"Art centres are important community places. They are innovative and vibrant spaces where culture is kept strong, passed on between old and young, and places where Aboriginal people can share arts and culture with the world."
-DESART, the peak industry body for over forty Central Australian Aboriginal art centres.
Australian Aboriginal art centres are Aboriginal owned and operated not-for-profit corporations. Whilst not every art centre is the same, they do have similarities.
At Art Centres, artworks made by Aboriginal people are made and sold. Art Centres sell directly to visitors at the centre and they also freight artworks to galleries and buyers all over the world. Some art centres have a gallery space for visitors to buy art directly, most have a studio space for artists to make artworks and all have some sort of office space for the administration side of the business.
Their general purpose is to build and promote artistic endeavour, support cultural practices and work toward the economic advancement of Aboriginal people through the production, preservation, promotion and sale of their artworks.
Art Centres are staffed by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Art Centres usually have a general 'style' or aesthetic that differentiates them from other art centres. For example, the Warmun Art Centre in the east Kimberley is well known for their use of natural ochre on canvas. Warlayirti Artists in Balgo is known for its bright acrylic works on canvas and linen.
What they do
* Provide the space and materials for Aboriginal people from the region to make art.
* Market the artists and their artworks nationally and internationally to the art market in order to build their reputation and make sales.
* Develop and promote the artist's oeuvre by entering them in prizes, organising and curating exhibitions, writing about the artists and working with galleries in larger cities.
How they operate
* All sales assist the organisations running (money goes toward materials and development opportunities) and also go to the artist directly.
* Generally speaking, sales are divided into a 60/40 split to the artists.
* Art centres can receive funding from federal and state governments through grant applications. Some are entirely independent financially.
Whilst art centres are most commonly known for their role in facilitating artistic careers, they also play other roles, such as educating the public about Aboriginal regional and cultural history, recording and preserving artworks, facilitating Indigenous knowledge sharing between generations, employing Aboriginal people, teaching and training Aboriginal people about commercial businesses and governance, arts administration, computer skills such as image editing, database management and art preparation. They encourage community development, youth leadership, participation and interaction, and Indigenous governance through innovative arts practice.
They also are a social space for people to get together, make art, drink cups of tea and socialise with their family and friends. They provide the physical space for cultural practices, such as ceremonies and corroborrees, and they support people in doing these activities, with staff, materials, computers, telephones and other resources.
“The art means to carry on our stories, to know it belongs to my family and it belongs to my father and grandfather, so that everyone can know about us, so we can carry on, so our kids can carry on forever, even when we’re gone. So non-Indigenous people can know about us in the future, how we fought to keep our culture strong for the sake of our children’s future. The art is about who you belong to, about what country you belong to, it’s about the only way you can know and others will know too. Our art has got to be protected because it belongs to individual people and their families. It is their belonging , it belongs to their group so it must be treated right way. The art movement should be really strong the way it’s going now and we should be keeping it stronger. We got a lot of strong people in our communities. Those artists are strong about their art.”
- Valerie Napaljarri Martin.
The Western Desert art movement or the Papunya art movement is generally considered to be the beginning of contemporary Aboriginal art, in spite of the work that came out of Hermannsburg and Ernabella in the 1930s and 40s (as discussed in our previous blog posting) and of course, the visual expression of culture that has existed in Aboriginal life since inception.
This art movement came out of a change in the lives of Western desert Aboriginal people. Following the introduction of award wages and citizenship for Aboriginal people in the late 1960s, the Australian government moved several Aboriginal language groups (Pintupi, Luritja, Walpiri, Arrernte and Anmatyerre) together into a settlement called Papunya, which is about 240kms from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Like other Aboriginal groups that were moved to bigger settlements all over Australia, the aim was to assimilate Aboriginal people into Western Culture.
At Papunya, a teacher called Geoffry Bardon was employed at the new school. Sensing dislocation from the community, he encouraged them to paint murals in the community in order to instill a sense of ownership and belonging. A group of Aboriginal men became interested and started their own paintings and murals, telling their own stories and Dreaming. Bardon supported their work by providing brushes, canvas and paints. In 1972 the artists successfully established the Papunya Tula artist collective and they continued to paint and create an art movement and style that has become an international symbol of Aboriginal art and culture all over the world.
The Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory has designed an exhibition called tjunguṉutja-From having come together which reexamines the genesis of the Papunya art movement by revealing the experiences and perspectives of the Aboriginal people who were involved in its birth; whose experiences and narratives have often been left out of the history accounts.
Pictured 1: Front cover of the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory's publication tjunguṉutja-From having come together .
Pictured 2: Tutuma Tjapangati, One Old Man's Dreaming, 1971, natural earth pigments and boncrete on composition board. From the Anthony and Beverly Knight Collection of early Papunya art.
 Luke Scholes, tjunguṉutja-From having come together, 2017, p. 130.
Born in 1902, Albert Namajitra was an Arrernte man who grew up in a Hermannsburg Lutheran mission west of Alice Springs. Albert drew from an early age, depicting the scenes around him (people and animals). Over the years Albert spent at the Mission, many artists visited and introduced him to Western painting techniques and styles. Amoung them was artist Rex Battarbee, who showed him how to use watercolour paints. Albert took to the medium quickly. In 1937 Lutheran Pastor Friedrich Albrecht sold ten of his paintings at a conference in South Australia. The following year, Albert had his first exhibition in Melbourne. From there, he became well known for his lithe ghost gums and purple ranges, illuminating the beauty of his arid land. However at the height of his painting, some art critics and institutions were hesitant to support and collect his work because it was not 'real' Aboriginal art because it was a Western style; they felt he was a product of government successful assimilation policies.
In 1957 Albert was granted conditional citizenship. This gave him freedoms his family members did not have—he could vote, drink alcohol and live where he wished (but could not buy land). Consequently, Albert was expected to support and provide for his family, which often put him in compromising situations. Although he fought the sentence, in 1958 Albert was charged with suppling alcohol to Aboriginal people and sentenced to six months hard labour in Papunya. He served only two months jail and died in 1959.
In hindsight, Albert's watercolours mark the beginning of the first Australian Aboriginal art movement—preceding the acrylic painters of Central Australia—the Hermannsburg School of Painting. Instead of being seen as an example of 'successful assimilation' to Western culture, it is now understood that his work is a statement about the land he traditionally owns, as well as his cultural knowledge and practices, which appear in a more hidden way, such as in the marks he sometimes paints on his ghost gums.
Albert Namajtira, Palm Valley, 1940s, Watercolour, 37.0 x 54.2 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales
The remote aboriginal community of Papunya is about four hours west of Alice Springs. It’s a long way from Nichola Dare’s gallery at Bronte in Sydney and a very long way from Central London, where she grew up; but Nichola looks totally at home sitting on the art centre floor, methodically working her way through a pile of canvasses. She considers many but selects just a few, recognising most of the artists’ styles immediately and occasionally calling out their often Victorian-sounding names to the art centre manager: “Is Doris painting much at the moment?” The large pile of canvases slowly moves from one side of Nichola to the other, only a handful earning a “that’s beautiful” and a place on a much smaller pile. These will be carefully packed, and loaded into her four wheel drive to begin a journey back to Sydney that starts with a week heading in exactly the opposite direction.
Papunya was the first art centre on a trip that would take us north-west from Alice on the Tanami Track - over 1000kms of unsealed red dirt road joining the centre of Australia to the East Kimberley. We would see a lot of red dirt over the coming days: some a straight line pointing to the horizon, some an eye-stinging fog thrown into the air by road trains the size of Manly Ferries; and some swirling down the plug hole on precious occasions we chanced upon a shower.
A local told us of a short cut from Papunya to the community at Yuendumu. Not only was the road nowhere to be seen on our very detailed map but the directions we had diligently listened to soon bore no relation to where we seemed to be. Hours passed. The fuel gauge headed south as we headed God-knows-where. When we had to stop because a feral camel decided to sit in the middle of the road, the conversation turned to tabloid headlines about unprepared city folk perishing in the desert and choosing which actors should play us in the movie of our tragic demise.
It is, of course, entirely possible for a Sydney or Melbourne gallery to obtain aboriginal work from Western Desert art centres without having to stop for camels. Select it online and a few weeks later it arrives in the city. But Nichola is insistent that if you want to get the best art, at least once a year you have to put in the hard yards to build relationships with the art centres and the artists. ‘Hard Yards’ is perhaps misleading as she clearly loves every inch of the experience: watching the landscape change as we head north-west; training my untrained eye how the paintings subtly but unmistakably change with it; and most of all spending time with the artists, who she anticipates with rock star excitement – the experience heightened by the uncertainty of who will be where on any given day.
Nichola’s commitment to the ‘hard yards’ is well-appreciated by her fast-growing group of loyal customers. When we hit a pocket of mobile coverage her phone pings with responses to the Instagram posts of work selected on Day One. What size is the Lisa Mills Pwerle? How much is the Candy Nakamarra? Can I have first option on the Isobel Gorey?
Her customers can be as eclectic as her small gallery, wedged between the barber and the Post Office in Bronte in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. A short walk to the beach but a million miles from the overpriced tourist art she politely suggests is doing neither the artists nor the category any favours. There’s also some distance between Nichola’s Aboriginal Contemporary and the often-intimidating atmosphere of more formal galleries. Deliberately so. Nichola set out to create an environment where ordinary people can buy the very best aboriginal art in a friendly and relaxed environment. She beams as she tells of a bus driver who saw a Nora Wompi in the window while driving past and returned later with his wife, both of whom had a knowledge and passion for aboriginal art that rivalled her own.
At Papunya, Nichola finds work from an emerging artist who has just sold her first canvases to the National Gallery and they tell of an overseas collector who wouldn’t leave the art centre until he was allowed to buy a painting for twice its retail price. At Balgo, Nichola meets legendary artist Helicopter Tjungarrayi, who got his name when the first helicopter ever seen by his community rescued him after an accident. At Mangkaja, Nichola sits with Dolly Snell while she explains the story she is painting. Soon Dolly and fellow artist, Spider (who is asleep on the porch) will go to their country in the Great Sandy Desert for ceremony. How long will they be away? The question is met with bemusement. Time is different here.
We meet many different characters with many different opinions but all united in their disapproval of ‘Carpetbagers’ - who muddy the waters, exploit the artists and damage confidence in the market. The aboriginal art ‘bubble’ at the turn of the millennium is now but a memory and everyone is genuinely optimistic about the future. They are buoyed both by the success of this year’s Desert Mob and a recent article from a Melbourne art critic describing aboriginal art as ‘the most undervalued art in the country’.
By Darwin, Nichola’s 4WD has many rolls of canvases in the back and more than 3,000kms on the clock. Farewell to the Northern Territory for now. Next stop her gallery in Bronte, where several dozen stunning new works will soon be on display. Nichola’s phone pings yet again. It’s another Instagram enquiry. Looks like a piece of aboriginal art from the Western Desert has a new home in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.
I am delighted to announce a special exhibition showcasing work by two of Mangkaja Arts rising stars - Jeani Rangi and Phyllis Waye. A special preview evening will be held on Thursday 7th November from 6.00 p.m. at the Aboriginal Contemporary to launch the show.
Both artists are well established and are becoming known for their use of colour and intriguing composition. In 2012 Phyllis Waye won Best Emerging Artist at the prestigious Kimberley Art Prize with Jeani Rangi winning the Kimberley Art Prize Overall Category in 2013.
There's so much to talk about at the moment, so here is a quick round up of what is going on!
Firstly, there was a lovely blog in http://www.adoremagazine.com/blog/ It shows how aboriginal art can work in a contemporary home. It just happened to be my home! The blog has an interview with me and here are some of the picutres featured.
Next week I am off on a big trip to the APY lands in South Australia and the Northern Territory. For two weeks I will not spend two nights in one place, drive thousands of miles on those beautifully straight red roads and no one will be able to get hold of me (yes I am a Vodafone customer!) However I will be posting on Facebook and Instagram.
I am really excited about spending time in the art centres and with the artists themselves, with the best bit being I can hand pick work that I know will be loved by customers of Aboriginal Contemporary.
To follow the trip, click and "like" on the following links:
We have a great show coming up in October, which seems a long way away but oh how quickly it will come! One of the stars of the show is Jeani Rangi, from Mangkaja Arts, who has just been awarded the Kimberly Art Prize for best emerging artist. It is safe to say that I am VERY excited by her work and here is a sneak peek!
I thought I would just update everyone as to how you can access Aboriginal Contemporary via a couple of different methods. The first being facebook, yes (behind as we are!) we now have a fully functioning and working page dedicated to Aboriginal Contemporary https://www.facebook.com/AboriginalContemporary
The benefits of 'liking us' on facebook are that you will be privee to seeing new work as it comes into the shop, and we will also run special offers specifically for our facebook followers.
The second is Instagram and our address for this is https://www.instagram.com/aboriginal.contemporary. For those of you who are new to instagram it runs along the same lines as facebook but is purely a visual insight into the day to day going's on in the shop showing new art, homewares and other gorgeous finds that come through the door.
You will not be inundated with information as (for those who know me know) I am a tad chaotic, however I hope I will be able to inspire you and share with you some of the best art that is available in Australia today.