The world is now aware that there’s a crisis in Aboriginal art. Two American-based international newsletters and Britain’s important Art Newspaper have all reported on the belated decision by three Australian governments to mount some sort of enquiry into claims of “white hands on black art” in The Australian newspaper, published over a month ago at Easter.

For a time it looked as though federal arts minister Tony Burke was going to buy the argument coming from the National and South Australian Art Galleries that it was acceptable in non-Indigenous art for artists to have outside assistance and therefore equally permissible in the Indigenous. But this week, the South Australian arts minister Andrea Michael met with Burke and Northern Territory arts minister Chansey Paech to announce a joint investigation into the allegations against the APY Art Centre Collective.

The inquiry will be funded by both the national and South Australian governments, but will be primarily organised by the latter, according to a statement from Ms Michael. For the APYACC operates mainly in her State and her government is one of the APYACC’s major funders.

“The allegations that have surfaced are concerning, and all three governments are determined to protect the integrity of First Nations art”, Michael explained. “We are committed to supporting First Nations artists to share their art with the world, and ensuring respect for their culture and stories is incredibly important”.

No timeline has yet been suggested for the investigation or its terms of reference; who will head the investigation and what powers it will be granted are yet to be thrashed out. But both Ms Michaels and the NT’s Indigenous Minister Paech have expressed strong views about the need for the investigation to be in-depth and wide-ranging.

“I won’t be telling First Nations artists whether or not they are allowed to be assisted,” Burke told reporters in Canberra this week. “What matters is to make sure that people have creative control. And to the extent that there are allegations that there was no creative control, then that’s important for us to be able to work through the facts on that”.

“But I certainly have no intention of implying a standard and set of rules around First Nations artists that are not applied to any other artists in the world or throughout history”, the federal arts minister added.

Which is a worry, given the radically different role art plays in traditional Aboriginal culture to that in Western art. Not since the Renaissance has the essentiality of the numinous played a significant role in the West. And it is that hard-to-define word Tjukurrpa which keeps coming up when Anangu and other Desert artists justify the importance of their acts of creation on canvas – as I attempted to explain in APYACC Part 4!

Asked for a response to this new investigation – the National Gallery already has one under way because of the imminence of their big show of APYACC art – The Australian received this statement attributed to artist and board member, Sandra Pumani:.
“The APYACC will fully co-operate with any investigation and believes the review will once and for all show the APYACC and its member art centres are professionally run studios that meet the highest standards of practice. It would make sense for any ‘wide-ranging investigation’ to consider the outcomes and practices of all First Nations arts and culture service providers, peak bodies, and private dealers based in Alice Springs and Adelaide. The APY Art Centre Collective has been advocating for this kind of industry review for the past 10 years and it is long ­overdue”.

Attack is the best form of defence, as Sun Tzu may well have said. It’s surely unlikely that a review caused by such specific allegations will take up the APYACC’s invitation.

For, after a period of quietude, Philip Watkins from Desart, the uber body which represents dozens of Indigenous arts centres across the Deserts and thousands of their artists welcomed the three-government announcement, as did Ku Arts, which serves art centres across South Australia. A Ku Arts spokesman also said the organisation would “welcome the opportunity to have input into the terms of reference” as it was affecting so many people in the sector – an impression shared by many specialist art First Nations art galleries .

Mr Watkins has also called on Skye O’Meara, the founder and Manager of the APYACC to step down while the investigation is conducted.