Passion, Rich Collectors and the Export Dollar: The Selling of Aboriginal Art Overseas

The author with Djon Mundine explore the paradox which is faced by Aboriginal dealers and curators who take Aboriginal art to the world. Issues of viability to ethnocentricity and notions of the primitive as well as the role of art in educating audiences and promoting the culture of indigenous Australians are discussed.

The paradox
Within Australia there are two common misconceptions about Aboriginal art and the international audience. First there is the belief that 'selling Aboriginal art overseas is the biggest thing since sliced bread and the quickest way to make a buck'. However this is far from the truth - the overseas commercial value of the art is vastly overestimated. The second is that most Australians either underestimate or are completely unaware of the huge amount of promotion - as opposed to 'marketing' - of indigenous Australian art and culture that has occurred through non-commercial visual arts exhibitions shown in all parts of the globe in the last 12 years. Such promotions have significantly increased the international audience's awareness of Australian indigenous art and recognition of indigenous culture as a key part of Australia's national identity. In this article we want to explore the various issues faced by dealers and curators in taking Aboriginal art to the world, from viability to ethnocentricity and notions of the primitive, to the role of art in educating audiences and promoting the culture of indigenous Australians.

An example of the first assumption: the other day a person buying artworks direct from a remote community art centre was heard telling the staff that she had contacts in North America intimating that this could lead to "big things". She was sincere but unfortunately over optimistic - they had heard the same words many times before and had learned to smile and say 'that would be nice'. There is a long line of people who have sought to take Aboriginal art and culture to the wider world by way of selling the artworks and many of them thought they may be able to make a tidy income whilst doing so. There is a much shorter line of people who have been able to achieve a livelihood through the sales of indigenous art in overseas markets and most have achieved that through long, hard slog. Common to all of them is a passion about the intrinsic merit of the art and its creators.

There have been a number of attempts to crack the New York market. Howard Rower, the owner of the Australia Gallery which operated in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a New York native who had travelled to Australia and had proverbially 'fallen in love' with Aboriginal art during an outback tour in 1987 that included Lajamanu, Yuendumu and Alice Springs. A man of means and long standing collector of art he had returned to New York and opened the gallery which represented both indigenous and non-indigenous Australian artists. He told me about the weekly arrival of enthusiastic and ever-hopeful carpetbaggers with rolls of mediocre and rarely authenticated Central Australian dot paintings under their arms who expected to be welcomed with open arms and wallets. Invariably they were shown the door. The Australia Gallery sought to deal directly with artists, art centres or established Australian galleries. The anecdote highlights the surfeit of middle people in the industry who are chasing the mythical mountains of money that the sale of Aboriginal art to overseas audiences supposedly generates. The Gallery closed unable to sustain its business. Robert Steele, an Adelaide based dealer, attempted a second Gallery in New York that has opened and closed within the last 2 years.

Caz Gallery opened in Los Angeles in the late 1980s with much fanfare. The gallery was pitched at the glitterati and the owner was again a USA native, Carol Lopez, who had lived in Australia for a number of years. Unfortunately, despite some superb stock the gallery was unable to sustain itself through sales.

Non-commercial shows
Since 1988 there have been more than 100 Australian indigenous visual arts exhibitions staged around the world from Finland to Tahiti, from Cuba to China and from New Zealand to Denmark.

That Aboriginal art has been taken to an international audience is often as a result of the vision and perseverance of individuals. The seminal non-commercial exhibition generated from within Australia was Dreamings. The Art of Aboriginal Australia that opened at the Asia Society Galleries in New York in October 1988. Five of the artists attended the opening. There had been some exhibitions of indigenous art overseas in previous years but none came close to the scope of Dreamings with its broad survey and comprehensive, scholarly and beautifully presented catalogue. Dreamings was curated by the anthropology section of the South Australian Museum led by Peter Sutton and including Chris Anderson and Philip Jones. The repercussions from Dreamings are still being felt in the industry in terms of the international interest the exhibition stimulated and the fact that it introduced Aboriginal art to major art collectors such as John Kluge and Donald Kahn.

In the late 1980s Australia was first visited by Bernard Luthi a German artist, academic and curator who dedicated himself to presenting a major exhibition of Australian indigenous art in Europe. It needs to be admitted that for a while there a number of us privately speculated about the sanity of Bernard's commitment to his grand vision and offered fairly cautious support.
Bernard has since been vindicated through his involvement in two landmark shows in Europe. The first was Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989 where indigenous and non-indigenous artists from around the world created artworks expressing their links with land and exploring concepts of mysticism.

The second exhibition dedicated completely to the art of indigenous Australians was the outstanding Aratjara (the messenger) that opened in Germany at the Kunstsammlung Norhrheinwestphalien in Dusseldorf in 1993 then travelled to England and Denmark. Unlike many curators, Bernard Luthi specifically sought to establish partnerships with Aboriginal activists and artists and worked closely with Garry Foley, Charles Dixon and Lin Onus to realise the vision. Aratjara included the work of urban artists and artists working in the south east of Australia as well as artists working in remote communities. Significant support was given to the project by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council. More than 10 artists attended the opening in Dusseldorf including Dolly Nampijinpa Daniels, Gordon Bennett, Lin Onus and John Mawurndjul.

Djon Mundine accompanied Aratjara as the touring curator in 1993/94 giving public lectures, interviews and attending forums and experienced the excitement and interest generated by the exhibition in the various venues at first hand. Five years later Djon met young German artists attending the Sydney Biennale of 1998 who keenly remembered meeting him at Aratjara and described the show as "One of the biggest things that happened in art in Germany in the last ten years".

Despite the very limited publicity that Aratjara's European triumph generated within Australia its impact in the countries where it was shown was huge. For the duration of Aratjara's tenure in Dusseldorf articles appeared in the German press almost daily; a box of press clippings now document the interest in the show including an article in Kunst Magazine, the premier German contemporary art journal. The press responses to Aratjara tended to follow patterns: the travelogues that saw the writers celebrating the exotic in the Australian landscape and its inhabitants, some oblique references to primitive art and a few attempts at describing to European viewers this new and complex form of painting and sculpture. The catalogue was printed in two versions: German and English, the editions of 10 000 copies were sold.
The second venue for Aratjara was the Hayward Museum in London. At the third venue, the Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark, the Museum published 150 000 copies of its own magazine format catalogue in Danish: the Louisiana Revy which sold out before the show finished. No, that was not a typographic error - this is just a seriously art literate and enthusiastic public! In total Aratjara was seen by more than 250 000 people.
Lüthi had not found it easy to convince the staid European art institutions to show the work of indigenous Australians and had deliberately avoided ethnographic museums where the work of indigenous people is usually exhibited. As a consequence the shows were held at art museums that had all been founded only within the last forty years.

The role of funding bodies in providing assistance
The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has taken a very active role in promoting Aboriginal art and culture to an international audience, using it as a tool for establishing a distinctive and unique national identity for Australia. It is disappointing that people such as the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs have indulged in a campaign of ATSIC bashing so that any allegations of impropriety within Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander affairs make the daily newspapers - yet so few Australians are aware of the huge success of indigenous arts overseas, much of which has been supported through ATSIC funding of indigenous arts and culture projects.

DFAT have supported exhibitions of Aboriginal art through sponsorship of small projects and also through coordination of larger projects such as the touring of Stories artworks from the Holmes A Court Collection in Germany in 1995/96. Stories was exhibited during an expo in Hanover which featured new technologies and the inclusion of Aboriginal art was specifically done to link culture with the promotion of trade. The exhibition also toured to three other venues DFAT has consistently sponsored at least one major show of Australian indigenous art abroad per year in France, Spain, Barcelona and Japan as well as those mentioned and has also sponsored forums and performing artists. The Eye of the Storm, a collection of artworks from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) was toured in 1997 to India and opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, again with assistance from DFAT. A catalogue was prepared for the exhibition. Australian embassies have also been very active in promotion.

The Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) has made a speciality of touring exhibitions of Australian indigenous art to a wide variety of venues in countries in Asia and the Pacific, evidence of the Museum's close geographical proximity to our northern neighbours.

MAGNT toured two major survey exhibitions The Inspired Dream (1988/89) and The Kuruwarri Exhibition (1992/93). The Inspired Dream was supported by DFAT and toured extensively. The exhibition received an extremely positive response and surprised the curator and venues with record attendances in relatively obscure places. In each country the audience had what West described as "an ethnocentric hook upon which to relate to the exhibition". In Indonesia the artworks were likened to those produced by the tribal people from Irian Jaya. In Thailand and Borneo the images and meanings of the Australian artworks struck a chord with the ancestral themes that feature in the cultures and religions of both countries. She was pleasantly surprised by how well received the exhibitions were in countries where she had anticipated limited interest.

It was with The Kurawarri Exhibition (also known as Masters of the Dream) at Palais Roturnay, St Denis on Reunion Island that West encountered the most difficulties and experienced massive curatorial interference. She explained: "They wanted to take the 'ooh aah' tribal primitive approach to the artworks. They insisted upon covering the entire building with fabric and hessian, put red dirt all over the garden and even made their own pseudo Aboriginal 'totem' poles to flank the pathway into the gallery. French set designers had been flown in to create the atmosphere for the tribalism being exhibited. It was over the top." The Australians, including Tiwi artists from Melville Island, were able to enjoy the spectacle of the papier maché caves, which had been created despite protests from MAGNT, starting to fall apart on the day of the opening much to the horror of the aforementioned designers. The experience highlights the continuing difficulties that many European conservators and academics have with placing Australian indigenous art in any artistic context other than primitive/tribal.

Flying in the devotees
Helen Reid of Didjiri Air Tours has been an important facilitator of relationships between remote art centres and international collectors and dealers. Access to most art centres is restricted and relevant Land Council permits must be obtained before visiting can be undertaken. There is also the problem of distance and many art centres can only be found after long drives on unsealed, unsignposted roads. For many internationals these combined factors can be seriously discouraging. For more than five years now Helen has been organising air tours for indigenous art devotees that include visits by light plane to three or more art centres during the course of a trip. The list of internationals who have travelled with Didjiridu is impressive and includes Thomas Vroom, Walonia, Rebecca Hossack and Pavillion.

The Art Centre Experience
Dotted around Australia in remote communities and towns are more than 45 Aboriginal artists' cooperatives, usually referred to as "art centres". The art centres are serving more than 4 500 artists in the Top End, the Kimberley, the Central Australian desert and beyond. A number of art centres have been very active in engaging with international markets through the presentation of exhibitions and by making direct approaches to collectors.

Connections were made between John Odgers at Craft Australia and Desart Inc. (the Central Australian resource and advocacy body for art centres) in the early 1990s which culminated in art centres being represented at CINAFE (the precursor to SOFA) in Chicago in 1993 and 1994. The art centres shared booths and artists and staff attended with the financial assistance of the Visual Arts Export Program of the Australia Council. The participating art centres were Ernabella Arts, Maruku Arts and Crafts and Warlukurlangu Artists, Ernabella presenting hand batiked lengths of silk, Maruku featuring traditional arts and crafts and hard wood carvings and Warlukurlangu's canvas/acrylic paintings.

Munupi Arts Association
Munupi Arts is an art centre situated at Pularumpi on Melville Island, north of Darwin. Despite its isolation and relatively small size Munupi has taken a number of initiatives in the international market. Annie Franklin coordinated an exhibition of Munupi works at the Australian Embassy in Paris in 1992. The exhibition was well received and a modest financial success, however, coordinating the freighting of works and tax/duty problems indicated some of the potential logistical nightmares of exporting.

Munupi exhibited at the Australian Embassy in Paris (1992), the Hong Kong Jockey Club (1996) and had a sell out exhibition at International Red Cross House in Geneva in 1997. In September 1998 the Australian ambassador to the UN opened an exhibition of Munupi paintings, lino prints, etchings and Dreamweaver rugs at the United Nations Building in Geneva and Thecla Puruntatameri attended the opening. Munupi, along with at least 2 other art centres, Injalak Arts and Merrepen Arts at Daly River, has a licensing contract with Dreamweaver - an Australian company that produces reproductions of paintings on pure wool rugs targeted at an international market.

Ernabella Arts:
Indigenous textiles are also being featured in international exhibitions. Ernabella Arts, which has been operating in Pukatja community, northern South Australia for fifty years, has an international reputation for creating fine lengths of silk batik. In 1998 Ernabella participated in Origins and New Perspectives - Contemporary Australian Textiles Exhibition being shown in Poland and organised through Craft Australia. At time of writing Mil Art Gallery London is exhibiting a show of Ernabella textiles, Hermannsburg ceramics and paintings from Utopia and Yuendumu. An exhibition for May 1999 is planned for the Commonwealth Institute in London featuring Ernabella textiles, Papunya acrylic/canvas paintings and Hermannsburg ceramics.

Warlukurlangu Artists: The Yuendumu Experience
Warlukurlangu Artists of Yuendumu have attended trade fairs, participated in forums and solicited commissions. Many of the activities involve the creation of the 'big canvases' that have become a hallmark of the collectable artworks from the Warlpiri people of Yuendumu. The 'big canvases' are very large acrylic paintings on canvas (measuring up to 5 x 4 metres) that feature either one 'Dreaming' story (including reference to many or all of the sites created by the ancestral being(s) associated with that Dreaming) or concentrate on a particular area of country and then represent the Dreamings that occupy and/or traverse that place.

In 1993 Warlukurlangu was visited by a curator from the Glasgow Art Museum, who was buying for the Museum collection. During her visit Warlukurlangu presented her with a proposal for a big canvas project. She returned to Glasgow and was able to raise the funds to commission a large canvas. The chosen Jukurrpa (Dreaming) for the subject of the canvas was Yanjilypiri or Milky Way. At first the last senior custodian of the Dreaming, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, was unsure about whether it would be possible to undertake the ceremony. At the encouragement of staff he made contact with relatives and other custodians at Nyirrpi and Lajamanu and discussed the idea of performing the ceremony. Despite it not having been performed for many years the old men and women decided to reactivate the songs, dances, sand and body painting designs. The resulting major canvas was a triumph and source of much pride for all participants.
It was hung at the Glasgow Art Museum concurrently with Aratjara showing at the Hayward Museum. Dolly Nampijinpa Daniels and Geraldine Tyson, coordinator of Warlukurlangu Artists, flew to London and Glasgow and participated in a video linkup that linked an Aratjara symposium in London with Warlpiri artists in Yuendumu who had been involved in the project. Questions from panellists and participants could be relayed directly to the artists.

John Kluge had one of the largest private collections of Australian indigenous art in the world before he recently donated it to the University of Virginia USA. He began collecting after the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society Galleries from dealers such as Gabrielle Pizzi. Djon Mundine working as coordinator of Bula'bula Arts in Ramingining approached John Kluge about the possibility of commissioning artworks in 1989 and subsequently sold him a superb collection of bark paintings.

In 1995 when Warlukurlangu were travelling to the US to attend SOFA Geraldine Tyson arranged to make a presentation to the board of the Kluge foundation in Virgina with a proposal for the Foundation to commission one or more 'big canvases'. The Foundation was prepared to contribute to the costs of the trip and accommodated the visitors from Australia. The presentation went extremely well; the heads of the various divisions sat spellbound and the allocated one hour extended to two and half hours. The presentation included the Warlukurlangu Artists video which the board insisted upon watching in its entirety. The eventual commission was a canvas featuring Karrku (Mt Stanley 200 kms west of Yuendumu) worth $70 000 to Warlukurlangu Artists. Following the presentation individual members of the board wrote cheques on the spot to buy some of the paintings Geraldine had taken as examples of artworks. The head of the Kluge's horticulture section purchased a painting by Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson of the Yarla or Bush Yam (botanical name: Ipomea costata) Dreaming.

Geraldine believes attendance at international trade shows and undertaking presentations to potential collectors cannot be assessed solely on immediate outcomes. "We have to look at it as investing for the longer term."
Warlukurlangu continues to deal with international institutions and collectors through the work of coordinator Susan Congreve.

The Myer Gantner Foundation has commissioned a large canvas to be the centrepiece of an exhibition to be held at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in 2000. The exhibition has been designated a SOCOG event and the curators have also commissioned a sand painting which it is anticipated will be done on site by Thomas Jangala Rice, Samson Japaljarri Martin and Jack Jakamarra Ross.

The German problem - folk art or contemporary?
The Melbourne based dealer Gabrielle Pizzi has a long history of presenting Australian indigenous art overseas and is recognised within the industry as a pioneer. In 1988 she presented an exhibition of Papunya Tula paintings at Maureen Zarember Gallery in New York coinciding with Dreamings . In 1989 she facilitated an exhibition, again of canvas/acrylic works by Papunya Tula artists, with John Weber Gallery in New York. The US dealer was interviewed in the documentary Marketplace of Dreams talking about the impact upon him of seeing the western desert paintings and their place as pieces of contemporary art. Unfortunately the success of the show is still not known, as Papunya Tula, at time of writing 9 years later, are still owed more than $10 000 by John Weber despite repeated requests for payment. Such an experience highlights the problems of consigning artworks overseas - where even high profile galleries can take advantage of the distances to default on payment or keep artists and art centres waiting with relative impunity.

Pizzi has attended a number of art fairs in Europe representing urban and traditional indigenous artists, often with government assistance. In 1989 she took 15 works by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Mick Namarari and Uta Uta Tjangala from Papunya Tula to ARCO Madrid Contemporary Art Fair. There were no actual sales to Spanish collectors but the show sold to international dealers and generated significant publicity. In 1990 she took 20 artworks to Venice to coincide with the Venice Biennale. Artists included Anatjari Tjakamarra, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Mick Namarari. The show sold quite well to private collectors including John Kluge

In 1991 she put together an exhibition of 16 paintings from Papunya Tula, Utopia and Warlayirti Artists of Balgo that toured four venues in the former Soviet Socialist Republic: John Kluge bought three quarters of the show and the remainder sold to Australian collectors. Pizzi explained that "The exhibition created enormous interest and the Russians demonstrated a serious attempt to come to grips with the artworks, to develop a knowledge and awareness of Aboriginal culture."

In 1991 and 1992 there were more exhibitions at ARCO in Madrid of sculpture from Maningrida Arts and Culture, paintings by Judy Watson and desert communities and work by the Melbourne based artist, Lin Onus.
In 1992 she applied to Art Cologne, having been encouraged by Bernard Lüthi and a show of Maningrida sculptures and paintings by Mick Namarari was accepted by Cologne as well as Lea King Smith's Patterns of Connection.
In 1993 she reapplied but the selection committee informed her that she was showing 'inauthentic' Aboriginal art quoting the regulations of Art Cologne that 'folk art' is not permitted. A major artistic furore ensued. Letters of support were written from all over Australia and internationally. There were 62 reports in the German press at the end of which the selection committee revoked its original decision. During the fair a seminar was organised by Lin Onus and Bernard Lüthi including a televised debate of the issue which argued that there needed to be a wider, less ethnocentric or European-centred view of art. When the exhibit was finally put up the support from the public was heartening, with people walking past the stand giving a victory salute in recognition of a significant battle won.

Pizzi continued to attend the Art Cologne fair in the years 1994-1997 broadening the representation to include Julie Dowling and H.J. Wedge. She continued to include sculptures from Maningrida (the source of the selection committee's disapproval) each year, which proved to be more commercially successful than the desert canvas/acrylic works. In 1997 she included bark paintings from John Mawurndjul.

1998 saw Gabrielle lodge her application to Art Cologne again with a program of artists including John Mawurndjul, England Bangala and James Iyuna - all bark painters from Maningrida, and H.J. Wedge, Destiny Deacon and Leah King Smith. And the Maningrida sculptures. The application was rejected apart from H.J. Wedge, and after much ado was then accepted but there was no reason given for either the original refusal of the final acceptance. Pizzi is not prepared to show under these conditions, but as we go to press is organising a public forum during the Fair to try to force the organisers to articulate their rationale.

Walonia - puzzled by all the dots
Walonia operates out of the Netherlands and is run by Franca Meeuwsen and Annamiek de Waal. Despite only being established in 1995 Walonia has become one of the most significant international players in promoting and selling Aboriginal art in Europe. Walonia has a general focus of promoting the art and culture of indigenous Australians rather than focussing specifically upon commercial activities. Their first visit to Australia involved the women buying 100 paintings on canvas and paper which were then presented as an exhibition in Holland. The response was very positive. That first exhibition coincided with a beautiful exhibition in the Groninger museum which included a showing of paintings from the Donald Kahn collection (a Florida based US collector whose collection has toured the world) and paintings and sculpture that the museum had acquired in Australia.

Meeuwsen explained why Walonia has developed such a strong information focus: "People were fascinated by the art in the Groninger museum. As it is a small country many people visited the museum and our exhibition in the same weekend. They told us that there was no information at all in the museum and that they were puzzled by all the dots. They were interested but could not understand the art and culture. At our exhibition we had video, a lot of books and did a lot of talking and explaining. Some people came in and told us 'We know all about Aborigines, because we read the book by Marlo Morgan' which at that time was a best seller in Holland. We were also approached by galleries who wanted to present exhibitions of Aboriginal art. We soon found out that we had to expand our collection." Walonia was keen to dispel the pervasive and unethical myth-making of people like Marlo Morgan and believed the best way to do so was provide accurate and comprehensive information during exhibitions and in forums.

The Walonia collection now numbers more than 3500 pieces and the women describe their fascination for Aboriginal art and culture and passion for collecting as "like a virus". They travel to Arnhem Land, the desert and the Kimberley twice a year. "Imagine what it's like to go into an art centre and see all the paintings and sculptures. It makes your heartbeat go faster."
At time of writing they are looking for an appropriately large building to house the Walonia collection in a museum of Australian Aboriginal art in Holland.

General commercial activities
Adrian Newstead of Coo-ee Gallery in Sydney has been Australia's premier advocate of indigenous prints for more than a decade. Adrian established the Australian Art Print Network with Desert Designs and NT Art Wholesalers which is dedicated to publishing and promoting prints by Australian indigenous artists to a domestic and international market. AAPN coordinated New Tracks Old Land, an exhibition of prints that toured extensively in the USA in the mid 1990s. Gallery Boomerang in Amsterdam has been open for more than 10 years with modest success. Mary Read Brunstrom, an Australian, opened Austral Gallery in St Louis Missouri in 1988 to promote a number of Australian artists in North America. Austral Gallery carries AAPN prints and exhibits at Art Chicago and SOFA and Mary has collaborated upon many other projects that promote Australian indigenous culture including faciliating the creation an award winning mural in Kansas City designed by two Utopia artists, Ronnie Price and Gloria Petyarre.