Welcome to Country is a travel guide with a difference. In this book Professor Marcia Langton AM offers practical tourism tips for travellers eager to engage with Indigenous Australia, as well as insights in to language, customs and history.
In the extract below, reproduced with permission, Langton weighs-in on the fraught topic of authenticity in Indigenous art and suggests several strategies for those wishing to purchase ethically from reliable sources.
Art Guide Australia readers in Melbourne can hear Marcia Langton speak in the panel discussion, Walking on Bones, Empowering Memory: Brook Andrew and guests, on 26 June at the State Library of Victoria. Bookings essential.
Art: Traditional ownership of inherited styles
by Marcia Langton
Establishing the authenticity of an artwork is important for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and the purchasers of their art. All reputable and ethical commercial galleries and art cooperatives document each piece and the artist, and provide certificates of authenticity. Even so, fraudsters have copied works or made works in the style of famous artists and sold them to naïve buyers. The art cooperatives represented at the Indigenous art fairs are backed by groups such as Desart and the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists, which are governed by elected councils of Aboriginal artists and advocate for their members.
Crudely manufactured goods made in China or Indonesia, and sold to tourists as ‘Aboriginal art’, ‘boomerangs’ and ‘didgeridoos’ fill souvenir shops and galleries in the tourist precincts of Australia. This trade causes immense harm to Indigenous artists and their families, and brings Indigenous art into disrepute. After several copyright cases in the courts, it was a fraud case in Victoria in 2007 that finally delivered justice to the Aboriginal artists whose works had been copied. In the first successful prosecution of art fraud, Pamela Yvonne Liberto and her husband Ivan Liberto were found guilty by a county court jury. They had conned the major art auction houses into selling fraudulent copies. It was reported in the Age newspaper in 2007 that ‘The Libertos received more than $300 000 after forging and selling four paintings, supposedly by renowned artist Rover Thomas, whose work is keenly sought by collectors across the world and attracted a record price when the National Gallery of Australia purchased All That Big Rain Coming from Top Side for $778 000 in 2001.’ Scientific examination of the paint and materials to date the works, carried out by the University of Melbourne Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, provided the evidence of fraud.
Fraud leads to financial losses for the artists and their families, and the artists themselves often feel that their soul has been stolen. Some artists have refused to work again after they discovered copies of their works sold under their name. Clans or traditional land-owning groups own their traditional designs, and often one person in the group is authorised by their father or mother, or grandparent to execute the designs of their people. These designs are inherited, and even though the work of art is intended for the market, the artist feels that they are offering it to the world as a gift with the spirit of their ancestry and special places. Also, the traditional works often depict religious content. In further copyright cases in the 1980s and 1990s, aggrieved artists gave evidence to this effect but these cases did little to protect their rights.(1)
Advice on buying authentic art
It is the work of the catalogue writers and art historians, who meticulously document the art styles and the artists’ biographies, that offers the best protection for the buyer. To verify authenticity it is possible to find examples of artists’ works, their representatives, and the explanations of their works in galleries, published in books, and in catalogues online.
The Art Galleries Association of Australia and the Australia Commercial Galleries Association have websites that list their members.
Reputable galleries subscribe to the Code of Ethics of the National Association for the Visual Arts.(2)
Indigenous Art Code (indigenousartcode.org) was set up in 2010 to preserve and promote ethical trading in Indigenous art. Articles on its website discuss buying art ethically, and the harm caused to artists when people buy fakes. The official Tourism Australia website, www.australia.com, offers the following advice on buying authentic Indigenous art.(3)
Develop an idea of which style of indigenous art you like
Visit the indigenous collections at Australia’s major museums to educate yourself about the different styles of art.
Make sure it’s authentic
As with any art form, indigenous art has authentic works and imitations. It gets more complicated when you learn that the majority of indigenous works are not signed. You can, however, be assured that works are authentic if you buy from members of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia, the Australian Commercial Galleries Association or the Indigenous Art Code. Those are the blue chip industry bodies that provide authentication and pay artists fair commissions.
Browse at commercial galleries
A number of exceptional commercial galleries across the country have knowledgeable staff that can give professional advice on what to purchase given your interests and budget.
Travel to remote indigenous art centres
There are dozens of community-based Aboriginal art centres, many in remote areas, all over Australia. These centres organise the delivery of supplies to artists and market their art nationally and internationally, often online. Two key umbrella organisations are Desart, which represents 30 Aboriginal art and craft centres in Central Australia, and the Association of Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artists of Australia (ANKAAA), which is the peak advocacy and support agency for Aboriginal artists working individually or through 48 remote art centres spread across one million square kilometres (390,000 square miles) in Arnhem Land, Darwin/Katherine, the Kimberley and the Tiwi Islands. Key art centres include Warmun, Waringarri and Mowanjum, in the Kimberley, Buku Larnggay at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, Balgo in Western Australia, Maruku near Uluru and Tiwi Designs on Bathurst Island. The first art centre in Australia using modern acrylics and canvas was Papunya Tula in the Western Desert. You can buy work at its gallery in Alice Springs. If you would like to visit remote art centres, Palya offers art tours by small plane.
This is an edited extract from Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton published by Hardie Grant Travel, $39.99, and available where all good books are sold.
1. Colin Golvan, ‘Aboriginal Art and Copyright. An overview and commentary of recent developments’, Media Arts Law Review, vol, 1, September 1996, pp 151–154; http://www.colingolvan.com.au/downloads/law-articles-essays/aboriginalart-copyright-overview-commentary.pdf
2. See National Association for the Visual Arts, Code of Ethics: visualarts.net.au/media/uploads/files/Code_of_Ethics.pdf
3. Tourism Australia, ‘Locals’ Tips for Buying Aboriginal Art’; https://www.australia.com/en/things-to-do/aboriginal-australia/tips-for-buying-aboriginalart.html