This is how I began an article a week ago on this website:
“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”.

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Of course there’s been much discussion around the industry about this issue, repeatedly denied by representatives of the APYACC. However, no details have yet emerged about the National Gallery’s review. Are they hoping it will all blow over???

The most significant comments have come from two men deeply engaged with desert art. At Desart, the peak body representing 35 central desert art centres and thousands of artists, its Indigenous chief has called for a broad and extensive investigation – unrelated to the National Gallery exhibition – into “concerning” claims that white gallery staff painted on Indigenous canvases in the studios of the APYACC. Long time CEO, Philip Watkins went even further, saying the investigation needed to look into the culture that allegedly ­allowed such practices to take hold.

Watkins was particularly disturbed by a video obtained by The Australian, showing a white studio manager of Tjala Arts painting on the canvas of famous Indigenous artist Yaritji Young, one of the Ken Sisters who jointly won the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The board of Desart will hold an urgent meeting next week to discuss the whole issue.

Given that pressure was on at the APYACC following the opening of its three commercial galleries in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, it’s perhaps not irrelevant that Watkins originally came in to rescue Desart from its own foray into opening galleries in Sydney. Much money had been lost.

The other concerned expert is Tim Acker. He’s quoted at length in the Artshub website’s version of the story – which mostly attempts to downplay the issue. But Acker has worked closely with Indigenous arts communities in remote Australia for over two decades, working across northern, central and western Australia. As the co-founder of FORM, he lead the team that achieved the remarkable Yiwarra Kuju – Canning Stock Route project in 2010, taking the tribal art story from the deserts to The Kimberley.

In Artshub, Acker is particularly concerned that the alleged bad practice of one art centre threatens decades of investment in art centres that have offered so many benefits for artists and remote communities. “I think for the champions of the art centres, who have put so much energy and good work into building them up as places of the highest integrity and ethical standards, this situation puts that effort at risk”, he is quoted as saying”.

‘Vast amounts of cultural and social capital have been invested in art centres over many years to ensure the provenance of the work produced there is the industry standard”, he continued. “This has given the market certainty, and guarantees buyers that artworks are produced and sold ethically. However the situation in the APY Lands plays out, this wider story – about the values that inform art centres and their importance in using creativity to support well-being – remains true. The difficulty is that this is a complex environment and it’s likely people will tune out”.

Acker is warning, “This creates an obvious risk that these allegations will damage the reputation of more than 100 other art centres, whose practices do not in any way resemble those alleged practices”.

As a reminder of what’s at stake, a recent article in the American Forbes magazine quoted Emerald Gruin, the Australian-born owner of her eponymous gallery in Los Angeles, and formerly in partnership to sell APY art with Tim Olsen in New York. She’s currently showing Marina Pumani of the APY Lands Mimili Maku art centre:
“These histories are passed down through oral histories (and song), recorded only in sacred, rare ritual objects for ceremony. But they do manifest in paintings, and Marina Pumani’s work serves to share her own interpretations of cultural legacy. Her works are thus protected and matters of religious consciousness. In a world where everything feels public, Aboriginal mysteries retain their uncertainty and allure”.

Uncertainty, certainly at the moment.

But not in the mind of Michael Reed, the gallerist who has leapt into Aboriginal art in recent years with a series of important shows in Sydney and Berlin. As he was launching Seven Sisters – Kungkarangkalpa in Berlin, a group exhibition of APY art exploring the power of the Seven Sisters songline, I naturally asked him whether he had any concerns about the authenticity of the “monumental works” from Tjala and Kaltjiti Arts which, as his website hailed, “we are thrilled to be installing (in) our own curation of remarkable paintings”?

“None”, was the confident response. “This is not an artist mentioned, in any way, with regard (to) the allegations. I stand by these works. M”.

I’m not sure which of Teresa Stevens, Michelle Lewis, Vivian Pingyaki Thompson and Carlene Thompson – the artists listed on his website – Michael was specifically referring to. Though the work on his emails that I was referring to appears to have been painted by Naomi Kantjuriny, Mona Mitakiki and Tjimpayi Presley – the Mitakiki Women’s Collaborative at Tjala Arts. And Tjala was indeed the art centre where film of a non-Indigenous facilitator painting on a Yaritji Young canvas was shot.

Talking of confidence, a week after The Australian’s revelations, the Sydney Morning Herald – which has not only failed to make any mention of this story but caused its art critic, John McDonald to tackle the issue on his personal blogsite rather than in the paper – carried a recommendation in its Traveller section to head for the ‘Ngura Pulka: Epic Country’ exhibition at the National Gallery in June. “Indigenous art has never been more exciting or important….Highlights include 27 large-scale paintings, two spectacular three-by-five metre collaborative works and an installation of 2500 spears”.

Let’s hope it is cleared to go in June. But one insider has predicted a hastily confabulated show of the late John Olsen’s work instead!