Shop Local: Spotlight on Australia’s Aboriginal Art

How does buying art from indigenous communities benefit them and what should one be careful of? Two gallery owners share more.

As the oldest ongoing art tradition in the world, aboriginal art is deeply rooted in Australia’s indigenous communities. With its unique way of storytelling, this powerful art form vividly reflects their beliefs and values.

In our third instalment of Shop Local, we speak to owners of two galleries in Australia who are passionate about supporting aboriginal communities and bringing their fascinating and inspiring works to the public eye.

Vivien Anderson Gallery

With around 33 years of experience in indigenous art, Vivien Anderson has not only provided seasoned artists with a platform to express themselves but also kickstarted the careers of budding artists.

Located in St Kilda and a 25-minute drive away from Fraser Place Melbourne, her gallery is an ideal spot for anyone looking to immerse themselves in aboriginal and Torres Strait Island visual arts, from paintings on canvas and bark, sculpture and wood carvings, to textiles, ceramics and photography.

Representing artists who work in diverse media, the gallery also takes several of them across the world for biennial exhibitions, connecting them with curators, collectors and First Nations artists from Canada and the US.

Janet Fieldhouse 2017, Vivien Anderson Gallery
Image Credit: Vivien Anderson Gallery

1. Why did you start Vivien Anderson Gallery?

I returned from an extended period of living in Europe and took on the manager’s position at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Melbourne in 1985. In 1991, I decided to start my own gallery in the same city with a specific focus on the representation and exhibition of Australian indigenous artists.

The gallery is also a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code, which was established to ensure ethical dealing and transparency in working with indigenous artists.

2. How does buying aboriginal art help to support local communities?

We represent and support numerous artists through their community art centres, which tend to be located in very remote parts of Australia. The centres provide the materials and logistical support for artists to develop and maintain their practice. Also, an equitable percentage of any sale an artist makes through a community-owned art centre is then spent in community or on endeavours that benefit the community.

3. Have you noticed any changes in the aboriginal art industry over the years?  

There has been steady growth in the interest for indigenous arts every decade since I started, regardless of the impact of major economic events such as the global financial crisis. Some people are attracted to the aesthetics, narrative and the rich cultural value of the work. Others are more interested in learning about the indigenous people of Australia through this art form.

I often say that during a downturn, art is the first to suffer and the last to recover. However, I’m noticing a positive strength in the market this year.

This increase can be attributed to the emergence of new artists and art centres who are working in new ways. These include on earth pigment, canvas, ceramics, glass as well as compositionally experimenting with colours and surface techniques such as big brush strokes, stippling and drawing over a paint wash.

Janet Fieldhouse Ceramics and Barapu Bark paintings, Vivien Anderson Gallery
Image Credit: Janet Fieldhouse Ceramics and Barapu Bark Paintings, Vivien Anderson Gallery

4. What advice would you give to someone looking to make his first purchase?

It is normal to be unsure and nervous, but you should follow your instincts. Talk to the gallery directors about the artists’ work and their exhibition history. Are they independent or do they work with an art centre? You need to do some reading as well. I always recommend the books written by Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. She has a great flair for merging all of the influences that impact on indigenous art ─ aesthetic, historical and religious.

Independent artists have little or no safety net. They pursue careers at their own expense and risk, so it’s important that we support them. Art centres, on the other hand, are a unique model developed over the past four decades to help artists living in remote communities through material and logistic support.

There is no singular preferred choice to buy indigenous art as long as you feel absolutely assured that the artist is deriving a direct benefit from any purchase and the work was produced in socially responsible and ethical way. I would ensure that the gallery you visit is aware of the Indigenous Art Code and is prepared to answer all of your questions without fear or favour.

 

Aboriginal Contemporary

Be it the strident ochres of the Kimberley or the untamed abstracts from the Western Desert, gallery owner Nichola Dare spends a few weeks at a time in some of the most remote areas in Australia to handpick these paintings.

Once or twice a year, she jumps on a plane to Alice Springs or Darwin, rents a four-wheel drive and satellite phone, and goes off the grid to places that include APY Lands and Arnhem Land. While there, she visits art centres and takes pains to source paintings that are authentic and can stand the test of time.

Located in Bronte and a 20-minute drive from Fraser Suites Sydney, Aboriginal Contemporary works to keep its collection diverse to pique the interest of contemporary aboriginal art lovers.

Painting in-action, Aboriginal Contemporary
Image Credit: Aboriginal Contemporary

1. Why did you start Aboriginal Contemporary?

I have always been interested in art and my interest for contemporary aboriginal art steadily grew from curiosity to a true passion. I opened my gallery in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs in 2010, and being surrounded by beautiful art and working with art centres and communities every day is a joy.

Art centres are aboriginal-owned and managed businesses that act as agents between artists and galleries or museums. They also provide opportunities for the training and development of artists. For some of them, we’re their sole representative in Sydney.

Working with so many art centres and being a signatory of the Indigenous Art Code contributes to our customers’ confidence in the provenance (history of the ownership of the painting) and the fair and ethical business practices we follow when engaging these communities.

2. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your business?

My biggest challenge is sourcing enough top-tier artwork. The art centres have many commitments throughout the year with artists painting for award entries, commissions for public galleries and museums as well as specific exhibitions. Some of the senior artists we work with only paint a few works a year and are very much in demand, so it can be a real challenge to ensure a regular flow of work of the quality I want for the gallery.

In-Store, Aboriginal Contemporary
Image Credit: Aboriginal Contemporary

3. What guides your decisions in the selection of works to feature?

My curatorial skills have become better over the years. I’m now very confident selecting works for the Sydney market, whether it’s looking at canvasses on the floor of a desert art centre or viewing online. That said, the exact process is something I cannot articulate ─ it’s more of a feeling that’s part experience, part research and part intuition. I see hundreds of paintings every year and have done so for the past nine years, so my eye and knowledge have improved greatly over time.

4. Have you seen rising interest in aboriginal art in recent years?

Yes! It’s great to see customers regaining confidence in what to buy and where to buy it, as over the years the market has had some bad press about the unethical treatment of artists. I put this rejuvenated interest down to a combination of the incredible aesthetic of the work itself and the growing confidence in its provenance.

I’m particularly pleased to see more customers expecting a certificate of authenticity when they buy. More are seeing the value of an official document showing the artist’s name, background and details of the artwork, such as its title, story, size and catalogue number. The best way to drive ethical practices is for customers to insist on them.

In fact, we have an article on our website called A Guide to Purchasing Aboriginal Art Ethically, which customers might find helpful.

Know of any other aboriginal art galleries you’d like to recommend? Share them with us in the comments section below!

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