Matters of Representation

Today I want to take up three media reports I read over the course of the last week dealing with aspects of Aboriginal art and its market. The three articles don’t have much in common in terms of subject matter, but together they bring up a theme that has been running around in the back of my head for a long time now: the manner in which Aboriginal artists find representation in the marketplace. On the way to that idea, though, I want to summarize each of the articles and dwell for a little while on the art that’s discussed in two of them.

The first and certainly the most interesting in its own right of these articles is Nicolas Rothwell’s latest piece for The Australian (April 1, 2006), an explication of the aesthetic of the Yulparitja painters from Bidyadanga. Entitled “Remembrance of Things Past,” it is one of the best examples of art criticism to emerge in the indigenous sphere in many months for its use of history, the Dreaming, and artistic practice to illuminate the meaning of the works.

Rothwell’s essay attempts to uncover what accounts for the extraordinary use of color, quite uncharacteristic of the palette of painters from desert communities, in the work of the Yulparitja. He recounts the attempts that Emily Rohr of Short Street Gallery, who has overseen the emergence of these painters, has made to understand what drives the composition of these works. She says that the artists often described the colors they wished to use in their paintings in terms of the sea, asking for example, for “the blue you see in a wave as it begins to break and turn.” Rohr describes it as a desert iconography of sand dunes and waterholes painted in the “saltwater colours” and overlaid with the bright reds and yellows of the desert.

But these artists use discordant colours, which don’t belong together. For them, colours are vibrations. I feel the paintings have more the air of musical compositions, songs, in vibrating, pulsing paint, with themes in colour counterbalanced by other, answering colours. Of course they’re painting country but, as they see it, in musical terms.

While this is certainly an apt description of the recent works on the major painters from the community, including Weaver Jack, Alma Webou, Jan Billycan, and Donald Moko, it also remains at the surface of the paintings, and is a purely aesthetic appreciation of them. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but Rothwell and Rohr want to dig deeper.

The oldest of these artists were born in country farther inland from the coastal community of Bidyadanga at Cape Lagrange where they now live. Their departure from the desert coincided with two historical events: the great droughts of mid-century and the beginning of large-scale mining operations in the Pilbara. As the wells that the Yulparitja depended on began to dry up, they moved westward. When they began painting in the past ten years, the work, like that of the Pintupi thirty-five years ago, was a way of both celebrating and lamenting the country that they had lost. 

The key to these paintings proved to be in the underpainting, the network of lines that the artists put down first on their canvases in deep blues and aqua. Although for a long time, the painters did not communicate much about their origins in the desert, or about the law stories that spiritually tethered them there, Weaver Jack and Donald Moko recently spoke of the changes to their desert homelands that occurred fifty years ago, and the gradual desiccation of the underground creeks and water channels that supported life there: “according to Donald, the watersnakes that lived in and quickened the waterholes began to vanish and die.”

Devastated by this environmental catastrophe, the Yulparitja retreated, abandoning their country, following the line of fast-emptying wells. There was fighting, rivalry, social disruption. Grief descended and shaped the remainder of their lives.

Clearly the past is not forgotten. In his conclusion, Rothwell relates the ambivalence of the older artists towards a potential return to their country, even for a visit. Some of them talk of making the trip back, but Rohr notes that Alma Webou speaks for others: “No. I’m not going back, I never will.” The loss is too great to look upon. Yet the painting provides a connection, a means of redeeming the past, and of finding joy, perhaps, in the midst of loss. “Remembrance of Things Past” is an apt title for this reflection on the secrets of the Yulparitja painters: Shakespeare’s thirtieth sonnet, from which the phrase is drawn, is a reflection on how memory of something dearly loved can obliterate the pain and loss of the past.

The second story appeared in the form of a report, “Calls for tax office to clean up Aboriginal art fraud,” on the ABC Radio program PM, reported by David Weber on March 31, 2006. In it, Tony Oliver of Jirrawun Arts suggests that in the aftermath of the failure of the WA Police Fraud Squad and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to collect evidence on the record of fraud in the art market, the matter should be taken up by the Taxation Department. Oliver believes that in many cases, no records of transaction between galleries (Oliver’s word) and artists are kept, and the lack of such records allows systemic exploitation. He notes that the lack of numeracy skills on the part of the artists makes it easier for unscrupulous dealers to take advantage, and implies that better oversight by the Taxation Department would at least lessen the harmful results.

“The Indigenous Lesson,” appeared in BRW: Inside Business for March 30, 2006. (This is a “premier content” article, and will cost you $3.30 to read online; I’ll try to summarize and spare you.) It describes the work of John Mero of Vision Method Outcome (quite a lofty name, isn’t it?) who has been working with the Imangara people who live 500 kms northeast of Alice Springs. Mero, described in the article as a “consultant and sponsor,” has organized the production of a small collection of artwork, now on exhibit at Ladner & Fell Gallery in Melbourne. The paintings are naive landscapes that at first glance look similar to those produced by painters from Utopia and at Ampilatwatja. 

Frankly, the article is dreadful in just about every way imaginable. It offers Mero’s take on management theory in Aboriginal culture: that’s the best way I can describe it. (This comes from a business oriented publication, after all.) He talks about consensual decision making in Aboriginal communities, the importance of transparency, and the “competitive difference” that Aboriginal art has in the world marketplace. Nothing is says is terribly far off the mark; it’s just that hearing culture dissected in the language of the steel-and-glass tower makes me long for the inscrutable hermeneutics of the ivory tower again. And while the paintings are certainly attractive, they have a manufactured quality to them that leaves me uneasy. The trees and waterholes and sandhills and mountain ranges are all painted with precise and beautiful dotting. In the end, I find myself thinking that they look like Trevor Nickolls without the irony, intelligence, and bite. I’m probably being too harsh in my judgments all around, though, affected as I am by the slick corporate presentation of BRW. For I do see a glimmer of hope here, as I’ll elaborate below.

So how did these three articles–an exposition of aesthetic strategies in the northwest, another opinion on the continuing market problems, and the announcement of a new initiative in another Central Desert community–coalesce in my brain? Putting aside all value judgments, I was struck by the fact that in each case, at Bidyadanga, with Jirrawun Arts, and out among the Imangara, there is an individual who combines a degree of devotion to the production of art with a smart sense of the market.

So before I dig myself in any deeper, I should come directly to the point I’m trying to make. In Euro-American art circles, an artist is typically represented by a single gallery or consortium of galleries at any moment in his career. The gallery provides support for the artist as he works, and effectively has a monopoly on the marketing of his work. (I assume the same is true of non-indigenous artists in Australia, but I have to confess my Yankee ignorance on this account.) In indigenous Australia, it is most often the community art centre that provides support for the artists, but the marketing is distributed among galleries across the country. Rohr and Oliver (and perhaps Mero, but I know nothing about the man and his operations other than what I read in BRW this week) have taken a role that lies somewhere between the Western art gallery and the Aboriginal art centre. Perhaps all this was sparked by a phrase in Rothwell’s article as he spoke about how Emily Rohr, in her attempts to understand the source of the unique style of the Yulparitja painters “found herself agonising increasingly over the future of the art current she helped bring into being.” I wonder if Rohr and Oliver represent a possible “third way” in creating another paradigm for sustaining the Aboriginal art market.

Of all the people I’ve discussed in this post, the only person I’ve met is Emily Rohr, and I do want to go on record here as saying that I have a great deal of respect for the work that she does out in Broome. As Rothwell’s article makes clear, she has guided a group of painters to great success while at the same time being somewhat mystified by the power that drives them and their work. She is not of the community, yet her link to them is powerful. She and Tony Oliver have been remarkably successful at recreating the dynamics of the community centre in their own entrepreneurial fashion. It will be interesting to see what comes of these experiments. A system of intermediaries (artists’ representatives) has proved successful elsewhere in the world. Perhaps their enterprises will provide another way to level the playing field in terms of economic power. 

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