Notes on the Senate Inquiry: Kununurra

Reading the transcripts of the Senate Hearings held in Kununurra, I was suddenly struck by how little information about the Kimberley I’ve synthesized over the years. I’m always surprised at finding Balgo included in the region, for example. Geographically, I understand it, and I also know deep in my brain that the Kukatja moved north out of the desert in the wake of depopulation in the Kimberley, thus explaining the strong cultural ties to countries further south. Artistically, I’ve come to identify the region with the “East Kimberley” style of ochre painting, and identify that style primarily with Warmun. And so I have not paid close attention to the emergence of Kununurra itself as a strong regional painting center in the last five to ten years.

It was a bit of a shock then to take in the cast of participants who took up most of the day’s testimony at Kununurra and to appreciate for the first time the diverse jumble of enterprises centered in the town. There’s the traditional “art centre” of Waringarri, represented on February 19 by manager Cathy Cummins and by employee/artist Kim Griffiths, grandson of Alan and Peggy Griffiths. Tony Oliver, as Artistic Director of Jirrawun Arts, has forged an entirely new model for the representation of artists in the past decade, and now leads a roster of superstars through the complexities of the marketplace. He was joined at the proceedings by Freddie Timms, whose association with Oliver goes back to the source of Jirrawun. Kevin Kelly of Red Rock Art manages the estates of several prominent exponents of the East Kimberly style, including Rover Thomas, and so I was surprised at the fact that he adamantly presented Red Rock as an art gallery, but not an indigenous art gallery. And finally there was Pam Linklater or Our Land Gallery, which I’ve known previously only in its online incarnation, AboriginalArtShop.com, and whose actual geographic location and relationship to various artists from Kununurra, Warmun, Kalumburu, and Frog Hollow had never deeply penetrated my consciousness before.

Adding to the element of surrealism in the transcripts was the fact that the Senators had been shown around the town and its galleries prior to the commencement of proceedings that day. Not that such a tour was strange in and of itself, especially since a trip to Waringarri was likely to be the only visit to an art centre that the Senators could easily manage during their week-long whirlwind of touring and testimony. But the personal time spent with many of witnesses prior to the opening of testimony in Kununurra lent an air of almost cozy familiarity to the day’s business that ended in the rather sharp contrast of the day’s final testimony from Annette Cock of Warlayirti Artists. In a way, I felt I was listening in on a sort of indigenous artworld “Profiles on Parade” where personalities sometimes loomed larger than the issues at hand.

Which is not to say that there weren’t important lessons for me (and the Senators, too, I think) in the day’s testimony. Chief among these was the complicated business of tax, exemptions, Centrelink payments, and other bureaucratic entanglements that gave me a really new appreciation for the heroism of art centre managers. In the transcripts that I’ve read, in conversations with managers, and in other scattered readings over the years, I’ve heard the complaints about paperwork and government agencies before. But after reading the Kununurra testimony, I think I’d rather eat glass that tackle Centrelink or the Australian Taxation Office in relation to the activities of an art centre. And the next time someone tries to tell me that managers are making good money at $50,000 Australian a year, I will just laugh my tail off in reply.

Tony Oliver is perhaps the most passionate on the issues of taxation and the problems it causes for Aboriginal artists, especially those who suddenly find themselves the recipient of a windfall in sales that can disrupt Centrelink payments while bringing the taxman down on their heads. Freddie Timms has had an especially hard time with ten years of back taxes to pay off. Any of us would be struck hard by such a circumstance–I speak from personal experience of having made errors in filing my own US income tax, having the IRS take years to document the error, and then owing interest as well as the prime for all those years I thought I had done right. But in indigenous society, where income is expected to be redistributed to relatives as it arrives, having to fork over a large share of that income to the ATO must be literally inexplicable.

Oliver is eloquent on the problems of artists and money: not just relative to the ATO, but to carpetbaggers as well. (If you owed over $100,000 in back taxes, wouldn’t the opportunity to pull in some quick cash on the side seem appealing?) What he says overall is not news, but it bears repeating here.

Mr Oliver—In terms of colonisation of Australia people from this part of the country really were the last people colonised in European and Australian history, so we are not even 250 years down the track here. We have maybe 140 years of interaction with a hunter-gatherer society. Out of those 140 years, probably the first 80 of those were not particularly pleasant; people were killed and poisoned. There was no friendship from the Europeans. Then we had a cattle industry where people worked for no wages. So you got your tucker, you got your tea, you got your pants and you got a little bit of holiday pay at the end of the year. For the most part in those stations, there was no interest in teaching management skills or monetary skills. We can bring it down to 1967, where Aboriginal people for the first time were receiving welfare payments with no understanding of money. So we have created a dependency system—

Senator PARRY—We handed the cheque without the education.

Mr Oliver—Yes, it is an outrageous sort of assumption on our part to leave great people with no skills—no management skills. Therefore, Aboriginal people become dependent on non-Indigenous people to manage their affairs. That should be regulated. The people working for Aboriginal people should be honest people. I think you can help that by setting some legislation in the parliament (pp. 40-41).

Cathy Cummins was equally eloquent and patient in explaining the financial operations of Waringarri Arts to the Senators, in outlining the irregular flow of income that artists receive, in explaining how payments are made to both artists and workers at the Arts Centre. On the latter topic, I thought she did an excellent job of showing how a responsible, creative manager can work with government agencies (like Centrelink) to create jobs, establish procedures that encourage responsible behavior, and manage financial resources for members of the community served by the arts centre. If the often discussed need for university level training for arts managers should ever come to pass, I hope some astute administrator will tap Ms Cummins for a spot on the faculty.

Another complication that Cummins pointed out is the disparity between the manner in which Centrelink focuses on payments to individuals and the distributed responsibility for support of family members in the community.

When we had our meetings with Centrelink, they gave me the calculations of when an artist declares their earnings of X amount and how it will gradually decrease their Centrelink payments. It does not take into account the grandmother who is supporting a dozen or so grandchildren and getting them to school and all of those sorts of things, because she is not listed as the carer (p. 20).

In my opening paragraphs I noted my surprise at the odd lot of art specialists in Kununurra. I should note also that they mostly seem to get on passably well with one another, and at least in the testimony on offer, don’t seem competitive or jealous of each other’s corners of the market. Perhaps the oddest revelation in all this though was Kevin Kelly’s declaration that he does not regard Red Rock Art as an indigenous art enterprise: he eschews the use of the words “Aboriginal” or “indigenous” and doesn’t restrict himself to representing only indigenous artists. Rather, he focuses on a certainly style of painting–in ochre–that is appropriate to the region. I found the whole exchange on this subject fascinating enough to reproduce here.

Senator MOORE—Senator Macdonald will follow up on some of the other suggestions. Firstly, I would like to get a comment from you about the cultural integrity of the art and how that is maintained and also about the intergenerational stuff. It comes up in a lot of the submissions about developing this as an effective industry with young people coming through, so that we actually balance the skills transfer with the cultural training and pride. I would really like to have your comment because you have worked in the area for so long. Secondly, do you have any issues about the role of the non-Indigenous artists working in an Indigenous style?

Mr Kelly—Just to start with that, Red Rock Art does not use the words ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Aboriginal’ in any of its promotion. I have taken art in its basic, creative form. A good painting is a good painting. It does not matter whether the person has got a black hand or a white hand. That is how Red Rock Art began. We do not claim Aboriginal status in our taxes with our GST. We charge the client GST and we pay the tax department for every one. It is easier that way. But I am continually annoyed by the overuse of the word ‘Indigenous’. They are Australians and they are either good painters or they are not good painters.

Senator MOORE—From your perspective as someone in the industry, you do not have a problem with someone painting in the style of a certain group who is not from that certain group?

Mr Kelly—It would not happen in the studio that I run because it has never actually happened. They have got to feel happy with themselves; you have got to fit into that studio. Are you talking about fraud?

Senator MOORE—That is my interpretation, but we are trying to work that out. It is one of the terms of reference for the committee that there have been allegations that there has been fraud, which is false claiming, but then there are variations of that as well. There is me, as an artist—I am not!— presenting a painting in an Indigenous style and everyone knowing it’s me, but I am not Indigenous. How do you feel about that? How would you promote that? Would you promote that? Secondly, if someone from this part of the world is painting in the style of North Queensland; they like the style and they choose to paint in that way. As someone in the industry, and someone who has a reputation and who sells, do you have any views about that?

Mr Kelly—Firstly, the work would be without cultural integrity. That is the very first thing. The second thing is, for me to promote it or to engage you in that, you would need to convince me that you are being creative.

Senator MOORE—So it is a good painting?

Mr Kelly—Yes, and I am sure there would be other considerations.

Senator MOORE—So you prefer to have the cultural integrity—that is important to you, but I do not want to put words into your mouth. Cultural integrity, as you talked about in your opening statement, is important. But if someone produces what you see as a good work of art and it is not in a certain style—for instance, the ochre paintings of this part of the world are quite famous and someone not from this part of the world might produce a good ochre painting—you would still be prepared to promote it?

Mr Kelly—Yes, I do. Jeanetta Dyson paints with us, and she paints in ochre. She paints her style. I actually did not hang a lot of that work—there was one piece up—but maybe I should have. Quite clearly, it is not painted by Nancy or Nellie. She has been painting for 40 years and is a highly—

Senator MOORE—So it is a good piece of work?

Mr Kelly—It can be, yes.

Senator MOORE—I saw her picture in your book and, whilst you cannot presume someone is not Indigenous by looking at a photograph—it would be very stupid to do that—my understanding is that that particular artist does not claim to be Indigenous.

Mr Kelly—No.

Senator MOORE—But she paints in that style, and you promote it. But everybody who is looking at it or buying it knows that it is not Indigenous?

Mr Kelly—Well, do they need to know that?

Senator MOORE—Do they?

Mr Kelly—No.

Senator MOORE—You do not think so?

Mr Kelly—No. But if Red Rock Art promoted itself as an Indigenous art gallery, and if there was a non-Indigenous person painting whatever, that would need to be clear. But we are not. To enable that cultural mix, we do not use the word ‘Indigenous’, and I have not found a need to use it yet.

Senator MOORE—But when I went into your gallery this morning—and it is very beautiful—I did not even think to ask whether the people whose works were on the wall were Indigenous; I just presumed they were.

Mr Kelly—All of them were, but the baskets were not, the sculptures were not, and the painting in the kitchen was not. We put them up because this was an Indigenous inquiry.

Senator MOORE—Can I just get a comment on your issue about how we retain the cultural integrity. When that is something that is being done, from your point of view, how do we do that and how do we get young people involved in the program?

Mr Kelly—I am suggesting that the art centre model which has carried us from 1986 through to now quite successfully may need to be reviewed to enable it to better function as a cultural maintenance organisation rather than continually trying to impress the funding bodies by making sales. That is one point. The other point is that we need to allow the marketplace to settle at the artist level and try and reduce this money culture that I see happening—that is, by painting for money rather than painting well and getting money. There is a big difference from just sitting and painting for money (pp. 29-31).

Kelly’s remarks raise a host of important issues. I’ve never visited the gallery (never been to Kununurra apart from a stopover at the airport) and the new Red Rock website is still under construction, so there is no information to be had there. I do find his notion that customers of the gallery need not know whether a painting by Jeanetta Dyson is “Aboriginal” or not to be just a bit disingenuous, but I also have never seen the work and can’t judge whether it might be mistaken for “Aboriginal art.” Certainly Kelly makes his point that he is selling good art, and that the driving principle in the marketplace needs to be one of quality. But given the tortured state of affairs that has prompted this inquiry, and the repeated and documented need for consumer education, I’m troubled by this attitude, and hope that I’m misunderstanding the situation on the ground in Kununurra.

I’m more concerned about the comments quoted in the final paragraph above that suggests that the model of the art centre as a marketing agency needs to be reviewed, and that the primary function of these centres be shifted towards cultural maintenance. While this may make sense from the point of view of a gallery owner, it certainly is at odds with much of the testimony given in the transcripts I’ve read to date (and with which I am in earnest agreement) about the importance of the economic contributions of art centres as well as their critical role in cultural maintenance. This is especially worrisome to me in the context of a government investigation that is focusing heavily on financial matters and questions of support for art centres. One need only remember the debacle at Balgo in 2001 when the new Cultural Centre was defunded within months of its opening, although the Arts Centre remained open.

The day’s hearings concluded with evidence presented by Annette Cock of Warlayirti Artists. The Senators quizzed her on CDEP, certificates of authenticity, and financial matters including the distribution of income to artists and the expenses of maintaining the Arts Centre. I was quite surprised, though, to find much of the testimony revolving on the issue of permits, and even more so, on the question of what is permitted in the community for those who have obtained permits. In all, I found it to be a most dispiriting discussion. Cock’s testimony raised many important concerns in the realm of intellectual property rights–a subject that has not been well explored in the transcripts I’ve read so far. But I felt that ultimately the issues were lost in the narrative of continuing strife and chaos in the community. It is a sorry state of affairs when such a high degree of contention exists, even with those who ought normally to be thought of as the most ardent supporters of the community. 

The Kununurra hearings must have certainly given the Senators an eyeful of the diversity of problems confronting the Aboriginal art industry as well as the diversity of approaches to pursuing and maintaining the place of indigenous arts in the economy, both local and national. I would not have thought of this small town being an especially illustrative microcosm of the current state of affairs, and I will find it interesting now to re-read the Darwin transcripts. I noted on my first reading of those that the Senators made frequent reference to affairs in Kununurra to provide context for their questions to the witnesses testifying in Darwin. 

The transcripts of the remaining hearings in Alice Springs and Sydney have been published now on the Hansard website, and those will be my next stop on a tour that has been far more provocative, educational, and varied than I had imagined, even after reading through most of the seventy-six submissions. The Committee’s report is due in less than two weeks now, on March 22. I am almost hoping that, given the complexities these hearings have revealed, the deadline will be pushed back to allow for further reflection and research on the part of the Senators. And I will say once again how impressed I am with the seriousness of purpose displayed by these men and women. Even the slightest hint of politicking on the part of one Senator in Darwin was quickly shot down–this is quite an education for an American.

Other posts on the Senate Inquiry:
Submissions 
Canberra 
Kununurra 
Darwin 
Alice Springs 
Sydney 

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