A lengthy investigation by The Australian newspaper claims to have discovered that artists working for the APY Art Centre Collective (APYACC) at art centres across the north of South Australia are having a worrying proportion of their canvases completed by white facilitators. If true, this will put a cloud on all community art centre product – which perhaps explains why institutions such as the SA Art Gallery, the MCA, and a commercial dealer like Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne are coming to the defence of the APYACC.

However the National Gallery of Australia is commencing an urgent review of “the provenance, authorship and the extent of the “hand of assistance” of artworks from the APYACC”. This action is necessitated by the imminence of the major ‘Ngura Pulka: Epic Country’ exhibition, opening in early June, which has been exclusively selected from APYACC artists by Bruce Johnson McLean, the Assistant Director, Indigenous Engagement at the National Gallery of Australia.

As the NGA website proudly asserts: “The National Gallery is proud to be partnering with Aṉangu artists and leaders on Ngura Pulka, through the APY Art Centre Collective, to amplify and empower their voice and vision at this crucial time in Australia’s collective history”.

Indeed, it’s possible that three-time Walkley Award-winning journalist Greg Bearup’s four month long investigation was actually kicked-off by disquiet at the oldest art centre in Australia, Ernabella. For it was excluded from this exhibition of APY art as it has chosen not to belong to the APYACC.

But last Saturday’s ‘Weekend Australian’ was obviously confident that it had passed all possible legal hurdles to claim that five Anangu artists and six non-Indigenous staffers had reported seeing white staff interfere with artworks. Bearup writes that he has seen a video appearing to show studio manager Rosie Palmer painting on senior artist Yaritji Young’s canvases. However, several of the claims were followed up by legal letters retracting those claims and a statement saying the APYACC strenuously denied that any of their artists were compromised.

“We believe our professional studios meet [the] highest standards of integrity and professionalism,” the statement said. “It is in no way interfering [with] the artist’s Tjukurpa (creation) or out of the ordinary for an art assistant to take part in this process … at the artist’s direction, Indigenous or otherwise.

“True industry experts understand the line between assistance at artists’ direction and interference with the artistic process and know that APYACC has never crossed this line. It is grossly offensive to the many hundreds of proud Anangu who work with APYACC to suggest otherwise, or that they would tolerate their Tjukurpa being interfered with”.

Oddly, I was marginally involved in claims back in 2019 that bullying of the APYACC artists was a factor in the same Yaritiji Young choosing to work for an independent dealer at that time. This followed a letter to government agencies by the founder and head of APYACC, Skye O’Meara making complaints of carpet bagging, which was faithfully reported in The Guardian and The Australian. It claimed: “Carpetbaggers do not often come to the Lands; they lure artists into their sheds or sweat shops with a promise of fast income. They often exploit vulnerable, disadvantaged families living in extreme conditions, and they take advantage of the lack of numeracy and literacy skills and family social challenges”.

I had suggested to both media outlets that they research the claims rather than accepting them holus bolus. Amos Aikman at The Australian did, and reported Yaritji’s husband Frank Young confirming her agency in choosing to work outside her art centre as a result of bullying.

Subsequently, the dealer, John Ioannou, has confirmed: “I tried to no avail to get good works out of Yaritji but by the middle of her second visit to my studio, I realised that there was something wrong. Still, I tried to work with her positives because she is talented; but by her third visit it all became too much and our relationship ended on not very good terms. I lost a lot of money and have many unfinished works that I gave up on”.

While the SA Art Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney have told The Australian that they won’t be testing their APY collection for anomalies, the Indigenous Art Code, monitor of ethical practices in the business, has said that collectors should report any suspicions about the provenance of their pieces to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission.“We acknowledge the courage it takes for artists to come forward’’, a statement released by the Code said. “If you have purchased any art work where you have concerns about the work’s authorship, or how the authorship was presented at the time of purchase, (the Code) recommends that you contact the ACCC”.

At the ACCC, its head, Gina Cass-Gottlieb used a speech in Canberra this week to endorse work undertaken by Intellectual Property Australia proposing standalone legislation which would ensure Traditional Owners had the exclusive right over the usage of their own “Indigenous knowledge”, including even the making of a unique style of boomerang.

Since the original article on Saturday, other informants have come forward. One of these gallery assistants has claimed staff were trained by Ms O’Meara “to stay on artist”. The unnamed woman claimed O’Meara would do the outlines, “the sketch before the painting”, on the artist’s canvas and then staff would be told to stay with them to ensure the artists adhered to O’Meara’s “aesthetic”.

“There are some artists who have a bit of a dependency on her now because, whenever they’ve done art work with (Ms O’Meara) not there, it has been deemed as not saleable”, the former gallery staffer alleged. She claimed this had led to a uniform look to the paintings because Ms O’Meara was dictating the aesthetic.

“The saddest thing is that she compromised these ladies’ Tjukurpa for her chosen aesthetic, which she would deem as whatever makes money”, she claimed.

The fact is that O’Meara says she has been pressured by her all-Indigenous management body to keep expanding her marketing empire. With 113 artists on her books at seven art centres plus product from the Tjanpi Weavers, there is much hanging on the business. The original gallery in Sydney – opened with philanthropic support in 2017 – sold $700,000 worth of artwork in its first year. In 2019, it had income of $1.5m and paid artists more than $900,000. However, It needed a million dollars from elsewhere – mainly government grants – to cover its costs. Despite this, it was joined by a gallery plus studio in Adelaide, where APY artists often need to stay for health or family reasons. That had State government support. Now there’s a third gallery in Melbourne.

These all need ‘saleable’ product.

And it should be possible given that in 2017, APY artists accounted for 14 of 15 finalists for the AGNSW’s Wynne Prize for landscape painting; two finalists for the $100,000 Archibald Prize; and 25 nominations for the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. The Pitjanjatjara and Yunkenjatjarra artists may have started late – around 2000 – in putting paint on canvas because they had to be persuaded that telling their stories visually wasn’t sacrilegious. But they’ve certainly found bold styles of painting quickly that have appealed to the market.

For example, at the APYACC Gallery in Sydney, there’s currently hanging a striking collaborative work by Pauline Wangin, Betty Campbell, Emma Singer, and Tanya Umatji Tjapalyi from the Mimili Maku Art Centre. These are four recently started artists, yet the harmony of their work together is remarkable – almost as fine as the Ken Sisters in their prime, as recognised by the price of $16,900. Despite that, it sold prior to opening online. (see image) How do they do it?

So it is to be fervently hoped that the APYACC staff are either cleared of any question of inappropriate activity or that the taint of uncertainty doesn’t spread to the 80 other community art centres where remote artists are invariably assisted in minor ways by non-Indigenous staff. For of course it must be remembered that even an artist like the late John Olsen certainly employed artistic assistants on his artworks, especially in old age.