As the Aboriginal art community struggles against a growing culture of fraud, one group of desert artists is taking a stand, writes Nicholas Rothwell

A thread of rich, autumnal colours, fit for the burning season, runs through the latest Desert Mob exhibition, which opened its doors yesterday at the Araluen Galleries in Alice Springs.

This annual display of works from Aboriginal community art centres has emerged in recent years as the defining ground-level survey of new trends in the western desert art movement. By tradition, it is an anarchic, joyous, democratic affair: everything for sale, and dance ceremonies thrown in as well.

This year, though, there was a sombre edge. These are fraught times for the desert and its art trade. This is a world threatened on all sides: not only by the medical plague of kidney disease and the social plagues of drug and petrol abuse, but by the spectre of carpetbagging as well: the shadow art market that seduces artists away from their community art centres and undermines the original market.

Carpetbagging is cresting all across the desert: many private dealers now sell rushed paintings of dubious authenticity in city galleries: second-tier works by big-name painters, outright frauds and peerless paintings of uncertain provenance. Individual dealers tempt artists from remote communities with up-front payments, and lure them to Alice Springs to paint, often in poor conditions, in the now notorious “sheds” in the town’s industrial zone. Community art centre managers are unwilling to bring their best-known artists into town, for fear they will be grabbed by carpetbaggers. A federal Government inquiry into the indigenous art market was launched last month, and attempts by the Australian Tax Office and state police fraud squads to crack down on the financial irregularities and forgeries common in the trade are continuing, with few visible results.

Hence the litmus role of Desert Mob 2006, now, in its 16th year, the most gloriously wild and disarming of Aboriginal art shows. Araluen Galleries curator Tim Rollason and his team have assembled 444 paintings, sculptures and objects from 35 art desert centres. The geographic zone covered is wider than ever: from Borroloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria to Blackstone in the south-west reaches of the Great Victoria Desert.

The three rooms are packed tight with vivid work: lovely, ochred coolamons from the Nyinkka Nyunyu art centre, far to the north in Tennant Creek, and tiny etchings of great subtlety from Irrkerlantye studio in the heart of Alice Springs. Not only does the show give its standard snapshot of the central deserts. It provides, this year, a hint of what the desert wants to say to the world: for the works here are made by artists well aware of the gathering significance of carpetbagging as a factor impinging on their lives. Some of the artists’ statements in the catalogue make clear that many of them, by participating in this exhibition, are proclaiming their support for community art centres as the desert’s basic distribution channel.

Like every Desert Mob show, this exhibition requires, and repays, close attention: but a single question inevitably dominates all others: Is the movement still alive, and unfolding?

The answer is obvious the moment one steps inside. There, on the walls, are shining works by unfamiliar painters: grandly conceived canvases, in lush, resplendent colours, from art centres no one knew of a year or two ago. In a tradition full of stories, the story of Tjungu Palya Arts, for example, which only opened its doors this March in the remote Pitjantjatjara homeland of Nyapari, stands out. The leading artists are in their 80s and 90s, men and women whose childhoods were spent in the pre-contact desert, and whose later years passed in reflection on the beliefs and life patterns they can see dissipating before their eyes.

Their synoptic canvases, mostly painted in a palette of mulberry reds, deep sunset oranges and creamy whites, contain a note of testimony. Jimmy Baker, Nyankulya Watson, Eileen Stevens and Wingu Tingima were too frail to make the long trip to Alice Springs: but they were strongly present nonetheless.

The flamboyant nature of Stevens’s personality stands out in her mauve-accented rendition of Piltati; Tingima’s patient, inward manner seems to be transcribed in the Titian-reddish lines of her Kuru Ala. In this body of paintings, these old desert people seem to have tapped into a precise way of communicating their sense of country to non-indigenous eyes. Their debut is an extraordinary event: but, for insiders, it makes sense — art co-coordinator Amanda Dent, the reticent woman who oversaw the birth of Wingellina Arts five years ago, is behind it.

Accounts of the jewel-like art that pours from the far western deserts tend to highlight the creators of the works.

The truth is that the entire desert tradition would be different without its co-ordinators — the men and women who sense the unexpressed presence of the work. A group of small art centres run by such lone individuals stands in the remotest stretch of the western deserts: all are recently established, and they are producing distinctive art. They have held impressive capital-city shows during the past year and balanced their task of coaxing strong works from old masters with a mid-term strategy of bringing younger artists on, but Desert Mob remains the best opportunity to keep up with this fast-changing world.

This year’s exhibition confirms the strength of three of these outposts. Kayili Arts, in Patjarr on the edge of the Gibson Desert nature reserve, is overseen by former Papunya Tula field-worker Michael Stitfold. Eastwards, on the fringe of the Ngaanyatjarra lands, deep in the shadow of the red Rawlinson Ranges, lies Warakurna Arts, managed for the past two years by Edwina Circuitt. Further south, at Amata, is the former Minymaku art centre, since renamed Tjala Arts, and run by the experienced co-coordinator Sara Twigg-Patterson.

Operating in an impoverished and troubled social realm, a few hundred kilometres by dirt road from anywhere, it can be hard to preside over a renaissance unfolding in another language — and the achievements of these isolated co-ordinators are hard to overplay.

Under Stitfold’s guiding hand, Kayili’s aesthetic continues to take on softer nuances. The art centre’s star women painters, Ngipi Ward and Pulpuru Davies, still produce delicate, finely hatched paintings of their ancestral landscapes in the Gibson Desert: only theirs is now a desert that shimmers in creams, pinks and golden ochres upon stark black grounds. The works share a look well-calculated to charm the non-indigenous eye, but there are common fashions emerging across the desert: it is hard not to catch notes of the Kayili style in new paintings from the eastern Pitjantjatjara lands.

Similarly, Warakurna’s best-known artist, Carol Maayatja Golding, paints in a wispy style, reminiscent of some women’s work from nearby Wingellina: but Golding has her own palette, and makes grand stories, on a large scale, from legendary days.

Tjala’s best-known artists are the senior men, Tiger Palpatja and Hector Burton, who cover their ancestral stories with a Klimt-like sheen of colour and continue to defy received ideas of how desert art should look. Their canvases have a rough, vivid quality that sometimes calls to mind the earliest days of the painting movement, when Geoffrey Bardon was at Papunya, three decades ago.

A life-world, a universe, complete in itself, seems gathered on the walls of the Araluen Galleries this year. Rollason regards Desert Mob increasingly as “the story of the region, the way it all fits together”. He also sees it as a plateau built upon the past: at yesterday’s opening, Rollason wore an old batik shirt given to him by an artist who has long since died and he spoke in moving fashion about the passing of familiar faces — and of simpler days.

Desert Mob is an X-ray of the market’s somewhat tortuous demand side. On hand yesterday were not only the familiar faces of artistically minded locals and connoisseurs from southern capitals: the private dealers, margin traders and carpetbaggers were there as well, cutting through the crowds like swooping birds of prey. The presence of these people lends Desert Mob, like much of the indigenous art trade, its tragic edge: one rarely sees the various factions of middlemen, exploiters and exploited alongside each other, merging into a subtle tone of commercial grey.

At a symposium on the future of the Aboriginal art market at the Araluen centre today, John Oster, director of Desart, the umbrella group for the community art centres of the inland, will discuss a proposed code of conduct for galleries and dealers representing Aboriginal artists.

It is full of noble principles, but wholly voluntary. There is no reason to expect it will solve overnight the problem of carpetbagging, which is a natural feature of the Aboriginal desert’s high-profit art landscape. One might as well try to turn back the season’s bushfires with one’s bare hands.

Desert Mob is at Araluen Galleries, Alice Springs, until October 22