The National Gallery of Australia’s Review into the APY Art Centre Collective’s proposed exhibition of 28 paintings under the title, ‘Ngura Pulka – Epic Country’ has cleared the works as meeting its own provenance standards.
This is despite extensive evidence adduced by The Australian newspaper under the rubric “white hands on black art”, including a film shot on Country at Tjala Arts community art centre.

The Review Panel of two senior lawyers and two Indigenous advisers have concluded that conflicting information had come their way (as might have been expected) but they were unable to rely on it. We have made this finding on the basis of:
(a) important errors in the contradicting evidence as established by compelling contemporary documentary evidence;
(b) the absence of any persuasive corroboration of the contradicting evidence by either a third party or by any contemporary documented evidence;
(c) the absence of sworn evidence to support the contradicting evidence of a direct nature, despite such sworn evidence being requested; and
(d) by the weight to be attached to other direct evidence supporting the Artists’ claims of attribution of authorship (key parts of which have been provided to us in a sworn form).

“Based on weighing the relevance and credibility of the evidence gathered and the application of the principles and presumptions enunciated above, we are of the opinion that all of the 28 Paintings meet the Provenance Standards of the National Gallery”.

“The important issue is not whether the artist was assisted. Rather, the important question is whether the work, in its finished form, is the expression of effective creative control of the artist. However, a distinction is made between purely aesthetic advice and any direction which has impact on Tjukurrpa. The former is acceptable; the latter is not”.

Of course, it was beyond the non-Anangu panel’s brief and competence to consider the complex issue of Tjukurrpa. Though I have attempted to argue that no non-Anangu can really understand the difference between an artist’s mindset when translating Tjukurrpa to canvas and it’s relevance to them when that canvas has become an artefact of the white ‘Aboriginal art market’ and a welcome source of money. Was that distinction always clear during translated interviews with the 29 artists involved, I wonder?

It seems it was also beyond the panel’s interests to examine the notorious film that kicked everything off. Which is strange given that they can confidently claim: “We received no evidence of any suggested improper interference with Paintings made on-Country”, when the film clearly originated on Country. At various points the report states, “Investigation of the video is outside the terms of the Review”, despite which they found inconsistencies “in the dated photographic evidence”. Elsewhere they say that The Australian refused to supply details of its evidence – which seems both contradictory of the above statement and remiss of the newspaper, given that it was mounted on the high horse of its multi-part campaign.

So, despite sending two of Simpson specialist lawyers to the APY Lands (the Fact Finders) rather than the eminent reviewers, Dr Shane Simpson and Colin Golvan KC, accompanied by one of the Indigenous advisers, Prof Maree Meredith who had lived there for three years while doing her PhD, translators, and, oddly by Cara Kirkwood, the National Gallery’s Head of Indigenous Engagement and Strategy, the firm conclusion was that the problems reported related only to the APYACC’s Adelaide Studio. 11 of the 28 paintings originated there.

And that’s where Skye O’Meara, General Manager of this hard-pressed marketing organisation which she established in 2017 is based. Not that the Review concerned itself with her: “We wish to make it clear though that we are not here assessing the management practices of APY ACC, but rather the provenance of the Paintings”.

This is the Review’s justification: “Allegations of wrong-doing were substantially focussed on work created within the Adelaide studio of APY ACC, and not in the Art Centres outside Adelaide. The Adelaide studio operates much more like a commercial studio and gallery setting and Artists are away from their more familiar community settings”.

But, once again, they were happy. “We emphasise that in an enquiry seeking to establish artistic provenance, the word of the Artist on attribution is of utmost importance, and here it was given by each of the Artists interviewed, without hesitation or qualification. Without exception, the Artists to whom we spoke, unequivocally told us that the works under review in each case were made by them and expressly denied that there had been any improper interference in the making of their work. The Artist’s evidence of authorship should be conclusive in the absence of credible and direct contradictory evidence”.

One of the Adelaide artists was the Honey Ant Queen, Yaritji Young, one of the famous Ken Sisters and a woman who gets around. Just last month, I was writing about a suite of her recent artworks which appeared at the Harvey Gallery in Sydney. They had nothing to do with the APYACC and were painted for Yanda Art in Alice Springs.  Earlier I’d noted her complaining, via her artist husband Frank Young, that she’d been bullied by staff at the APYACC. And of course she appeared, then disappeared, in the Tjala Arts film.

Yet the Review can slightly over-estimate her age and conclude sympathetically: “We would merely say that particular care needs to be taken in properly assessing the video, not least noting that Mrs Young (a proud woman with senior cultural status) is over 70 years old and suffers from physical disabilities. She has special needs in undertaking her artwork and we understand appreciates the assistance she receives”.

No mention of the APYACC being disavowed by all of the community art centres regional groups in Arnhemland, The Kimberley, the Deserts, WA and Cape York and asked to leave the ethical monitor, the Indigenous Art Code.

This was all about the provenance of 28 paintings. And, I suppose the reputation of the artists.

So the NGA can now say that it would go ahead with the APYACC exhibition, though it will also continue to monitor the separate three-government review, organised out of South Australia, which has broader terms of reference.