem Land art centres, as well as independent artists from Cape York and other rural and urban centres across the nation. Vivien Anderson Gallery was established to encourage and nurture Australian Indigenous artists to achieve success and recognition, particularly in the international arena through presenting xhibitions featuring gallery artists in the US, as well as regular exhibitions in Australia. Vivien is a registered valuer for insurance and donations under the Tax Incentives for the Arts or Cultural Bequest programs for Australian Indigenous paintings, sculpture and textiles from 1900 to the present day. She is a member of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association and a current board member of the Indigenous Code of Conduct.
What is Aboriginal art? Essentially, Aboriginal art is art through the visual language of Indigenous Australians. They do not have a written language; everything is encoded in symbols and designs and drawings that help support narrative. These [symbols] tell the story of the ancestors that came before them (where to find food, how to find water, how to maintain the moral code) that would keep small, travelling nomadic groups intact over long periods of time. In the less nomadic, more stable communities that shared a more agrarian lifestyle, particularly on the south east coast of Australia, it helped them express themselves, express their religion and their philosophy of life. Issues of “who am I, why am I here?” are kind of encoded in Aboriginal art. Essentially it is a rich visual language.
How long has Aboriginal art been around? It’s been around for thousands and thousands of years, but it is only from the early 20th century until now that there has been a broader awareness of it. Very recently, for example, at the Sydney Olympics, there was a very large component of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal art in the opening ceremony.
Is it possible to break down Aboriginal art into categories of traditional Aboriginal art and contemporary Aboriginal art? Contemporary Aboriginal art emerged in 1971, when a very remote outstation called Papunya was developed by the white authorities as a means to administer large groups of nomadic Indigenous people who were otherwise scattered over the north, west and south of Australia. The idea was that they could bring them into these more established regional areas where they could better manage their overall health and welfare.
However, the thinking kind of stopped there because of the lack of sensitivity to the issue of dealing with many different language groups or nations. There were many different nations of Indigenous people living on the continent before the white man got here. Naturally we have imported our sense of order and culture and imposed it on this continent with the idea of, ‘if we just put a flag on it – it’s ours’. The consequences of placing five or six different nations of different language speakers together in one place would cause friction and despair. Some of them would have had, perhaps, cooperative relationships and others would have probably been warring partners centuries before. A hopelessness existed in Papunya with this great sense of “What can we do? Our culture is going to die”.
A young art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon went out to Papunya to teach primary school. In the course of his trying to engage with some of the children he met some of the senior men who had been given menial tasks in the community, like sweeping up the school grounds, picking up rubbish and so on. He engaged the men to paint a mural on the school wall – he assembled an international conference of language groups who decided what would be the most appropriate design to put on the wall that would not offend any of the groups who had to live in Papunya. They agreed it should be The Honey Ant Tjukurrpa (story). The idea was putting paint on the wall and creating an image that would resonate with the larger community. He then found that the old men would come to him and ask if they could paint more – so he set up the back of the school room and gave out the primary school paints supplies. To his amazement he found that the men were actually painting really extraordinary, intense compositions – mostly abstract, very disciplined designs, and some featured the human form.
It escalated from there. They got a larger space and moved into a shed where the men could sit together in their own languagegroups to discuss what they were going to paint, until they were able to find a fledgling market for their work in Alice Springs. A quiet but steady audience grew nationally over the next 15 years. And it’s these original art shed paintings that have since become the icons of the Indigenous art movement.
Is most contemporary art painted onto canvas?
Generally, yes. The largest proportion of art produced is on canvas using modern acrylic paint, and that is for obvious reasons. It’s easily accessible and acceptable to the broader art market.
Bark is seasonal, you can only pry bark off of trees in Arnhem Land during the early part of the wet season. There is quite a bit of work to curing the bark, stripping it down to prepare the smooth skin surface for painting The art of bark painting is much more complicated – it has a different aesthetic, in some ways it is a more acetic medium.
Are people interested in Aboriginal art on an international scale? I suppose there is constant international interest as an ethnographic art form, not necessarily as contemporary art form. Australia embraced the art before the world embraced it. It has taken a long time for us to try and get the international art collecting community to understand contemporary Indigenous art because they are kind of stuck in the paradigm of the primitive, thinking that this is something that has ethnographic importance rather than being the vital contemporary art expression of a new nation – which is Australia. I have found that over 20 years we have penetrated the consciousness of the international art market, but it’s very crowded. And to maintain a profile, you have to be consistent in presenting well-curated exhibitions in key cities around the globe.
Are there any Aboriginal artists who have impacted on the international art scene? There are a number of very famous artists from that first movement back at Papunya who are responsible for the blossoming of the art across the desert. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, a national treasure, managed to go back to his country after Papunya. He was a great stockman, had a good commandof English and he moved around wherever the work was. He was an independent artist who sold his paintings quite broadly around the towns of Alice Springs and abroad. He exhibited in London twice with great success. As a result, his daughters were exposed to painting; his brothers, cousins and uncleswere exposed to painting; and as materials became available for them (like canvas, a bit of quality paint and so on) it just seemed to have increased from there.
In the mid 1980s the drive was to establish art centres within traditional homelands, where artists had a place to paint, if they chose to, and they would have somebody who was employed by the government to manage the art centre, to market the artwork for them. They took care of the administrative work, getting the art out to the market.
The great Emily Kame Kngwarreye, from the outstation of Utopia, began to paint as an 80-year-old in 1989. She began to paint in 1989. It was pretty clear to those avid collectors and museums by 1991 that she was a force that challenged what was considered contemporary Indigenous painting. Emily went random on dots, she used the modern palette for all it was worth, she buried an intricate sub structure of yam roots under a blanket of perfectly-pitched seasonal hues of dots, ranging from pins size to hail stones. Critically she got the attention of the mainstream collectors.
Another such artist was Rover Thomas, a loveable rogue who retired from the saddle to paint mythical minimal landscapes in earth pigment that related the dream sequence he experienced after Cyclone Tracey and the whispered fireside recollections of east Kimberley massacres.
How long did it take for awareness to grow? When I started in 1985 there was a passionate, but very marginal interest. Awareness was steady, and by the late 1980s Indigenous artists were regarded the new, the next, the now. I think, to a certain extent, the awareness grew with Australiansown experience of getting out there and gaining more awareness of their own country. A greater number of Australians over the past 25 years have travelled more broadly in their own country as well as overseas, often encountering Indigenous Australians in their travels and often meeting Indigenous artists amongst them.
How did you become aware of the emerging scene? I was returning from living overseas and looking for something to keep me here in Australia. I applied for the position of manager of the Aboriginal Art Gallery in Melbourne – funded by the federal government it was the Melbourne gallery that was part of a network of galleries around the nation marketing Indigenous art from the remote communities. The Melbourne gallery however was also exhibiting Koori artists from south east Australia.
Look, at first it was so foreign to me, it could have been Swahili art, but I just loved the work! The difficulty was pronouncing the artists names and where they came from. It took about six months, but I knew I wouldbe doing it for the rest of my life.
And now you love it? Yes, I love the art and the people! It is a very passionate group of supporters and artists themselves who have gone the distance. Not only to create but innovate constantly, some living through difficult circumstances to achieve their level of professionalism. I admire them greatly and am humbled constantly by their generosity and inclusion.
How big is the community including collectors? Are there hundreds? Now there are hundreds. There has been a decent expansion in community-run art centres, which are basically the heart and life-blood of isolated, remote communities in the middle of nowhere – and they are all over Australia. All of them are quite distinct. Some of them share the same painting styles on canvas, graduating from the dots to the line, using the natural earth pigment or the modern synthetic palette and having a very intuitive sense of colour and high key colour so lots of saturation, lots of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blacks), which is evident in the last decade – this sort of raw sense of collective minds. A lot of it is coming from very senior people. Senior in cultural knowledge, people also very senior in age, who have started to paint in their late 70s and have careers into their 90s.
Are all of the paintings still symbolic and meaningful? There is always a meaning. I think in all art, generally, the art has meaning in it. But, when you are talking particularly about the older generation of Australian Indigenous artists, their primary language is their Indigenous language. And their Indigenous language cannot be separated from the visual language because the art is the visual support to the spoken word, and that is how tradition is passed from one generation to the other. They did not have books – they had to embed the visual with the spoken word. So the story is told over and over again, and in chapters. That is the way you heard it and that is the way the story goes. Then they imprint that with a kind of visual representation.
And the important symbols are still used today? There are still symbols, particularly in some language groups that are very specific about symbolism. Others have been a bit more relaxed, or have since cast a general concern, especially in the more mature cultural leaders. This is our business and it is sacred and it is not meant to be seen by our women or uninitiated men so why should we be showing a white fella? And with that came a controlled effort to create a decorative veil that could be thrown over the secret information. And that is where the idea of all these embellishments came from; with the dots, lines and shadows formed over physically important information so that white people would not know and would just assume it was a beautiful meaningful composition. But the artist knows what is underneath it.
If someone has no idea about Aboriginal art and they might want to purchase some, where would she or he start? There is a superb collection in every state gallery around this nation and also in the museums. But I would start with the state galleries. They all have significant displays of Indigenous Australian art. The same institutions also have excellent bookshops where they have great publications that are written by their curators and guest artists. Their whole emphasis is not about bamboozling with art-speak, but trying to do justice to the truth about Indigenous culture – where this art came from, how you can interpret it, what was the artist’s intent. In that sense, contemporary Indigenous Australian art is much more accessible than more esoteric contemporary art movements of the 20th century.
Any memories that stick out from your early days? When I started out in about 1985 (that also marks the beginning of the four-wheel drive movement in Australia, when a lot of people started to get into their cars and go the centre and go into remote places) I would find, on the Monday morning when I would open my gallery up, somebody on the doorstep covered in red dust saying, “I have just come back from the most amazing trip and I bought this from a fellow on the side of the road!” – and it was a painting. And he would say, “We want to get it framed, we love it and we want to put it on our mantle”. And this is the grassroots of the movement.
Does that still happen today or not really? It happens with international travellers who are just so blown away by the experience of going on the track or up into Uluru or over to east Kimberly or into Alice Springs. They come back and they just cannot believe it. It seems to me to be the art of the Indigenous people is very important to them. It reflects their experience and encounters more truthfully than perhaps when they see an artist trained in the western sense.
Obviously, there is Indigenous art that comes from artists from more urban or rural centres so the experience has been quite different as there has been to a varying degree a disconnect between their traditional culture and the way they were brought up. There is often and a bit more kind of inquiry and sometimes aggression in their work – but it is all relevant, it still informs the viewer.
Can you name some famous artists? There are artists like Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls, who with a surge of Indigenous artists commissioned by the Australian government represented Australia at the Venice Biennale and were treated like rock stars.
Emily Kngwarreye started painting in her early 80s and probably did not finish until she was in her early nineties. She has been internationally represented in Japan, Paris, Germany and America.
Do you have a favourite artist? I would have to say my favourites include Rover Thomas, the late Trevor Nickolls, Teresa Baker. Teresa Baker and the late Wingu Tingima from Tjungu Palya artists, deep in the Pitjanjatjarra lands of South Australia; Djirrirra Wunungmurra and Djambawa Marawili, Yolngu artists from East Arnhem Land. There are many others.
Some of those I admire greatly are no longer living. They started painting late in their lives and had very short and intense careers, but their legacy is an excellent and amazing body of work which certainly got the art world to sit up and pay attention over the last twenty five years.
How can one tell if a painting is authentic? There are certainly rules in acquiring art, just as there are rules in any investments. Firstly don’t get carried away and say, “Oh, that man’s famous and I like that artwork.” There are a lot of things to check.
Make sure you have ticked all of your boxes. It is an investment, it may even be a major investment, and you want it to have a stable value and potentially, if not necessarily, appreciate in value over time. You should ask some basic questions. You have to say: “Who is this artist? Do they have an exhibition history? Are they represented in any of the state or national art institutions? Where was this art produced – at an art centre or a reputable independent dealer?”
For example, if you go to Alice Springs, there are a number of art galleries in the main street – some are very rudimentary, short-term operations who have artists come in and paint for them on the spot, pay them in cash and resell the paintings for quite a bit more. There are other galleries owned and operated by their own art centres and there are well-known established mainstream galleries that have a longer-term commitment to the business. These galleries have a more established feel and usually know the artists work in some depth.
Red flags should start going up when there is no certificate of authenticity that stipulates who, where and when the painting was created. Above all, take your time; it’s not difficult to establish a bona fide artist through internet searches of the state museum catalogues and related sites.
There is now an Indigenous Code of Conduct, which people who are involved in the business can sign up to. Signatories are held to a basic code of conduct, which is basically to protect fair trade and ethical behaviour in the Indigenous art market and reduce unconscionable conduct when dealing with artists, some of who are ulnerable due to language comprehension difficulties. (Indigenousartcode.org for more information).
In the Indigenous art world, there are minefields that can be negotiated successfully by keeping a cool head and doing your research. You have to apply common sense. You have to scrutinise the information.
But of course if you have an encounter on the side of the road in the middle of the desert, with a bloke with a painting under his arm and you get chatting and you decide to buy his painting then accept it for what it is – that’s a part of your journey. You do not then expect to put it up for auction and get a fortune for it. If you are into speculating then you would naturally have to accept the risks that go with that.
Want to know more? These books are all great reading
- Spirit in Land: Bark Paintings from Arnhem Land; Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria; Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley; Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert – all of these well-written, imaginative and informative books are by the senior curator from the National Gallery of Victoria, Judith Ryan.
- Aboriginal Art by Professor Howard Morphy.
- Aboriginal Art by Wally Caruana.