Big news – the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has announced the team that will enquire into claims made by The Australian newspaper two Saturdays ago that artists working as part of the APY Art Centre Collective had had substantial parts of their paintings done by white facilitators either in their remote art centre or at the Collective’s Studio in Adelaide.

The claims have been denied.

But, as the NGA has a big exhibition of art exclusively from the APYACC due to open on June 3rd, it became imperative for them to clarify attribution.

Here’s the NGA’s statement:
“The Panel will determine whether the paintings can properly be described as having been made under the creative control of the persons named as the artists and make recommendations to the National Gallery’s Director based on the findings.

The Director of the National Gallery, Dr Nick Mitzevich, said: “The aim of the Independent Review is to clarify whether the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) artists attributed as the creators of the paintings to be included in the Gallery’s upcoming ‘Ngura Pullka’ exhibition exercised effective creative control over the creation of the paintings, and so can properly be described as the artists responsible for those works consistent with the National Gallery’s provenance policy.

“We understand and appreciate that many issues surrounding the broader ethics and workings of the First Nations art market have been raised by The Australian newspaper’s recent investigation. Like other stakeholders of the First Nations art market, we are supportive of building an improved understanding of the ethical and cultural issues at play. These are big cultural, artistic, and economic issues, and we are happy to be part of the conversation, but the National Gallery is not an arbitral body. At this point, our focus is ensuring the welfare and safety of artists and seeking independent and expert assistance to assess the provenance of the 28 works on loan to the National Gallery for Ngura Pulka.

The National Gallery expects to receive the findings of the Independent Review by 31 May 2023, and in the meantime will cease further exhibition promotion while the review takes place.

The Panel includes:
Two Reviewers
Colin Golvan AM KC, one of the most senior members of the Intellectual Property Bar in Melbourne, with over 30 years’ experience in copyright, trademarks, designs, patents, and misleading conduct cases in the Federal and High Court of Australia. He has represented many Indigenous artists in cases protecting their copyright – most recently the Namatjira family in the recovery of the copyright of Albert Namatjira, and Harold Thomas in the assignment of copyright in the Aboriginal Flag to the Commonwealth.

And Shane Simpson AM, founder of both Simpsons Solicitors and the Arts Law Centre of Australia. He is on the Council of the National Library of Australia and is Chair of the NAISDA Foundation. Shane has been on the Aboriginal Benefits Foundation, and Museums and Galleries NSW, and is recognised expert in arts, entertainment, cultural property and copyright laws.

Two First Nations experts who will advise the Reviewers
Yhonnie Scarce, a descendant of the Kokatha and Nukunu people of South Australia. An artist primarily working with glass and photography, Scarce explores the lingering effects of colonisation on First Nations people.

And Professor Maree Meredith, a Bidjara woman and University of Canberra’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership, with an academic focus in health, the arts, policy, and program development.

Some may wonder why the Melbourne-based, Western-trained Yhonnie Scarce is the artist recruited rather than a remote artist closer to the working life of the APY artists in their community art centres. But, given that a major reason why First Nations facilitators are not to be found in those art centres because tribal identity and jealousies are still a major factor in those places, non-Indigenous art coordinators are invariably preferred. So Scarce is a brave woman to enter this lions den, with both sufficient distance from the issue and South Australian Spinifex desert associations.

The 28 paintings involved appear in postage-stamp dimensions on the NGA press release and indicate a number of important collaborations, including a rare cross-gender work involving 13 artists and extending to 3 by 5 metres. Oddly, the descriptors suggest that six of those artists are based in Adelaide and the rest on the Lands. Overall, eight artists are said to be working in the APYACC Studio in Adelaide including Yaritji Young, who is also credited with participation on a Ken Women’s Collaboration, featuring their trademark ‘Seven Sisters Story’

Other significant names involved include Kunmanara (Peter) Mungkuri, Betty Muffler, Kaylene Whiskey, Robert and Zaachariaha Fielding and Betty Kuntiwa Pumani.

The NGA points out that its review will not assess:
o the broader ethics and workings of the First Nations’ art market;
o the significance of the Tjukurpa (cultural stories) of the 28 paintings; or
o whether individuals who contributed to the 28 paintings were entitled to do so under relevant First Nations cultural laws.

The NGA doesn’t say whether the panel will visit the Lands during its review.

Meanwhile, the importance of this scrutiny – which will almost certainly be the only review that will now take place – can be ascertained by the thoughts of Luke Scholes. He’s a former staffer with Papunya Tula Artists, working all through the Pintupi deserts and a former curator of Aboriginal art at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. For him the film footage was “distressing and very sad. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The thing that struck me most was that the non-Indigenous assistants were not having a conversation with the artist about the work, they were having a conversation amongst themselves,” he said.

“The economic implications of this issue coming out is going to be devastating for the artists,” continued Scholes. “[They are] an economically vulnerable group of people who really are relying on the only sustainable kind of income they have in communities, which is making art. This will certainly be very disruptive to sales, very disruptive to exhibitions around the country and potentially internationally. Consumer confidence will take a real hit”.