October 3 2007

After fetching record prices in Australia, Aboriginal art is carving out a place on the art market in France, spurred by the opening last year of Paris’ Quai Branly museum of tribal arts.

The art work dates back to the 1970s, when teacher Geoffrey Bardon first supplied Aboriginal elders with acrylic paints to help sedentary children learn beliefs once acquired by travelling on foot.

The tales now told on modern-day canvas of the “Dreamtime”, or creation, previously were set down in sand or on bark.

The dots, circles and lines of contemporary canvases depicting ancient beliefs since have become particularly sought after by lovers of contemporary and abstract art.

More than half a dozen displays of Australian indigenous art are being held in the Paris area this month, perhaps the most significant during this week’s Parcours du Monde event, gathering 50 galleries and dealers in primitive arts in the heart of the city.

With Paris firmly established as the world’s top city for primitive arts, both contemporary Aboriginal art as well as ancient artefacts such as sacred storyline “churingas” and story-boards were on view.

“Six or seven years ago nobody here could care less about Aboriginal art,” said gallery-owner Stephane Jacob, who specialises in contemporary Australian indigenous works.

After a few shows in the mid-1980s and since, Aboriginal artists finally walked into the limelight last year after being commissioned to paint parts of the new Quai Branly museum.

“First people were curious, then enthusiastic,” said Jacob.

Several galleries now show Aboriginal works, including Yapa Gallery which opened last year and promotes Aboriginal song and dance as well as art.

And last June, auctioneers Gaia held a first-time sale it said was the biggest ever in Europe.

While prices were well below the 2.1 million US dollars (1.5 million euros) paid last July at a Melbourne Sotheby’s auction for a huge dot painting by the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, a work by Judy Watson Napangardi — Wititji-Hairstring Dreaming — fetched 22,200 euros.

“People are beginning to collect,” said Gaia’s Nathalie Mangeot. “Many of the buyers are people who love Australia but there are a few real collectors now in Europe.”

“It is too early to talk about speculation, but prices will go up,” she said.

One French buyer, school-teacher Christian Leroy who has collected works from many parts of Australia, said canvases were available on the market from prices starting at 600 or 1,500 euros.

“What I like is their contemporary feel,” he said.

But Jacob said sourcing as well as the exploitation of Aboriginal artists were of concern for the development of the market.

An Australian Senate inquiry carried out over 11 months said in June that unscrupulous dealers were swindling Aboriginal artists, often paying tham a fraction of a work’s real value.

On a trip this year to Alice Springs in the remote Australian outback, an AFP team saw Aboriginal artists at work in a warehouse ringed by a padlocked chain-link fence.

Jacob said he worked exclusively with recognized Aboriginal art centres, while Sotheby’s said some works were turned down and Gaia has an expert who only buys from people he knows.