Sadly, it’s inevitable that I keep writing about the issue raised several weeks ago now by The Australian newspaper. For, as I’ve tried to indicate, much hangs on understanding how vital the issue of authenticity is to the whole First Nations art market, not just the specifics of art from the APY Lands and its marketing by the APY Art Centre Collective.

Fundamentally, do we have to throw out of the window the idea that non-Indigenous art buyers are obtaining some real understanding of Australia’s 55,000 year old First Nations culture through the canvas or artefact hanging on their wall?

For it’s become apparent that the enquiry initiated by the National Gallery of Australia has been devised by non-Indigenous people such as NGA Director Nick Mitzevich to come up with a non-Indigenous solution to their problem. Their problem being that they have a 28-artwork show of works supplied by the APYACC opening on June 3rd which they may have to cancel if the claims of “white hands on black art” are proven.

Here’s the essence of the two lawyer/two Indigenous adviser enquiry:
“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”.

Additionally, 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 Tjukurrpa (cultural stories) of the 28 paintings.

So, what’s happening is that people working for the reviewers (but not the lawyers themselves) are heading for the APY Lands and the Adelaide Studio run by the APYACC to ask the artists whether they had creative control of their works.

I would argue that the timing makes this an impossible question to ask or get appropriate answers from.

And here we run into Quentin Sprague and the article he’d written for The Monthly on this issue. The young man who had the misfortune to work for the wonderful Jirrawun art centre in the East Kimberley as it went into terminal decline begins, “The recent revelations of “white hands on black art” underscore the authenticity myth that persists when it comes to Aboriginal art”. (My italics).

His essence is then summed up by comforting words for the NGA: “On this evidence, we can understand that Aboriginal art is not so much a white thing as a cross-cultural thing”.

“Not so much a white thing”, is, of course, a reference to provocateur/artist Richard Bell’s 2003 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Prize-winning painting with a text that read, “Aboriginal Art. It’s a White Thing”. ‘Scientia e metaphysica (Bell’s theorem)’, as it was proudly called, was saying according to Sprague (and courtesy of a Roy Lichtenstain appropriation) “that Aboriginal art in Australia is produced for largely white audiences, and therefore reflects the tastes and cherished cultural myths of those audiences”.

What accompanied the painting and appears not to have been read by Sprague (or Mitzevich?) was a lengthy diatribe in which the provocateur dismissed all remote/traditional/tribal art (call it what you will) as the touristy work of “Ooga-Boogas” while his mob of proppaNOW “artists who are Aboriginal” in Brisbane were the real inheritors of the Dreaming.

Delightful stuff! Of course the market for Aboriginal art is white. That’s no revelation. But the point at which the market comes into the creation equation for the APY artists is for me the vital thing.

For it’s also apparent that Sprague and Mitzavich have also not read the brilliant work of anthropologist and remote art centre facilitator, Jennifer Loureide Biddle, ‘Breasts, Bodies, Canvas’. This 2007 work takes Biddle on a journey from Lajamanu with her Warlpiri women artists where the ‘market’ is anyone who’ll buy a canvas.

The notes of my original reading call it “a brilliant insight into the complexities of Indigenous art sale. For at the point of sale the canvas has no spirituality (though it was intended in Biddle’s words to “bring to life Country, Ancestors, people” when painted), it’s not part of a developing career portfolio as it would be for a white artist, but it is part of the economy of obligation of traditional Aboriginal life; to make money for the artist’s relations and community. Failure to sell is loss of face – which is why a white art coordinator or personal dealer is essential to protect the artist’s reputation”.

So I’d argue that Sprague is jumping on a popular band-wagon when he concludes: “There is an undeniable starkness to the majority of exchanges that characterise the Aboriginal art market. That this starkness illustrates the structural prevalence of white privilege as clearly as anything is too often ignored by the art world in favour of more palatable narratives of cultural resilience, endurance and symbolic reconciliation”.

And it’s why I worry that the NGA enquiry may well miss the absolutely vital point by asking the artists, ex post facto, whether they’re happy to call the artworks theirs. They’re now in the market. Of course they’re happy. But were they really happy at the time to have their Jukurrpa interpreted by a white hand holding the paintbrush without consulting them – if that’s what happened????