31 August 2000

Australian Aboriginal Art

With interest in Australian Aboriginal art at an all time high, MICHAEL HUTAK provides a primer for Olympics bound tourists...

It is ironic that the most vibrant sector of Australia's booming fine art market is barely four decades old, yet it has sprung from the world's oldest continuous surviving culture -- that of the Australia's indigenous people, the Aborigines.
Although Australia's indigenous people have produced arts and craft for tens of thousands of years, the fairy tale story of the Aboriginal fine art market begins in 1971 when a young school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, arrived in the remote outback Aboriginal community of Papunya. Noticing the unusual patterns his pupils would draw in the sand, Bardon gave them paints and encouraged them to paint murals on the classroom walls.
Then something amazing happened. The children's efforts stirred something in the Papuya elders and they began painting vivid representations of their ancestral stories and legends on any available surface. Soon word spread that vivid, highly stylised, intensely colourful works of art were being made in the desert; works which depicted like never before the richness of Aboriginal culture and its heretofore oral traditions. Not to be confused with abstract art, these works susually depicted stories of the "Dreamtime", more accurately known as "tjukurrpas", and were being painted on bark, paper, canvas, anything! via a style which utilised fields of small dots.
Recognition, however, that these first dot paintings might constitute "fine art" was not immediate, and a market was slow to emerge, although several galleries in Australian cities began exhibiting Aboriginal works. The retail market in Aboriginal art grew from $AUD0.9 million in 1970-71 to $AUD2.5m in 1979-80 but by 1986-87 it had reached $AUD7m, after a series of landmark international exhibitions in the early 1980s put Aboriginal art firmly on the shopping lists of North American collectors.
By the mid 1990s the market had matured to the extent that Australia's larger auction houses began to get wise. On June 30, 1997, Sotheby's Australia conducted the first ever auction devoted exclusively to Aboriginal art. The sale was a remarkable success, grossing $AUD2.7m and setting a new benchmark of $206,000 (from a previous best of $86,000) for any work by an Aboriginal artist.
In June this year, the record breaking work, Water Dreaming at Kalinpinya by Papunya artist Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, was offered through Sotheby's Melbourne salerooms again and set another record of $486,500. Records were also set for other leading artists like Emily Kngwarreye ($156,500), Rover Thomas ($141,100), Shorty Lungkarda Tjungurrayi ($123,500) and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa ($63,000). The auction grossed $AUD4.4m and confirmed Aboriginal art as the raging bull of Australia art. And what is even more remarkable is that 62% of the gross came from overseas buyers, mainly North Amercan.
Fortunately, such stellar prices are reserved for only the very top end of the market, and international visitors to the Sydney Olympic Games won't need to spend such sums to acquire quality artworks by 'name' Aboriginal artists, works that will also represent sound investments. Paintings can come on canvas, paper or bark but you can also buy sculptures, weaving, carvings, ceramics, textiles or less expensive alternatives such as limited edition prints. Beautiful, fine works are available to suit all budgets.
But you will need to be aware of the pitfalls of buying art by "The First Australians". Upon landing in the Harbour City, you will be struck by the ubiquitous presence of Aboriginal art and design: on t-shirts, souvenirs, billboards and boomerangs, the unmistakable signature of Aboriginal 'dreaming', the dot painting style, is everywhere. There are plenty of opportunities to snap up a work that certainly looks like it came from the hand of an Australian aborigine but, as in all things, caveat emptor: indiscriminate buying might see you take home a dot painting concocted in a Jakarta sweatshop rather than a Western Desert workshop.
The success of Aboriginal art has also been marred in the late 1990's by several scandals surrounding frauds and the authenticity of works in the marketplace. Collectors should ensure they are dealing with reputable dealers who can provide satisfactory evidence of providence and/or certificates of authenticity. Look for dealers who are members of both or either the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, or Art.Trade, the Indigenous art dealers' association. To be doubly sure, seek out those dealers who act as direct agents for the remote communities that survive through their art. This means at least a portion of the sale proceeds returns to outback Aboriginal communities, who are among Australia's most economically and socially disadvantaged.

- Michael Hutak

WHO'S HOT and WHAT YOU SHOULD PAY

Prices vary widely depending on medium, condition, size and significance of the work in question. Beautiful works by all the artist quoted are available for under $10,000. These price ranges are a guide only for the best works on the market and are quoted for significant paintings in $AUD.

Price Range

Under $2,500

-- Samantha Hobson

$2,501 to $5,000

-- HJ Wedge

-- Rosella Namok

-- Judy Watson

-- Tracey Moffatt

$5,001 to $10,000

-- Kitty Kantilla

-- Yirawala (bark paintings)

$10,001 to $25,000

-- Michael Nelson Tjakamarra

-- John Mawandjul

-- Ada Bird Petyarre

-- Gloria Tamerre Petyarre

-- Kathleen Petyarre

-- Jack Britten (Joolama)

-- Queenie McKenzie (Nakarra)

-- Ronnie Tjampitjinpa

-- Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula

$25,001 to $50,000

-- Ginger Riley Munduwalawala

-- Uta Uta Tjangala

$50,001 to $100,000

-- Emily Kame Kngwarreye

-- Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri

-- Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Above $100,001

-- Rover Thomas (Joolama)

-- Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri

-- Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

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First published on www.worth.com