Middlemen Made a Killing from Aboriginal Artists

Australians hardly cared for Indigenous cultural products before the 1970s. You might say it took them a while. By the 1980s, however, curiosity for Indigenous art had turned into a widespread interest. This situation led to the need to establish regulations so the transactions of goods between the two cultures would mean empowerment, and not exploitation, of the indigenous.

The “Middleman”: a Symbol of Exploitation

With the growing interest for Aboriginal art, difficulties linked to the economic transactions arose. Aboriginal painters often practiced their art in the desert, far from urban life. There was barely any contact between those worlds to facilitate the sale of products. Community Art Centres were created to meet this need, and to protect Aboriginal artists from being exploited by dealers. They began to appear in the mid-1970s, mainly in the Northern Territory, with the support of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. Their main function was too facilitate a « fair go-between » from aboriginal artists to art dealers. But in the ‘70s, there were only a handful of them, and most transactions still passed through the hands of other “middlemen”, who were notorious in their exploitation of Aboriginal artists’ ignorance of the real value of their paintings.

In the art market the general rule, for non-indigenous artists for example, would be that the artist gets 60% of the consigned price, and the dealer gets the remaining 40%. Yet the introduction of another middleman changes the balance of power. Richard Bell, an Aborigine who belongs to the Koori tribe, illustrates the art deal through a middleman in the following diagram:

Diagram of The Aboriginal Art Trade by Richard Bell
« The Triangle of Discomfort, by Richard Bell

This practice is captured in Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah. A first scene, portraying Delilah and her grandmother working on a traditional sand painting, introduces the character of a white grocer, a link-figure between the tribe and the nearby city of Alice Springs. He collects a few paintings from the two women and explains he will erase their tab at the store in return, promising to give them $200 for the next batch.

A few scenes later, Delilah, while in the city, stumbles upon a painting of her grandmother in an art gallery. Its price? $22 000. While there is no way to know what were the respective margins of the middleman and the gallery owner to verify Richard Bell’s figures, the contrast between the two prices is scandalous.

Screenshot, Samson and Delilah, Warwick Thronton, 6mn19: a Painting Worth $22 000

This issue adds to the coexisting one of non-cash retribution, which would often take, and occasionally still today,  the shape of alcohol or gas, feeding Aborigines’ addictions and keeping them in a position of dependence. Indeed there has been a tradition of non-cash payment between the dealers and the artists, leaving the door open for all kinds of abuse. Marion Scrymgour, an Aboriginal minister evokes « unethical and unscrupulous dealing, including payment in drugs and alcohol », as reported by the South China Morning Post in 2007. This problem has not been resolved as of today, since the late art codes still allows non-cash retributions, as the Art Collector pointed out in one of its issues.

Regulations and Law Enforcement: Protecting the Aboriginal Artists

In the face of this phenomenon, it soon became obvious that the Aboriginal Art Market needed a legal regulation in order to avoid such abuses. From the 1970s, more and more measures have been taken to insure that the transactions stay fair for all parties involved, and are carried out with respect for Aboriginal artists.

The ‘70s saw the birth of organized clusters of Aboriginal Artists, such as the “Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd”, a western desert art company established in November 1972. It also saw the emergence of community art centres in remote areas, to provide advice, marketing opportunities, art supplies and documentation to the adjacent Aboriginal tribes, as well as dealing with the financial side of the transactions, as evoked earlier. Over a hundred of these centers can be found today on the Australian soil.

As Aboriginal Art gallerist Brit Susann Hanstein explains, during the 90s, a series of landmark legal decisions ruled in favor of Aboriginal artists who had engaged pursuits for breaches of their copyright. While a Copyright Act — concerning both aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists — as first issued in 1984, additional details further enforced it in 1994, recognizing Aboriginal paintings as original artworks, rendering any copy of whole or part of the paintings legally punishable.

Between 2007 and 2009, The Australia Council for the Art worked on an Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct to regulate the art market and legislate transactions. As a result, many websites offer guidelines and advice concerning aboriginal art trade. An example may be found here.

There is no denying that the last few decades saw the Australian art market increasingly concerned with the misuse of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property. This awareness helped shape legal protection for Aboriginal artists, as well as give them a wider visibility without depriving them of their artistic property.

Classification debates over Indigenous Art: Political Recognition

In order to properly understand the impact of such legal regulations and measures on the Aboriginal Art Market, one has to take into consideration the political value of the recognition of Aboriginal productions as art.

First of all, and as Elizabeth Burns Coleman explains in « Historical ironies » the fact that Aboriginal tribes painted  was considered evidence that the Aborigines were cultured and not savages. The mere recognition of a people’s art as art becomes in this case politically significant, as it establishes a social status and a position for the Aborigines on the scale of civilization (Coleman, 3).

But the latest evolutions in terms of international opportunities have progressively broadened the horizon of indigenous art, with a clear opening on the international art market. In 2003, the Queensland Government, recognizing the potential for an export-oriented Aboriginal art, created the Queensland Indigenous Art Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA) (Neave 106).

The International Arts Partnership Program Campain: Promoting Queensland Indigenous Artists through Marketing and Export Initiatives
The International Arts Partnership Program Campaign: Promoting Queensland Indigenous Artists through Marketing and Export Initiatives

Aboriginal Art is attracting more and more attention in the West. Paris’ Musée du Quay Branly, for instance, dedicated a significant part of their collection to Aboriginal art. In 2013, it hosted a major exhibition of Papunya Tula artists.

Australian Aboriginal Art Collection at the Quai Branly Museum
Australian Aboriginal Art Exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum

This ascending publicity for Aboriginal art currently raises new questions as to its proper qualification. Elizabeth Burns Coleman reports that the choice of the Quai Branly arose controversy in 2007, on the basis that Aboriginal art should be considered contemporary art, and not “primitive”, a notion which fails to get rid of a latent paternalism in the eyes of Aboriginal Art defenders (3-6). The line between “fine art” and “primitive arts” has acquired a heavy political significance indeed. The question is no more whether it is art or not, but where to fit Aboriginal art in the traditional categories of Art History.

Works Cited:

Aboriginal Art Online, Code of Conduct, 2011. <http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/resources/code.php>

Art Collector. « Art Centres and The Indigenous Art Debate », Issue 49, July-September 2009. <http://www.artcollector.net.au/ArtcentresandtheIndigenousartdebate>

Bell, Richard. « Aboriginal Art – it’s a white thing! », The Koori History Website Project, November 2002. <http://www.kooriweb.org/>

Coleman, Elizabeth Burns. « Historical ironies: the Australian Aboriginal art revolution », Journal of Art Historiography, 1, December 2009. <http://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/>

Hanstein, Brit Susann. « Aboriginal Art – Selling out Aboriginal culture: yesterday, and today? », European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights, n.d. <http://archive.eniar.org/news/art11.html>

Indigeneous Art Code, August 2009. <http://www.indigenousartcode.org/index.php/the-code/>

Neave, Coral. « Finding a Voice and a Place in the Contemporary Indigenous Art World », etropic, 10, James Cook University Website, 2011. <http://www.jcu.edu.au/etropic/ET10/Neave.pdf>

Thornton, Warwick, dir. Samson and Delilah, CAAMA Production, Scarlett Pictures, 2009

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