Collecting Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art

An ethical buying guide

Owning a piece of Indigenous Australian art can provide a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. The following information helps you make informed and ethical choices about buying Indigenous Australian art and artefacts


Background.

Indigenous Australian art is the longest continuing art tradition in the world. Aboriginal people have been making art in this country for an estimated period of at least 40,000 years. Art is an important economic and cultural enterprise for Aboriginal artists, and their work is prized by collectors from all over the world. It is considered to be fine art as well as a unique form of cultural expression, and a way of sustaining and sharing traditional knowledge.


Who are the artists?

Aboriginal artists come from a diverse range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and cultures. This diversity reflects geographical, cultural and historical differences among numerous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, many of whom continue to speak their ancestral languages.


Where do the artist work?

Artists are located in urban, rural and remote Aboriginal communities. Any remote Aboriginal artists are associated with community-based Art Centres, which are owned and governed by the artists with managers from the wider community.


Why do artists make the work?

Art is important to Aboriginal people economically, politically and culturally. It is a way to express a variety of messages about identity, belief and knowledge about people’s relationship to ancestry and links to Country. While new art styles and new media have been adapted, distinct regional art styles remain strong. This diversity has become more varied as Aboriginal people experience different circumstances and influences. Artists utilise traditional materials such as bark, natural ochres and pigments, pandanus, native grasses and bush timber, as well as Western materials and techniques, such as acrylic paints, canvas, ceramics, printmaking and digital media.

Indigenous Australian art is made for the fine art and the tourist market, and varies in price accordingly.


The role of art galleries and Art Centres.

There are many commercial outlets for Indigenous Australian art, use your judgement to evaluate your purchase. The following information may help your decision.

Aboriginal artists are located in urban, rural and remote communities. Aboriginal Art Centres are generally Aboriginal Corporations and are always owned and governed by the artists. They are non-profit organisations which facilitate protection of artists’ intellectual and cultural property, provide employment, income and training opportunities for Aboriginal people. Art Centres may provide materials, promotion, documentation, dispatch systems and business management for the artists.


Provenance.

Provenance is critically important when buying and selling Indigenous Australian art. The provenance of an artwork traces its history and chain of ownership, demonstrating the journey from it's maker to the present day. A clear line of provenance ensures the artwork has been ethically handled, the artist has been adequately recompensed and the market remains healthy and prosperous in the long term - all of which benefits the artists and their communities.

In the case of Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art (1980 - now) the only acceptable provenance for contemporary artworks is a solid link back to the artist via their community Art Centre, or on a rare occasion their primary representative. The community Art Centre operates with an ethical and community based focus, and should be the primary source of provenance for any reputable Indigenous art dealer or auction house. It aligns with the policy of all Australian institutions. Any artwork offered for auction or private sale should include a proven history back to that source.

For works created prior to established Community Art Centres (1950’s - 1980’s), such as bark paintings, Hermannsburg watercolours, Papunya boards and sculptural works, there is a less strict necessity for Art Centre provenance. However, a proven direct link to the artist does impact the value of the work; artworks from this period that have no traceable history tend to have significantly less market value than those that do - even when an artwork is clearly authentic.


Authenticity.

A certificate of authenticity establishes the provenance of an artwork. There are expectations to this when Indigenous Australian art is purchased as contemporary art from a reputable art gallery. Provenance may come in the form of an official Art Centre or gallery label or swing tag in the case of small artefacts, or a certificate of authenticity in the case of fine art items. Documentation should include some or all of the following:

  • Name of the artist

  • Title of the work

  • When the work was made

  • Appropriate cultural information

  • Where the work was made

  • Community Art Centre

  • Artist statement

Some retail outlets sell manufactured items as Indigenous Australian art or artefacts. Unlicensed imitations of Indigenous Australian art may offend Aboriginal people, harm their livelihoods options, and can infringe copyright and moral rights. An ethical consumer should avoid imitations. Questions to consider when purchasing Indigenous Australian art:

  • Is the gallery a member of a reputable art gallery association, such as the Australian Commercial Galleries Association?

  • Does the artwork have a certificate of authenticity to verify the origin of the work?

  • Was the work sourced from an Art Centre?


Price of the work.

The price of art work in a gallery includes a gallery commission. This covers promoting, marketing, display and related gallery overheads. The Art Centre and artist also receive a percentage of the sale price which covers the cost of the artists’ materials, packaging, freight and overheads for running the Art Centre and related support for the artists and their communities. The greater percentage of funds returned to the Art Centre goes directly to the artist.

The price for original works of art and craft reflects the values, creative input, time, effort, cost of materials, cultural significance of the work and status of the the artist.


Copyright.

Purchasing an artwork means an individual acquires possession of the physical item. However the purchaser does not acquire the right to reproduce the work in any way. Permission must be sought from the artist to reproduce the work (including putting it on a website or making a drawing) and a copyright fee may be required depending on the purpose of the reproduction. Licence agreements with artists must be made to reproduce the work of an individual artist or a community.


Aboriginal heritage.

Aboriginal people have rights in relation to their cultural heritage, which may be legally enforceable. Aboriginal heritage includes images depicting

  • Cultural practices

  • Knowledge

  • Beliefs

  • Art styles and symbols.

 
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This article is an adaptation of the original ANKA Purchasing Australian Aboriginal Art Consumer Guide, a joint initiative of Arts NT and ANKA ©2005, and D’Lan Davidson Best Practice Guide.