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Art

Editor's Note: First published August 9th 2013 in The Australian. Re-published on AAD, 26 August 2013, with the kind permission of Nicolas Rothwell and The Australian.

NICOLAS ARTICLEPicture: Aaron Francis Source: The Australian

THE old Aboriginal art world is gone. No point in mourning it; that faintly ramshackle, improvised and eccentric scene has been replaced, across the past decade, by something much more well-structured and concerted, and post-colonial in its accents: a state-supported Aboriginal culture system in tune with Western tastes.

Aboriginal art 2.0 began to take shape in the boom economic times that followed the 2000 Sydney Olympics: a half-decade of rising prices, rising ambitions, new art centre networks and expanded indigenous culture programs. This trend was capped by the arrival in late 2007 of a free-spending, ideologically engaged Labor federal government with strong ideas about Aboriginal art and its advancement. The existing art market was seen as a rough, exploitative free-for-all: it needed regulation and ethical standards.

Three reforms were brought in: a voluntary code of conduct for the indigenous art trade; a resale royalty; and sharp restrictions on superannuation funds with art holdings. The introduction of these measures coincided with the after-effects of the global financial crisis.
Economic conditions had changed abruptly and the rules of the Aboriginal art game, too: the private-sector market collapsed. What replaced it was a new kind of state culture network, funded by new or expanded programs: programs for remote community arts infrastructure, for research into indigenous societies and for their cultural support.

As one sector shrank, the other grew. There was a logic underlying this new architecture: it aimed at giving the Aboriginal art business a moral tone in keeping with the new government's own penchant for social transformation and its programmatic aims. Projects that might be badged as helping to "close the gap" were much in favour; art became one of the key priorities in the push for remote area economic development.

This new system is now entrenched. It has four pillars: central co-ordination; frontline art-making; downstream gallery display; and a dependent knowledge industry. These pillars interact, and support each other. They are well-funded and thus largely shielded from the pressures of the marketplace. The upshot: sales of portable works of fine art, for decades the high-value emblems of the indigenous culture world, depend much less today on purchases by private collectors or on exhibit at leading private galleries. The big buyers are institutions. Trends in Aboriginal art-making are increasingly shaped by state galleries and public collections, and by the culture bureaucrats who guide them; artworks are supported by government-backed programs, made in approved and sanctioned studios, then bought with public funds.

This is the standard shape of a modern culture industry, of the kind familiar today in every Western nation-state. But the indigenous culture sector in Australia is a more directed affair, for the goal is not just ongoing and deepening cultural production and consumption of indigenous material but actually saving Aboriginal culture: strengthening it and advertising it, collaborating and interacting with it. These are mainstream aims, more than indigenous aims. But in the art world's new configuration, it has become an export product. Artists are being encouraged to perform culture, and that performance, for outsiders, has been monetised.

This system's reach is spreading. Aboriginal culture is constantly before Australian eyes; it is presented in high rotation at prestige exhibitions and in a rich array of festivals, and large funding agencies drive this continual dissemination: the Australia Council for the Arts, the Commonwealth's Office for the Arts and the subsidiary net of state and regional arts bodies active in various overlapping fields. These bureaucrats co-ordinate their projects and they number in the hundreds. Far more people live off Aboriginal arts administration than off indigenous art-making today and it has grown into a multiplicit business: remote housing infrastructure for arts workers; indigenous community broadcasting ventures; cultural programs with schemes as various as women's law meetings and exchanges of child-rearing knowledge by desert women down the generations; maintenance of community-based language centres. All these are part of the network now set in place.

The frontline in remote and regional Australia is formed by the art centres. More than 200 such entities operate. They evolved from craft shops, set up to make art for sale to a strong market. In these times only a handful of art centres such as Buku-Larrnggay in Yirrkala or Tjala in Amata do good business. Sales elsewhere are quiet. Even so, the art centres have developed, in the decade since their great expansion. Many have substantial white staff; almost all have a core group of artists who are paid a salary to make their work. The business of an art centre will include culture trips "back to country", youth and multimedia ventures and projects to make art for public institutions. Overseeing them are the peak bodies, which hold meetings, conferences, art fairs, such as this week's Darwin Art Fair, and prize competitions restricted to their membership. They know the importance of image management, as well as image making. Some put out magazines written by their own "journalists" to interpret developments in culture for their artists and employees and outside enthusiasts.

But it is not the sudden disconnect from the private market that constitutes the key change from the standard model that held sway in the art movement's foundation years; rather, the crucial change is in the nature of the output. The revamped system tends to generate a certain kind of art. The art centres and studios of past decades bore the stamp of traditional authority. Thus only senior cultural figures were authorised to carve or paint. The present era has seen the rise and promotion of younger artists, and a quest for new looks and styles and stars. Innovation, in style, technique and form, has become critical.


This is the fateful journey Aboriginal art is on, away from its origins in ceremony and law, towards visual rhetoric and decorative appeal. For in the wider Australia interest in indigenous culture is growing, even as art sales weaken; thus a push to learn its inner details is under way, fused with an anxious desire to record it before it fades or dies. Hence the unseen crisis the new, intensified art system has bred: the drive to record and see beneath the surface of indigenous art has been producing grave violations of traditional, secret law and this has become the great moral dilemma of the Aboriginal art domain. Yet the government-backed code of conduct now in place is powerless to stop these infractions and accords them no urgency or weight.

Such is the frontline. Behind the transformed art centres and new agencies stand other institutions with fast-changing briefs: state galleries and national museums have become large-scale buyers in the primary market, they conceive exhibitions of new work and engage in lavish art-commissioning exercises. Art curators, though, are not art connoisseurs, passion-driven, and the results are bland: vast exhibitions with portentous themes, in tune with momentary modes and fashions, the salon shows of the Aboriginal art domain.

These productions, and the supporting panoply of state-funded artistic projects, require publicity and endorsement. They require a cadre of expert interpreters. The academic sector stands ready, replete with enthusiastic students and engaged scholars, with special programs designed to promote indigenous art and make its intricacies comprehensible to outside eyes. This can be done by organising art events, seminars and conferences. It also can be done through high-end arts magazines with Australia Council subsidies and through the network of campus galleries and of contemporary art spaces across the country that are publicly backed and show work of indigenous provenance. A special category of research grant was recently set up to facilitate collaboration between mainstream and indigenous scholars; Aboriginal cultural and knowledge systems have thus become a central element in the new landscape of Australian humanities research. What results is contentious: art exchanges, joint cultural projects, exhibitions that set remote community and mainstream works and art-makers side by side and link their efforts.

And so the transformation proceeds almost unexamined, almost unseen in its advance. Tact is necessary in this well-presented, stage-managed new Aboriginal art scene. Revival, progress and reconciliation are the stock themes. There is no space to dwell on pervasive features of remote community life: welfare dependency, marijuana abuse, youth suicide and domestic violence.

Indeed, critical appraisals of the new art model and its social context and impact are few, for independent voices well placed to see the picture are few.

Yet almost everyone connected with the indigenous art current knows a change in atmosphere has come. It reflects the shift in emphasis from privately purchased to state-backed work, but it is also a slackening, a dilution. There is more intervention on the ground and in the culture. The consequences can be seen in the current run of exhibitions, in the new, conformist work being made, in its vastness of scale and its odd mimicry of contemporary trends in mainstream art.

There was until recently a sense of swing and movement, a vitality about much remote area art. It is fragile and faltering today. Why? Must transformation of the overwhelming kind engineered into being in the past decade always imply dilution, co-option? What is the cause of the shift no one dares to name? It is an open question that faces the commissars of indigenous culture: is the upsurge in Aboriginal art-making of traditional accent something that can be prolonged in these new conditions, as a large-scale welfare program of the kindly, progressive Australian state?

About the Author

Nicolas Rothwell

Nicolas Rothwell

Nicolas Rothwell is a journalist and the Northern Australia correspondent for The Australian newspaper. He is also an award-winning writer with several works of non-fiction to his name.   www.n...