International Herald Tribune
Powerful growth of Aboriginal art
All about Earth and the people on it
Susan Gough Henly
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Quoted from the article:

With the opening next year in Paris of the Musée du Quai Branly, focusing on the art and culture of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, Aboriginal art from Australia will finally get much more exposure in Europe. The work of eight Aboriginal artists is being incorporated into the very fabric of the new museum, including ceiling murals, relief sculptures and glass etchings.

Contemporary Aboriginal art, whether it consists of traditional ocher pigments on bark or wood or bright acrylics applied to canvas, is both a vital expression of the world’s oldest continuous cultural tradition and a remarkable modern art movement. As the art critic for Time magazine, the expatriate Australian Robert Hughes, stated, it is “the last great art movement of the 20th century.” And it shows no signs of abating in the 21st century.

The auction market for Aboriginal art is well above 11 million Australian dollars, or about $8 million a year, with around 70 percent of buyers coming from Europe and the United States.

Western archaeologists have dated Aboriginal presence in Australia as far back as 40,000 years, partly as a result of rock art found in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley. Other less permanent art forms, including body, bark and sand art, have all played a vital part in the culture for many centuries.

There are approximately 5,000 to 7,000 practicing Aboriginal artists today, many in incredibly remote communities in the Central Desert and Western Desert and in the far north and west of the country.

And more about the current market:

Aboriginal Art Online ( is an excellent resource for would-be collectors because it provides a fund of information about the art-producing regions and artists and sells a wide range of art. The owner, Martin Wardrop, works almost exclusively with Aboriginal-owned art centers. “I’m interested in younger, middle-ranked artists. Anyone can sell the work of artists with an established reputation. It is more beneficial to Aboriginal communities to broaden the base and spread the income around,” he said. “It also provides a great opportunity for people who are building their collections.” Wardrop has his finger on up-and-coming artists in this rapidly developing market, including Christine Yukenbarri from Balgo and several older men from Amata in the Central Desert.

When you look for Balgo (near the border of Western Australia and Northern Territory), for instance, under the “Regions” section on the site, there is detailed information about the culture, landscape and artists, along with a selection of the vibrant almost electric-colored acrylic paintings on canvas and glass. With the click of a mouse you can then go to the Tiwi Islands, off the coast of the Northern Territory, for detailed information about this region’s culture and art, formal geometric patterns in a narrower palette range on wooden pukumani (burial) poles and carved animal sculptures, batik prints and acrylic on canvas.

According to Wardrop, remote art centers get traditional artists started in various media by making supplies readily available and marketing their work. Often partnerships with commercial galleries are an important next step as the galleries can play a vital role in developing individual artists with one-person shows. Wardrop emphasizes the importance of dealing with ethical commercial galleries that pay artists fair commissions and provide good authentication.

Five major auction houses have jumped on the Aboriginal art bandwagon, with Sotheby’s garnering most of the business. Sotheby’s has one major Aboriginal art auction a year with previews in London, Paris and New York. Sotheby’s and Christie’s buy only from Aboriginal art centers, but the Australian auction house Lawson Menzies works with a broader range of sources, and 2 percent of all sale proceeds goes to an independent foundation to benefit Aboriginal communities.

Two major annual shows of Aboriginal art offer windows into the latest developments in this most ancient culture. The annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award exhibition recently opened in Darwin at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and will be on show until late November. The Desert Mob exhibition at the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct, in September and October, featured the work of artists from 28 art centers in Central Australia.