Australian Aboriginal Art is much sought after internationally, but Australians overall and Aborigines themselves benefit little from it. By John August
Gordon Syron is an Aboriginal artist who understands the market better than most, having run an art gallery in conjunction with his partner Elaine. It’s a closed shop – particularly for Aborigines. Gordon : “the whites have stolen our land – and now they’re trying to steal from our culture as well.”. Internationally, Italians and Greeks are involved in their art and sculpture, but Australian Aborigines are not involved in the selling of their art. It’s partly the vestiges of a “Mission Mentality” – of “telling the black fellas what to do”, but it’s certainly a good earner for those involved.
Its about productive Aborigines claiming a fairer share of the value they create. Gordon thinks that just as Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, it has also “ridden on the black’s back” – with unwaged Aborigines working as stockmen to even have that wool based wealth. So what is the total value of all the Aboriginal art produced in the last few decades ? How much stayed in Australia ? How much stayed in Aboriginal hands ? How many Aboriginal groups have been able to preserve and show their own art ?
In addition, though, it seems that very little has remained in Australia – with international art dealers denying not just Aborigines, but also the Australian economy, of almost all of that value (To be fair, in the 1990s the Australian Government prohibited the export of art worth in excess of $20,000 without paying tax.)
Some “dealers”, who Syron calls the “Carpetbaggers”, tour the outback and (for example) buy art for $300 that they sell at overseas auctions for up to $30,000. At one stage Syron was circulating, buying art on a much more honest “advance-plus-commission” basis.
The “Carpetbaggers” were not impressed – one said to Syron that he could get shot saying what he did. Syron said he did record the conversation because he’d had personal experience of the homicide squad. Syron had previously served a life sentence in prison.
Syron learned to paint in prison, reproducing the masters (he also learnt some tip from forgers, too). These “original copies” are much appreciated, and rarely sold publicly, though owners do sporadically surface to verify authenticity.
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