Authenticity and Indigenous Art

Last year, in a series of articles by Greg Bearup, the Australian published a devastating expose of the APY Art Centre.

The Art Centre’s non-Aboriginal employees had, the paper said, interfered in the production of art that was being sold as purely Aboriginal, in several instances without the consent of the works’ purported creators. Additionally, some of the artists whose work had been tampered with claimed that when they told their story to the Australian, they were repeatedly threatened, including with legal action, by the Art Centre’s management. Overall, the Art Centre, which is generously funded by taxpayers, had harassed and acted unconscionably towards its artists and misled the purchasers of their work.

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Those allegations didn’t stop the National Gallery of Australia, after it had commissioned a predictably exculpatory review, from mounting a high-profile exhibition of the Art Centre’s work. They did, however, convince the South Australian government to establish an inquiry, whose damning findings led to referrals to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and to the federal Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC).

Since then, nothing has been heard from the ACCC. As for the ORIC, it has once again displayed its talent for masterly inactivity, prompting the Northern Territory’s Arts and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chansey Paech to denounce “ORIC’s failure to deal with this very serious matter in a timely manner”. “What it says to me,” Paech declared a few weeks ago, “is, ‘What else is being referred to ORIC that they are ignoring?’”

A glance at the long list of Aboriginal corporations that regularly fail to meet their statutory reporting requirements would have readily answered the minister’s question. And now that the matter is in the ORIC’s hands, it too may simply gather dust, leaving the Art Centre to carry on as it sees fit.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the whole saga is how little reflection it has prompted on the Aboriginal arts industry and the narrative on which it rests. After all, the fact that “white hands” regularly touch “black art” is hardly news. “There are ‘Aboriginal’ paintings hanging in major collections that include large areas filled in by Europeans”, wrote Eric Michaels, a radical American anthropologist and cultural critic, shortly before he died in 1988, aged forty.

Having spent several years working with Walpiri communities in the Central Desert, Michaels had been struck by the sweeping transformations taking place in the region’s traditional iconography. “Orderly rows of contrasting dots”—redolent of “1960s and 1970s international painting, especially the extreme schematisations of New York minimalism”—had appeared in places where they were previously unknown.

“As the painters interacted more and more with Australian and then overseas markets, attracting sophisticated brokers, critics, and patrons along the way”, commercial demands, together with “the logistics of using the new media (acrylics, rectangular portable surfaces)”, had pushed production towards styles, such as dot painting, which “label and authenticate desert acrylics for the European viewer”.

Meanwhile, “[Western] advisers who are supposed to understand Western taste and economics” had increasingly intervened in the process of creation—with results which could only “disqualify the painting from the discourses of spontaneous, untainted production, which are still employed in its marketing, thus raising scandalous assessments of the advisers’ professionalism and judgment”.

Yet it was a “curious fact that almost nothing of this work is ever designated ‘bad’”, no matter how close it veered to pastiche. Rather, as Aboriginal art became the object of a national cult, a blind eye was willingly turned to the gap between the indigenous art world’s reality and its romantic self-characterisation.

At the heart of that self-characterisation is the notion of authenticity. Usually, authenticity is viewed as meaning that a work is the product of, and solely of, its named creator. That concept is in many respects relatively recent. It is well known that the Renaissance’s great artists delegated a broad range of tasks to assistants; and although Giorgio Vasari mentioned the question of authenticity in his landmark Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), neither he nor his successors believed an authentic work was one whose creator had worked alone.

It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that authenticity, as we currently understand it, moved to the centre of attention. That was partly a result of the rise of large public exhibitions, beginning with the London exhibition of great masters in 1815 and culminating in Amsterdam’s sumptuous Rembrandt exhibition of 1898. When works from widely scattered collections were, for the first time, displayed side by side, it became apparent that many paintings attributed to a great master were so dissimilar as to rule out the possibility that they had been painted by the same person. In the wake of the controversies that provoked, a science of attribution developed, which then received a vast boost when the American robber barons became large-scale—but often deeply suspicious—purchasers of works from Europe’s financially strapped nobility.

Meanwhile, European Romanticism was forging an entirely new vision of the artist. Epitomised by the myth-making that surrounded the life of Vincent van Gogh, the image of the artist was transformed from that of a master craftsman operating amidst a swarm of apprentices into a solitary, often tormented, genius, whose work bore the indelible imprint of what the Romantics called a “beautiful soul”. Authenticity—the artist’s undivided responsibility for the entire work—thereby acquired, and subsequently retained, a moral connotation it previously lacked.

How realistic that notion is has always been contentious. There have, for sure, been artists who live up to its stereotype. But it rarely corresponded to the reality of the more commercially oriented artists, such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, who are contemporary caricatures of its exact opposite.

Collective production also continued to play an important role in what came to be known, in the first half of the twentieth century, as “primitive art”. Previously, its creators had produced artefacts rigidly defined by ritual and tradition. As they turned instead to producing “artworks” for sale to wealthy collectors in distant markets, managers and dealers were invariably involved in informing, and in some well-documented instances guiding, their newly empowered creative efforts.

Yet once the market grew, and individual artists became valuable brands, authenticity in its conventional sense was also adopted by the “primitive” artworld. Nowhere was that truer than in Australia’s burgeoning Aboriginal art complex, which soon signed up to the test that standard sets: that an artwork be the product of its named creator, not of unacknowledged others.

The complex’s promoters have—and with growing stridency—claimed authenticity in an entirely different, vastly more far-reaching sense, too: as the custodians and sole authorised producers of a distinct iconography that non-Aboriginal artists can neither fully grasp nor legitimately deploy. 

That broader contention, which rides on the coattails of conventional authenticity’s moral cachet, permeates every recent review of policy for Aboriginal art, going from the December 2018 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs, through the 2022 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts and Crafts, to the Albanese government’s National Cultural Policy, Revive, with its catchy slogan of “First Nations First”.

Drenched in the jargon of authenticity, those documents broadly share the definition (presented as exemplary in the House of Representatives report) of “Authentic Indigenous arts and craft” as “arts and craft made by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person from start to finish”. And they also share the contention that “First Nations art, craft and cultural expressions belong to First Nations peoples; non-Indigenous artists and artisans should not appropriate or copy this expression in any way, even with good intentions”. Repeatedly drawing an analogy to land, their policy prescription is to somehow vest in Aboriginal communities the legal ownership of “Indigenous culture”, along with exclusive control over its use.

That analogy makes no sense: culture, however defined, is not in the least like land. Indeed, the word’s Latin root—cultura, which means “that which is about to grow”—stresses its ever-changing, inherently open-ended nature, as a repertoire of individual and collective possibilities that is constantly renewed by interactions within and between communities. And just as the style, form and content of Aboriginal iconography have been, and continue to be, permanently changed by its contact with the wider world, so has that iconography become an integral part of the experience and iconographic repertoire of all Australian artists.

Our cultural separatists brush that reality aside, just as they ignore the deeply valued partnerships that have marked relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists, such as that between Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira. There are, of course, precedents for their wilful blindness and narrow-mindedness: when the Chifley Labor government decided in 1946 to produce a film on Namatjira, Melbourne’s staunchly left-wing Contemporary Art Society denounced Namatjira’s “so-called ‘art’” as “only the clever aping of an alien art form”, whose departures from tradition damaged the Aboriginal heritage.

But at that time, cultural separatism was a fringe phenomenon. Even in the late 1980s, when Michaels wrote his famous essay, it was still incipient. Now, from government departments to the Australia Council, it is the air the Australian art world breathes.

The trouble is that it is toxic. In effect, as best one can tell, separatism’s underlying goal is to somehow preserve the integrity of Aboriginal culture. But even putting aside distasteful similarities to the horrors totalitarian regimes perpetrated in the name of “cultural purity”, no culture has ever been strengthened by being quarantined from its broader environment. On the contrary, the most effective way of ensuring a tradition will wither away is to allow it to become self-referential, losing the dynamism that comes from the pressures of emulation and of competition. And to believe that cultures are objects that can be frozen in time is a grotesque illusion: embalming kills the living as surely as it preserves the dead.

There are already many signs of that illusion’s pernicious consequences in Aboriginal art centres. Funded with little regard for aesthetic merit, their output scarcely rises to the imaginative splendour—and unabashed iconoclasm—of Papunya’s early works, instead all too often descending into a kitsch that endlessly recycles familiar motifs. That is no accident: as Michaels cogently argued, just as there are magnificent art works produced by Aboriginal artists, so there are works that are not even third rate. And if the government underwrites bad art so long as it looks Aboriginal, it will not only generate masses of bad art; it will also create incentives for unscrupulous operators to ensure it is produced, no matter how improperly.

Of course, none of that excuses the abuse of power by art centre managers. Nor can it excuse misleading purchasers by claiming that works are produced entirely by Aboriginal artists when they are not. But that conduct would be despicable regardless of whether the artists it affected—or the art centre managers who engaged in it it—were white, black or any shade in between. Had it been “black hands” rather than “white hands” that had, without the artist’s consent and without proper disclosure, touched “black art”, the offence would be no less serious.

Unfortunately, instead of bringing that to the surface, the public discussion of the APY Art Centre affair did the exact opposite: it cemented the notion that the scandal lay in the fact that the hands at issue were white. Far from being undermined, cultural separatism emerged strengthened. Bad enough that our approach to Aboriginal issues is a Babel tower of confused sentiments; we are, it seems, doomed to destroy Aboriginal art so as to save it.

Henry Ergas received the Order of Australia in 2016 “for distinguished service to infrastructure economics, and to higher education, to public policy development and review, and as a supporter of emerging artists”.


7 thoughts on “Authenticity and Indigenous Art

  • DougD says:

    ” a science of attribution developed, which then received a vast boost when the American robber barons became large-scale—but often deeply suspicious—purchasers of works from Europe’s financially strapped nobility.” Not suspicious enough. The pre-eminent attribution expert, Bernard Berenson, has been revealed as a secret partner of Joseph [Lord] Duveen, the pre-eminent art dealer to the American robber barons.

  • Tony Thomas says:

    “As for the ORIC, it has once again displayed its talent for masterly inactivity, prompting the Northern Territory’s Arts and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chansey Paech to denounce “ORIC’s failure to deal with this very serious matter in a timely manner”. “What it says to me,” Paech declared a few weeks ago, “is, ‘What else is being referred to ORIC that they are ignoring?’””
    ORIC threw a white woman administrator off the roll of the Aboriginal-only Twofold Aboriginal Corporation, but has sidelined my complaints that non-Aboriginal Bruce Pascoe is not only on the roll but a director. It also manages public documents of Aboriginal corporations in such a way as to make it difficult for citizens to investigate their finances. The Registrar is on $326,000 a year and needs to earn her pay.

    • pmprociv says:

      Good onya, Tony, for yet again raising this important (and embarrassing) issue. Obviously, the powers-that-be desperately wish to keep the lid of this Pandora’s Box (or can of worms?) tightly locked down. Meanwhile, Uncle Professor Bruce Pascoe quietly grows older and older (and maybe richer?) . . . as, of course, do those over-paid administrators.

  • pmprociv says:

    Thanks, Henry, for you characteristically comprehensive and authoritative analysis of a complex subject. Apart from the fundamental question, “What’s more important: the artwork itself, or the little signature in the bottom corner?” (which applies to all art), you’ve raised issues here that have been in need of serious resolution for a long time.

    How far should the definition, “Authentic Indigenous arts and craft” as “arts and craft made by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person from start to finish”, extend? Can the materials, i.e. paints and brushes, and their substrate, the canvas or board, be imported, or are they to be manufactured in situ, using only “traditional” methods? Any thoughtful visitor to a remote Aboriginal art centre will quickly see how its products are tuned to the tourist market, Yirrkala (just outside Nhulunbuy, the source of most buyers) providing an accessible example, whose products can even be bought online.

    As for the inspiration and creation of such artworks, Kim Mahood’s “Position Doubtful” offers an engaging revelation of what can be involved, where a city-based white artist arrives in a desert community and motivates the locals to produce large paintings based on her ideas. I found it interesting that it was almost entirely the old residents who were drawn into the projects, with their memories of walking the country in the past, while their bored offspring indulged in more worldly (or “escapist”?) matters. And it was remarkable how just about everyone in those communities could be elevated to status of “artist”! I’m not sure this reveals amazing, hidden talents. Essentially, it has become a form of occupational therapy, in which the oldies sit around chatting and reminiscing in groups, while dabbing paint onto large canvases or sheets. It’s not surprising that the white overseer might need to offer regular suggestions and directions. This is nothing like traditional art production, where nomadic groups would stop at suitable locations to apply ochre onto the walls of caves and rocky outcrops (or their own bodies). Intricate patterns painted or carved onto artefacts, such as boomerangs, shields, coolamons, didgeroos etc. are another matter.

    While I can understand your “none of that excuses the abuse of power by art centre managers”, one must consider just what the responsibilities of such managers involve. Not only do they have to provide the venue, materials and inspiration for the local artists, but they then have to find, stimulate and maintain, suitable markets. The headaches must be endless. Of course, that doesn’t justify abusive behaviour, although these positions in remote, demanding locales do tend to attract unusual personalities. Finally, I get the impression that the market for Aboriginal art is already over-saturated, which must present the biggest headache of them all.

    • padraic says:

      I take your point, pmprociv, about traditional art in the form of rock art and that found on various artefacts. I have viewed plenty of traditional Aboriginal wall art in WA, NT and Qld and have never seen “dot painting” art on cave walls, nor scenes like those of Namatjira. These activists, pushing separatism, tie themselves up in hypocritical knots about what constitutes “Aboriginal tradition” which like most traditions adapts elements of other cultures. Are they going to say the only authentic art in Europe is that found on the stone age walls of caves in France and Spain or that non-Europeans cannot paint in the style of the Impressionists et al. because it would constitute “cultural appropriation”?

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    In the 1970s art in the west Arnhem Land region took a step forward with introduction of a new, bright blue pigment. The source was rapidly traced to the laundry room of a cattle station – Reckitt’s bag blue, long familiar to clothes washers in many countries, with no known links to aboriginal culture.
    I am only loosely familiar with this event because it seems to be an early victim of the technique of silence about controversy. It is possible that a study of the new blue would form a neat basis, a thread about what is good and what is bad about management of aboriginal art. I suspect that management has evolved to help moochers make money; and that it is neither beneficial nor needed. Geoff S

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    ‘Culture’ displays the bright flowers of a tribe to the enemy – as the bower bird dances to attract his mate. It is both a display of beauty and the beautiful and a warning to the enemy through the sublimity of the beauty. ‘look at us’ it says ‘look how beautiful we are’ – Initially, most cultures offer their culture for free and shower their enemies with the beauty of their ways – seduce them with their song and dance, mesmerise them with ‘art’ … but I can think of no other culture on earth that has ever quarantined their culture from ‘appropriation’ – in fact it is almost the purpose of ‘culture’ to seduce the enemy into mimicking their art – to overcome the barbarians with their culture so completely as to incorporate them – envelope them – integrate or assimilate them. Either that, or be assimilated themselves …

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