The Word from Desert Mob

From what I’m hearing, it sounds like Desert Mob was an enormous success this year, and a most interesting opening. ABC reported initial sales of over $360,000 with attendance of 2000 visitors. Last year, the opening day figures according to the Alice Springs News were $184,000 in sales, and 800 visitors. Speaking five weeks after the opening, or around the exhibition’s close, Clare Martin reported total sales of $285,000. In terms of economics and interest, that’s an enormous leap for a single year. It’s been a high-profile year for desert art, although much of the news, concerning unethical practices among certain dealers, has not been good news. 

A pair of articles published in The Australian last March by Nicolas Rothwell and Sebastian Smee fired media attention to the problems of the carpetbaggers. What they wrote was hardly news, though; perhaps what made it seem newsworthy were the authors’ dire predictions about the impact of carpetbagging on the art market. For a few weeks, these reports seemed to generate an unusual amount of sound and fury (which I chronicled throughout March and April). Then in May, Robert Nelson penned a truly inane piece in The Age that suggested that all the sound and fury did, in fact, signify nothing. By July, I feared the death knell for action on the issues might have been sounded with theannouncement of a parliamentary inquiry, rumored since April, into the exploitation of Aboriginal artists. 

Meanwhile, interest in payments of Viagra to artists was overwhelmed by reports of prescriptions of Viagra for pedophiles, thanks to some possibly dubious work by Lateline. It has been hard for me to sort out the political agendas at work here: hard to distinguish a genuine concern for the welfare of some Aboriginal people from a desire to demonize those who refuse to live tidy suburban lives. I can’t help but be suspicious though, of the government’s sudden interest in violence and sexual abuse in remote communities after years of ignoring such reports from women in those communities. It seems all so convenient and timely that a series of news reports about the exploitation of Aboriginal artists by dollar-hungry white opportunists was replaced in the public consciousness by an ever-widening series of investigations into allegations of rape and prostitution by opportunistic indigenous elders in the very remote communities suffering in the face of government indifference. 

Nor do I feel any better about the solutions that are being proposed: tampering with Land Rights legislation, revoking the control of permits for access to Aboriginal lands, abolishing of the so-called “customary-law” defense (which is never actually used as a defense, although it has sometimes been raised as a mitigating factor in sentencing–which, it should be noted, clearly implies that guilt was established), and even dismantling the remote communities themselves. Why is it that the government seems to have no difficulty in coming up with schemes to resolve problems in Aboriginal communities by increasing government control over Aboriginal people? And why is that after years of carpetbaggers plaguing hungry people in Alice Springs and grieving relatives of artists in town for treatment of end-stage renal disease, the best the government seems capable of is another inquiry that goes nowhere because no-one is willing to name the scoundrels or able to substantiate charges and allegations?

The art market gets talk of self-regulation and suggestions for developing a code of commercial conduct. Remote indigenous communities get stripped of even the pretense of self-determination. What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s instructive, if a little depressing, to compare Nicolas Rothwell’s reviews of Desert Mob in 2005 and in 2006. Last year’s piece, “Lines shimmer into shape” (The Australian, September 13, 2005), celebrated a renaissance of painting and creativity in the Western Desert. Here is the opening sentence: “The moment you cross the threshold, the colour riot begins: pinks and mauves and deep sandhill reds, quivering lines of dotted white and piercing sky blue, whorls and roundels, loose sketched or tightly radiating, their shapes echoing, rhyming, jumping from wall to wall.” (Say what you will, the man can write.) The remainder of his review is a paean to new found strength in three communities, Patjarr, Warakurna, and Blackstone, enriched by an appreciation of the links between the art of the old men and women in those remote outstations and the exhibition of the Papunya School boards from the early 70s that were on display at Araluen in conjunction with the Desert Mob show. Even the story’s headline suggested the physical force of the desert coalescing into a promise.

This year’s meditation is of a quite different character, signaled by the dismal headline “The desert’s tainted brush” (The Australian, September 11, 2006). “A thread of rich, autumnal colours, fit for the burning season, runs through the latest Desert Mob exhibition…. By tradition it is an anarchic, joyous, democratic affair: everything for sale, and dance ceremonies thrown in as well. This year, though, there was a sombre edge. These are fraught times for the desert and its art trade.” The language of thrill is replaced by a grim foreboding. Rothwell once more celebrates Patjarr and Warakurna, and praises the work coming out of Tjula Arts in Amata and the new art centre at Nyapari, Tjungu Palya Arts. But last year’s accolades for the heroism of desert artists have been replaced with commendations for the determination of the art advisers to preserve artistic integrity in the homelands. Rothwell concludes pessimistically. Commenting on the proposed code of conduct, he sums up his current vision of the desert by saying “There is no reason to expect [the code] will solve overnight the problem of carpetbagging, which is a natural feature of the desert’s high-profit art landscape. One might as well turn back the season’s bushfires with one’s bare hands.”

It’s a pity that Rothwell filed his story on the opening day of Desert Mob, before the symposium that took place on September 11 where John Oster and Marion Scrymgour spoke about regulating the dubious trade that, contra Rothwell’s view, need not be a natural feature of the desert art landscape.

I’ve been following Marion Scrymgour’s trajectory in the news with some interest lately. Scrymgour, ALP Member for Arafura, is the first Aboriginal woman to be appointed a Minister in any government in Australia; her extensive portfolio for the Northern Territory covers (among others) Natural Resources, the Environment and Heritage as well as Arts and Museums. Both of those areas received significant attention with the recent announcement of the West Arnhem Fire Management Agreement, under whose terms indigenous people of the Maningrida region will participate in a program that will “unite traditional knowledge and practice with land management based on contemporary science.” The hoped-for outcomes of this agreement include an overall reduction in carbon emissions in the Northern Territory, forty per cent of which result from uncontrolled grassland fires. The Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, which manages the Maningrida outstations, will receive $1,000,000 a year for seventeen years to administer the program. Scrymgour characterized the agreement as a “virtuous circle” that will provide income to the residents of the outstations for caring for their country, supplementing the income that artists of the region bring in. The economic benefits of the program will help the members of these communities to remain on the lands that inspire their art. This is not, it was noted, an entirely new idea: Kunwinjku artist Lofty Bardayal has been riding helicopters around the Territory for years in just such a land and fire management role.

I was intrigued by this notion of a Minister finding ways to take advantage of indigenous traditions to create jobs, to provide income, to promote environmental management and at the same time to support the continued existence of outstations. I had also read Scrymgour’s remarks at the opening of the Art Awards in Darwin last month. In a brief welcoming speech, she managed to congratulate the Prime Minister on celebrating a birthday that most indigenous people won’t live to see (he recently turned 67), thanked Telstra for its continuing sponsorship of the Award and for the recognition it has enabled indigenous artists to achieve, and deployed the inclusion of contemporary indigenous art in the otherwise heavily ethnographic Musee du Quai Branly to refute the notion that the movement occupies an “ethnographic ghetto.” So I was curious to hear what this firebrand would say about the troubles in the Western Desert art market. She did not disappoint me.

Scrymgour spoke of strategies for maintaining cultural heritage throughout the Territory and for combining it with economic development. In the context of Desert Mob, she naturally addressed the threat of the carpetbaggers and her determination to support the Commercial Code of Conduct. For once, I was heartened by a discussion of the Code when Scrymgour threw out this challenge:

This is my line in the sand. I would be prepared—in conjunction with my state and federal counterparts—to name and shame under the protection of parliamentary privilege the carpetbaggers whose actions—clearly—threaten to destroy the industry.

Maybe I’m hoping for too much to come of this bold statement. Perhaps Scrymgour’s “state and federal counterparts” will not show the same kind of courage. But it has been noted many times that the failure of individuals to come forth and name names has been the impediment on which investigations by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the West Australian fraud squad have stumbled to date. I know from personal experience how reluctant even those with the most at stake are to turn the spotlight on individual dealers. 

But after months of nothing but bad news from the Federal Ministers I’m ready to believe in Marion Scrymgour. As I read about Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Brough’s missteps from Mutitjulu to Maningrida in recent weeks, I keep wondering where the Aboriginal voice in solving Aboriginal issues is. I’m ready to hope that a woman whose mother comes from the Tiwi Islands and whose father was born in Central Australia, taken from his family, and raised in the Milingimbi mission can span the interests of people from the Top End through to the deserts. I confess I don’t understand a great deal about the Australian political system, least of all how Ministers come by their portfolios. And although Natural Resources and the Environment first struck me as an odd pairing with Arts and Museums, I’ve come to change my mind. Perhaps, for the purposes of building government programs that may finally benefit indigenous people, there could be no better combination of interests to be served by one person, and an Aboriginal woman at that. Are not art and land twin poles of Aboriginal culture? The title of this year’s Desert Mob Symposium was Art, Money, Culture and Community: the value of art to lives in remote communities. I’m encouraged to discover at last a Minister who seems to understand, embrace, and work for the principles embedded in that theme.

[With thanks to Chips MacKinolty, here is Marion Scrymgour’s speech at the Desert Mob Symposium]

Desert Mob Symposium 2006: drawing a line in the sand
Marion Scrymgour, Minister for the Arts
Araluen Centre for Arts and Entertainment, Alice Springs, 11 September 2006

Acknowledgements including Lhere Athepe

Thank you for asking me to come here this morning to open Art, money, culture and community.

In Darwin two weeks ago, I witnessed the signing of an agreement between an international gas company, the Government, and the Northern Land Council on behalf of the traditional land owners of western Arnhem Land.

It was, on the surface, an unlikely combination: what was being signed was an arrangement in which the gas producer is to pay a significant amount of money each year as an offset for the carbon they create.

And—in a world first—that money will go to employ Indigenous land managers to re-introduce traditional fire management techniques in western Arnhem Land in an arc from coastal Maningrida down through Bulman and the head waters of the Mann and Katherine rivers.

I mentioned this yesterday, but it has created what I like to call a “virtuous circle”. The agreement will mean people will get paid to care for country; the country which in turn is at the heart of their creativity.

And indeed, that has been the function of art creation in remote areas of the Territory, Western Australia and South Australia for the past three decades: the discretionary cash income generated by the production of art and craft has—in very large part—been critical to the survival and expansion of remote communities, outstations and homeland centres.

I mention this today, because I believe that the very existence of Aboriginal communities and outstations in remote areas is under strong attack. And, although capitalism might seem a long way away from the world of a small community in the middle of the desert—an engagement with the commercial world will be critical to its survival.

Let there be no mistake: there are strong forces which seek, finally and irrevocably, to remove Aboriginal people from the landscape. Despite the increased recognition of the significance and importance of traditional knowledge systems, and the capacity for those systems to be harnessed in land management throughout the continent—and indeed in border security on our coasts—there are powerful elements that would like to see an end to Aboriginal occupation of their traditional lands.

I am not saying that this push will succeed, nor am I saying that we should not resist it: but I am saying we should recognise its reality.

In talking to Central Land Council Chairman Lindsay Bookie just a couple of days ago, it was clear that the hopes of he and many other groups in central Australia lie with creative production; in eco tourism; and in horticulture involving introduced as well as native produce.

And what are they being offered by these enemies of remote communities?

Nuclear waste dumps.

Yes, these same people who justify penny pinching on basic services to seek to drive Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, are quite happy to spend tens of millions of dollars over many years to dump nuclear waste on parts of those same traditional lands.

So, in a sense, the line is being drawn in the sand and the Aboriginal arts and crafts industry is very much in the front line of this developing conflict.

Which is why this symposium is so important today.

Art and craft centres generate around $28 million annually, with private non-Indigenous dealers generating a similar amount. In Central Australia, it is reckoned that the arts and crafts industry generates greater economic activity than the cattle industry. So those who say that Aboriginal-owned land is somehow “unproductive” are quite simply wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticising the pastoral sector—just pointing out that wealth can and is being generated in other ways—new ways.

My department—Natural Resources Environment and the Arts—pulls together for the first time under a single agency the potential building blocks for those new ways.

For example, in central Australia the department brings together virtually all government assets that can be incorporated in or assist with Aboriginal economic and cultural development in remote areas.

It combines Parks and Wildlife in what will; increasingly become a series of estates in central Australia that will be jointly managed with Traditional Owners and Native Title Holders of the parks.

It brings in all existing heritage assets in central Australia that will value add to the Aboriginal histories of the region.

It brings in Arts NT, and the Northern Territory Film Office, both of which have potentially critical roles to play.

It brings in assets such as Araluen and Olive Pink Reserve, along with the Desert Park that we see as being increasingly linked to a viewing of Alice Springs and indeed all of central Australia as a “cultural precinct”, and for central Australia to take its rightful place as the heartland of Australian culture—Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

In all of this, we obviously want Aboriginal land owners of central Australia as integral partners.

But I recognise that this is not going to be a simple task. It is up to us, as a Government, to build strategic alliances and links between the tourism industry at large, and with Aboriginal interests in remote areas—and the Aboriginal arts and crafts centres are vital links in this process.

Which is why, as Government, we place ourselves very much in opposition to those who seem determined to allow our smaller communities wither on the vine.

And I am well aware that, today, the arts and crafts industry—through its representative organisations such as Desart hosting today’s symposium—is not taking it lightly.

They, too, are drawing a line in the sand when it comes to the protection of the industry—and the many thousands of our fellow citizens who benefit from it—with the release of the Commercial Code of Conduct for the industry.

This is very much aimed at those in the industry who seek to destroy it for quick term gain, those people—commonly known as carpetbaggers—who whether they recognise it or not are very much in the camp of enemies of our remote communities. What they do contributes just as much to poisoning the well of the arts industry as those who want to use the land as a waste dump.

What the industry is saying to the less scrupulous parts of the industry—and this has my wholehearted support—is that this is you last chance to get your act together. If you are not prepared to take the road of self regulation to sustain the Aboriginal arts and crafts industry; the road to external regulation is on the cards.

I go further than that. This is my line in the sand. I would be prepared—in conjunction with my state and federal counterparts—to name and shame under the protection of parliamentary privilege the carpetbaggers whose actions—clearly—threaten to destroy the industry.

So none of you can say—at some later stage—you have not been given notice, this would be my intention if people do not clean up their act.


The subtitle of today’s symposium is “the value of art to lives in remote communities”.

It is this that we must not lose sight of: it is about people’s lives; about the lands they live on and love; and about caring for those lands now and in the future.

Thank you.

This entry was posted in Art and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s