Photo: Pat Scala, The Age
A Fine Romance: White Money, Black Art
Paper for Crossing Cultures. 32nd International Conference in the History of Art,
for the session Economies of Desire: Art Collecting and Dealing Across Cultures.
Dr Philip Batty, Melbourne Museum. January 2008
Despite allegations of corruption and fraud, the Aboriginal art market continues to flourish. Early paintings fetch increasingly higher prices, while indigenous art centres maintain a steady supply of new works. This frenzied activity is of course, largely driven by white collectors. The promoters and managers of this burgeoning industry are also overwhelmingly white, as are the critics, curators and academics who write about Aboriginal art. With such intensive non-Aboriginal involvement, one could be forgiven for thinking that Aboriginal art is a ‘white thing’, as Aboriginal artist, Richard Bell has declared (1).
In this paper, I argue that Aboriginal art is neither a black or white thing, but a ‘cross-cultural’ phenomenon. Driven by a heavily mediated dialogue between its white consumers and black producers, I also argue that this intensive trans-cultural conversation shapes the form, content and the meaning of Aboriginal art. While the spending power of whites and the economic needs of blacks has played a fundamental role in generating and maintaining this dialogue, I would prefer to characterise it in gentler terms: as a kind of cross-cultural romance, in which the respective partners remain attached to each other through a mutually beneficial web of illusion and fantasy.
Marcel Duchamp famously proposed that the ‘spectators of art’ play an indispensable role in consummating what he termed ‘the creative act’ (2). Indeed, any form of art not only depends on the participation of it’s spectators, but on a wide array of historical, institutional, critical and aesthetic conventions. In short, art is not created by artists alone, it also depends on the nature of its reception and the engagement of its audience. This, it seems to me, is self-evident.
Nonetheless, if we apply the same reasoning to Aboriginal art, we are confronted with a number of awkward questions. If the spectators of Aboriginal art are essentially white, how do they interact with black artists in facilitating the production of Aboriginal art? Indeed, how do they participate in something that originates in a culture to which they ostensibly have little or no access? How do Aboriginal artists transform their sacred religious iconography into a western commodity called art? How do white art critics and curators make informed judgements about an art based on cultural traditions that appear alien to their own?
Such questions are often posed in discussions about Aboriginal art, yet the answers are usually confused, or at best, inadequate. Some commentators simply abandon the attempt to deal with such anomalies and conclude that Aboriginal art has become, in some mysterious way, part of the western tradition of high art, without really explaining how this occurred. More commonly, others will argue that there is no problem; Aboriginal art has always been around; the real problem has been with the art establishment which only began to recognise Aboriginal art in recent times. In other words, Aboriginal art is the victim of a conspiracy, or at least, wilful neglect.
Underlying these kinds of responses is the idea that Aboriginal art originates in a discrete culture, bound by tradition and the exclusive experiences of Aboriginal people. While non-Aboriginals can observe, learn and buy, they can have no influence on the production of Aboriginal art. Indeed, to challenge such assumptions would be to undermine its very foundations. And here, I think, is the rub.
Contemporary cultural theory emphatically rejects the notion that a ‘culture’ is a fixed quantity, bound by inaccessible borders. As we all know, the concept of self-contained ‘cultures’ is a western invention, developed primarily by eighteenth century German thinkers such as Herder and Hamann, who themselves disagreed about the definition of a ‘culture’ (3). The proposition that Aboriginal art, or any art, originates in a closed, inaccessible realm is based on an illusion, and a western illusion at that.
Most importantly, the identity of an individual, nation or culture grows out of a continual process of comparison and measurement against other individuals, nations and cultures. Whether such comparisons and constructions are real or imagined, they play a central role in the constitution of any identity including, in this case, the identity of Aboriginal art. As Stuart Hall neatly puts it: ‘identity is a structured representation that only achieves its positive through the narrow eye of the negative. It has to go through the eye of the needle of the other before it can construct itself.’ (Hall 1996:21).
It therefore seems to me that the interaction between Aboriginal artists and their white audience should be viewed in these relational terms. While Aboriginal artists are certainly positioned in discrete cultural enclosures, such positioning can be seen as an outcome of their relationship with their white audience, as can the general production of Aboriginal art. In other words, while the cultural differences separating Aboriginal artists from their spectators is a necessary requirement in the production of Aboriginal art, such separations and enclosures are mutually constructed through a complex interplay between the two, and are not only temporary, but subject to continuous modification.
This open-ended domain of cross-cultural interaction not only facilitates the production of Aboriginal art, but also generates a wide range of meanings for both the Aboriginal artists and their non-Aboriginal spectators, which may be similar, contradictory, contested or incommensurate. It is the vague and opaque nature of this domain that I think acts as the primary driver of Aboriginal art. Here, white consumers can indulge their fantasies, and embroider works of Aboriginal art with meanings that may or may not have occurred to the Aboriginal artists. It also provides a medium through which the artists may perhaps respond to such fantasies and reshape their work to accommodate them. This is not a negative critique. On the contrary, such intercultural static can be considered as a creative spur in shaping the art at the centre of this black-white dialogue.
Before the 1970s, the term ‘contemporary Aboriginal art’ had little if any currency. The National Gallery of Australia’s recent acquisition of a Clifford Possum painting for $2.4 million would have been incomprehensible to any director of a state gallery in the 1960s. Similarly, the intensive cross-cultural domain that I have outlined here, and the Aboriginal art industry that it supports, are both recent arrivals. In the second section of this paper I provide a brief history of these developments.
In a general sense, the origins of contemporary Aboriginal art can be found in the long-standing European fascination with the ‘primitive other’, and in the equally antiquated trade in their material culture. How this trade in primitive exotica ultimately facilitated the emergence of what we now call ‘Aboriginal art’ is a long and complex story. However, the most important episode occurred relatively recently, in Central Australia and more specifically, at the Aboriginal settlement of Papunya. It was here that ‘Aboriginal art’ as we now know it first made an appearance, although the story begins with artefacts, not art.
Western desert Aboriginals were trading artefacts with Europeans as far back as the late 19th century. This not only included utilitarian objects, but artefacts specifically made to sell. By the 1920s, Aboriginal craft workers at the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg and other centres were producing large quantities of what were termed, ‘Aboriginal curios’ for sale to tourists. (4). This continued into the 1950s, eventually involving the Aboriginal community of Haasts Bluff and later, Papunya. Some of the Aboriginal men who played a key role in the establishment of the celebrated, Papunya Tula Artists Company were closely involved in this trade including Kaapa Tjampitjinpa and Clifford Possum.
This century-old activity was central to the eventual transformation of Aboriginal traditions into ‘art’. It laid the foundations for the cross-cultural domain I have described here, in which a dialogue – conditioned by commercial exchange – was gradually established between Aboriginals and Europeans. Within this domain, neither the ‘whitefella way’, nor the ‘blackfella way’ held sway. Rather, it was a creative interchange in which the Aboriginal craft worker and European buyer exercised varying degrees of influence.
Like any form of trade, this interchange worked on a classic supply-and-demand basis. Here, the Aboriginal craft worker had to accommodate the tastes of the European buyer if they wanted to make any money. In other words, the buyer obtained a product that coincided with their preconceptions about what constituted a piece of Aboriginal craftwork. In this way, the European buyer had an influence – consciously or unconsciously – in shaping the products offered for sale. By the same token, the response of the Aboriginal craftsperson would be conditioned by their individual skills, knowledge and personal interests. Moreover, they may not have always wanted to accommodate the tastes of the buyer and instead preferred to offer alternative products. Thus, the actual objects at the centre of this commercially-driven dialogue can be considered as cross-cultural products, shaped in one degree or another, by both Aboriginal and European values and interests.
Just as importantly, this domain of intercultural activity gave the Aboriginal craftsperson a way of separating the production of tourist fare from their own ceremonial objects upon which such work was often based. By relegating the production of tourist curios to a domain that was not considered to be true ‘blackfella business’, the religious sanctions that normally applied could be wavered. Certainly, from my own observations, the men at Papunya had no trouble in placing serious ceremonial ritual in the separate category of ‘blackfella business’, while locating their painting activities in the category of ‘whitefella business’.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this long-term trade was that it included the sale of secret-sacred objects (turlku), to anthropologists, museums and private collectors (5). Indeed, market interest in these objects grew to such an extent that copies began to be manufactured to meet the demand. The replicas were decorated with the same or similar versions of the iconographic forms on the originals. By the late 1960s, wooden ‘blanks’ were being run off in the local workshop at Papunya and given to the local men to decorate and sell (6). Not surprisingly, when they began to paint on small wooden boards in the early 1970s, most of these early works depicted, in explicit ways, the designs from the same ritual objects.
As is well known, the men were encouraged in this work by the art teacher Geoffrey Bardon who was employed at the local school in 1971 (7). Bardon’s arrival at Papunya coincided with a series of momentous events that added impetus to the development of the men’s work. In 1972, the Whitlam Labor government came to power. Land rights legislation and a host of other initiatives were implemented, including the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board (part of the Australian Council for the Arts). This resulted in financial support for the fledgling Papunya Tula Artists company that Bardon helped establish in 1972. While the promotion of Aboriginal cultural heritage was an important aspect of this project, much of the effort was directed at creating income opportunities for local Aboriginal people. The overriding aim was to secure a viable place for the company in the art market. Certainly, Bardon, to his credit, made valiant efforts to achieve this end.
The establishment of Papunya Tula Artists Pty. Ltd., and the efforts to make it a ‘viable business’, can be seen as a continuation of the long-established trading traditions between Aboriginals and Europeans. The supply and demand principle now began to operate across a far more elaborate and finely tuned intercultural domain of commercial exchange, encompassing local buyers, interstate art galleries, art dealers, art critics and promoters. Moreover, specialised intermediaries in the form of ‘art advisors’ were now employed, for the first time, to coordinate these increasingly complex connections.
These arrangements had the effect of streamlining the process by which the Aboriginal painters could accommodate the tastes of the European buyers. Certainly, as the money from art sales flowed into Papunya – prompting an increasing number of men to join the ranks of the ‘artist mob’ – it was obvious, even to the most inexperienced painters, that some works sold, while others did not, thus initiating modifications to the work. By the late 1970s, many of the painters had abandoned their earlier, experimental painting, and settled into more saleable styles. Such works were products of what was now a highly attenuated intercultural dialogue. Here, the aesthetic values of the European market were increasingly incorporated into the paintings and as a result, converted into something that could be confidently read as ‘art’.
During the intervening years, the production of contemporary Aboriginal art has grown ever more sophisticated with sales networks stretching from Central Australia to Paris and New York. Moreover, the early beginnings at Papunya have not only spurred the establishment of hundreds of Aboriginal art centres throughout remote and regional Australia, it has also given great impetus to urban-based Aboriginal artists.
The close integration of Aboriginal art with the market is unique in Australian art. In townships such as Alice Springs, art dealers commonly rent hotel rooms or even warehouses where Aboriginal artists will spend weeks producing art for the dealer’s clients. From my observations, the artists are usually happy with such arrangements, and who can blame them? Most Aboriginal people in the remote communities of Central Australia live in dire poverty, and producing art often represents their only means of earning an income.
This close connection with the market also operates in the more reputable community art centres, which now number over forty in Central Australia alone. Art advisors and other administrative staff are employed to manage such centres and are under constant pressure from funding bodies and their Aboriginal employers to maximise sales. Given the fierce competition between such centres, advisors will try and spot market trends and work with their artists to exploit them, or set new trends by helping them experiment with new approaches to their work, sometimes creating whole new genres of Aboriginal art.
Such methods may seem repellent to some, however, similar art industries have also appeared throughout the history of western art. In the affluent Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, Flemish artists worked through highly competitive and tightly controlled artist guilds where paintings were produced to suite every taste, income and fantasy. Indeed, most of the characters depicted in Rembrandt’s Night Watch were real people who paid a share to appear in the painting, although how Rembrandt chose to depict them depended on how much they were willing to pay (8).
As with the boom in Flemish art, the high turn over in Aboriginal art – coupled with the close mediation of art advisors and dealers – ensures continuous feedback between the black producers and white consumers of Aboriginal art. Here again, the tastes, interests and fantasies of buyers are easily accommodated in the production process, whether this occurs in a deliberate, mediated or unconscious manner. And what are those interests and fantasies?
Heading the list would be the old fascination with the ‘primitive other’. Although contemporary anthropology now sees the notion of primitive societies as a western invention – as Adam Kuper effectively argues – such fantasies still propel the Aboriginal art industry (9). Promotional material from Aboriginal art galleries, routinely convey the idea that Aboriginal art originates in a world locked in an ideal pre-industrial past, and that Aboriginal artists offer a passport to this lost garden of Eden. Of course, such fantasies would have been of little interest in 19th century Australia when colonial settlement and national advancement was the order of the day. But with the looming endgame promised by global warming, even the illusion of a time when all was right with the world is an attractive proposition, worth paying for.
There is also the propensity to view Aboriginal art through the lens of western modernism. Indeed, the later work of Turkey Tolson, Mick Namarari and most particularly, Emily Kngwarreye gradually evolved under the persistent gaze of critics and curators who insisted on reading their work as high abstract expressionism (10). Given the enormous demand for such work – and the prices collectors were willing to pay – all three artists were happy to supply the kind of art demanded of them, and thus feed the fantasy that they were masters of an art originating in New York.
Such observations are perhaps irrelevant in our apparently ‘post-modern’ era. Hybridity, cross-cultural confusion, fantasy, illusion and the economic power of the art market all drive the production of art. Indeed, after Marcel Duchamp famously declared that a urinal was an objet d’art, we now have a licence to call anything art including whatever Aboriginal artists might choose to create. I would argue however – as did Duchamp – that ‘art’ does not appear out of thin air. Like any human products, it is socially constructed. This is what Duchamp was getting at when he anointed the urinal as art. His ‘ready-mades’ were not only meant to expose the pretensions of modern art, but how art is delineated by complex conventions, usually hidden from view. Here, I have tried to unpick some of those conventions and offered some speculative answers as to how various political, economic, historical and aesthetic conventions have worked towards the production of what we call Aboriginal art.
1. Richard Bell won the 2003 Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award with a work entitled ‘Scienta E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) , or “Aboriginal Art It’s a White Thing”. He also wrote an unpublished paper, ‘Bell’s Theorem – Aboriginal Art, It’s a White Thing’.
2. Marcel Duchamp’s brief manifesto, ‘The Creative Act’ is published in Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp. New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959, pp. 77-78.
3. See Robert T. Clerk: Herder: His Life and Thought, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955 and Isaiah Berlin, Haman and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism, London: J.Murray 1993.
4. See Museum Victoria 1929, Correspondence from Heinrich to Croll, Croll Manuscripts, Museum Victoria.
5. See Philip Batty, ‘White Redemption Rituals; Reflections on the Repatriation of Aboriginal Secret-Sacred Objects’ pp. 55-65 in Lea, Kowal and Cowlishw (Eds)Moving Anthropology: Critical Indigenous Studies, Darwin: CDU Press, 2006
6. Pers. comm. Dick Kimber 2004
7. See Geoffrey Bardon and James Bardon, Papunya : a place made after the story : the beginnings of the Western Desert painting movement, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2004
8. See Gretchen D. Atwater, The impact of trade by the Dutch East India Company on seventeenth-century Netherlandish art, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 1987
9. See Adam Kuper, The reinvention of primitive society : transformations of a myth, London ; New York: Routledge, 2005.
10. While employed as the Co-Director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in 1988, I heard the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, describe Emily Kngwarreye as “one of the finest abstract expressionists in Australia”. Art critics such as Elwyn Lynn have characterised Kngwarreye’s work in similar terms.
Hall, S. (1996) Introduction, Questions of Cultural Identity, Sage Publications: London