How do you buy Indigenous Australian art ethically?
Source:theguardian Author:Brigid Delaney Date: 2016-04-19 Size:
The bad old days weren’t so long ago.Cowboys, conmen, chancers and fly-by-night gallerists would swoop into……

Buying Indigenous art is a great way to support artistic communities in Australia’s central desert.

The bad old days weren’t so long ago.

Cowboys, conmen, chancers and fly-by-night gallerists would swoop into the most remote parts of Australia and return with a haul of dot paintings, obtained by methods fair and foul.

Indigenous artists were paid with alcohol or food, or paid under a hundred dollars for work that they would later see on sale for thousands.

These practices were “rampant” in Alice Springs some years ago, says Philip Watkins, who is head of Desart, an association of central Australian Aboriginal art and craft centres.

A Senate inquiry into the matter was held in 2007 and from that a Indigenous art code was established, although its implementation is voluntary. It includes clauses such as ensuring that the artist (who may not, necessarily, speak English) understands the terms and conditions of the sale, that the dealers respect Indigenous cultural practices and that artists are not to be paid with drugs or alcohol.

The shonky operators are still around, but consumers and artists now have a set of principles to fall back on when buying and selling art. Artists and private dealers can become signatories to the code, and Desart advises that if you are going to buy a piece of Indigenous art from a dealer, ask if they’ve signed up.

Community arts centres are the gold standard if you want to buy indigenous art ethically, says Watkins.

Under the art centre model, the centre becomes a broker between the artist and the broader industry, much like art galleries in urban settings. Watkins says they also play an important role in artists’ career development. “Arts centres are a place of sharing of culture between old people and young people – it’s a strong cultural hub.”

Some arts centres are mobile, so they can service artists in remote communities. The art centre model also has government reporting and financial transparency arrangements.

But even after the establishment of the code and the growth of the art centre model, unscrupulous practices in Indigenous art sales have continued. “Not all the shonky operators have been eradicated,” says Watkins.

“There are sweatshops still happening. A dealer will fly into Alice Springs and will get a hotel room. Artists will be put in there and the dealer will provide the canvas and the paints and they give the artists a short period time to paint 30 or 40 canvases.”

Driving down the prices of the art is also an ongoing problem. “Work is purchased for less than it’s worth. Generally Aboriginal people in our region are in the very lowest socioeconomic levels, so the art industry is very important in terms of subsistence. It’s one of the very few ways that Indigenous people make money outside the welfare system.”

Watkins says the income generated may be used to cover basic living costs, such as food for the family, or to supplement other household income. “Alice Springs is a service hub, so people come in here and get stuck in town. That income from painting enables mobility back to community.”Near the Desart offices in Todd Street mall are Indigenous women selling dot paintings on the street. There’s no gallerist taking a cut, and tourists stop, browse and buy directly from the artist. Is this an ethical way to buy art?

“Artists have been selling in the main street directly to tourists and have been for decades,” says Watkins. “Artists are getting more wised up. Those artists that work on the streets are savvy – often Indigenous people are portrayed as victims but we see these artists as entrepreneurs.”

Take a taxi 10 minutes out of central Alice (forget walking – the sun, even in autumn, is excoriating) and you’ll reach one of the community arts centres, Tangentyere Artists, where art is produced, sold and exhibited. This is the model of art production and distribution recommended by Desart.

Out the back are half a dozen Indigenous women set up with canvas and paints. The painters come from all over the central desert region. Some of the women are in Alice Springs for “renal” – daily dialysis, which means they are tethered to town. They stay at Aboriginal hostels and with spare time during the day will come to Tangentyere and paint.

The assistant art coordinator at Tangentyere Artists, Sue O’Connor says: “There are 18 town camps. Many people live in hostels or public housing. Some come from towns like Hermannsburg and are on dialysis. This place [the art centre] has played a crucial role. Some of our current senior artists have never painted before they came here. They came for respite, something to do, some way of escaping humbug in community.

“This is a quiet, safe place. People are all doing the same thing – not out to hassle each other.”

It’s mostly women who come to the community art centre but “we have some men who have painted on and off with us over the years”.

Complex kinship structures in Indigenous groups in central Australia need to be taken into account when setting up a community arts centre. There are “gender avoidance issues”, such as mother- and son-in-law, O’Connor says.

“It impacts on the way people move through space, where they reside, how they behave in relation to each other, and so on. It means for ease and support Aboriginal people tend to move in relatively gendered worlds, and art centres have to find ways to accommodate those who fear they may breach a rule of avoidance. Art centres are committed to culture first: respect for Aboriginal cultures.”

Artists are paid 50% after the sale of their work. The 50% commission the art centre receives from a sale “pays for everything from power, art materials, artists’ lunches, vehicles, fuel, office supplies, some travel expenses, and so many other expenses the art centre faces”.

So, what does O’Connor advise when buying Indigenous art ethically?

“The best thing to do is go to an art centre because art centres are so careful about the culturally respectful way in which the art is created, are committed to demonstrating the authenticity of their artists’ work, sell artwork at a fair price and are transparent with their financial dealings with artists.”

There are problems associated with buying art directly, says O’Connor.

“People have come into our art centre and say they bought a painting from a lovely lady they met in the mall or down in the Todd River bed, and ‘Do I know where they can find her, to buy more?’ The problem with that situation is that the painting could have been lost or stolen and sold by someone else. The artist may have been desperate to feed herself or her family and sold the work for far less than its actual value, or even what it cost her to produce.

“There are Aboriginal artists who are strong, speak excellent English, excel at promoting their own work and sell it for a fair price. However, many other artists are vulnerable to pressures ranging from English being their fourth or fifth language, extended family and kin humbugging them, other financial or housing pressures, and pressure from unwitting tourists, who think bartering the price down is a good thing and expected of them,” says O’Connor.

Four hundred and sixty kilometres down the road near Uluru is the Ayers Rock Resort, which has a number of galleries and artist programs, including live-in residencies.

Terese Cooke, the gallery manager at Ayers Rock Resort, works directly with Indigenous communities in sourcing art and artists. “The work belongs to communities and we provide a facility for them to operate through,” says Cooke, who has worked with communities for 20 years.

The commission rate is 60% going to the artist and 40% to the gallery.

“When the artists come in [from their communities], we provide accommodation and food or give those at discount. If they are here on residence program, it’s all free.” The number of artists in residence “depends on what is happening, what’s out in the lands and what business is going on”.

The turnover of art at the resort is high, with two exhibitions a month. “We sell on consignment and we endeavour to sell as much as we can. They [the artists] set the prices and we never go below that.”

Indigenous art is selling well. “It’s extremely popular for visitors to buy art while they are here. They also want to know that it’s authentic and that it comes from Indigenous people. Sometimes the art is being painted in the resort and it’s purchased before it’s even finished. People like to have a personal connection with the artist.”

Indigenous art sales are fairly consistent but the global financial crisis proved the fortunes of artists can still rise and fall on the back of economic trends. “Some Indigenous communities took a big hit in the financial crisis of 2008, when the Indigenous art market took a massive dive.” It was a devastating turn of events for many communities where making art is “the only business that they have”.

Even now, tourists come in and want to barter the price of art down, which Cooke discourages. Prices at the resort range from several hundred dollars to $45,000 for work by known artists exhibited in national and state galleries. Artists from the town of Utopia (once home to noted artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye) are the most established and command the highest prices. Their art is licensed to appear on merchandise in the resort. “They have been marketed,” says Cooke.

But other communities and families are also identifiable by their style. All paintings tell the stories of their culture and most are dot paintings, although Cooke notes younger artists are painting in a “completely different style”, sometimes combining photography with their work.

It often takes a trained eye to recognise that it is the work of older artists that have the greatest sophistication. “The old people’s work is totally messy but people who are investors really know their art inside out.”

Cooke also says most Indigenous art is produced by women, usually working to support their families. “It’s the only way that they can get money to keep communities alive.”

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern