Review into major Indigenous art collective over authenticity doubts
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The federal, South Australian and Northern Territory governments will conduct a joint investigation into claims that Indigenous artworks created at the highly regarded APY Art Centre Collective had been altered by white staffers to make them more “collectable”.
The inquiry will be jointly funded by the federal and South Australian governments but led by the latter, which is the principal funder of the collective. It has yet to set a timeframe or terms of reference, but is expected to address as a matter of urgency questions of authenticity in the lucrative First Nations art market.
Federal arts minister Tony Burke.Credit: James Brickwood
South Australian arts minister Andrea Michael said in a statement on Tuesday that following a meeting on Monday with federal arts minister Tony Burke and Northern Territory arts minister Chanston Paech, the three governments had resolved to act.
“We determined there will be a review into the organisation led by the South Australian government, jointly funded by the Commonwealth, with the support of the Northern Territory government. We will work closely with the Anangu people, including those working in the Adelaide studio, as the review gets underway,” she said.
“The allegations that have surfaced are concerning, and all three governments are determined to protect the integrity of First Nations art. We are committed to supporting First Nations artists to share their art with the world, and ensuring respect for their culture and stories is incredibly important.”
Concerns about the provenance of some works emanating from the APYACC – which represents 10 Indigenous-owned and governed enterprises and around 500 artists from desert communities in central Australia – have been spurred by reports in The Australian that claim white staffers at the centre had painted on canvases that were meant to represent Dreamtime stories and sacred cultural knowledge.
Concern over the authenticity of the works has also cast a shadow over a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia that was due to open next month.
Ngura Pulka – Epic Country had been promoted as “one of the largest and most significant First Nations community-driven art projects to have ever been developed”. All parts of it, the promotional material claimed, “are being entirely conceived created directed and determined by Anangu people”.
The exhibition was slated to open on June 3. On April 10, the NGA announced it would hold an independent review of the 28 featured artworks in the show in a bid to ascertain their provenance.
On April 26, it released the terms of reference, under which a panel of four, including two reviewers and two First Nations expert advisers, “will consider the scope and extent of contributions (if any) that third parties – and, in particular, studio assistants and managers at the APY Art Centre Collective … with the ultimate view of assessing whether those works were made under the creative control of the artists to whom they are attributed”.
The notion of authenticity in the creation of artworks is far from simple.
Throughout history, artworks have been created collectively, often with the input of junior assistants. Many famous and revered artists, across all periods and in an array of media – Titian, Rembrandt, Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons, Salvador Dali, Patricia Piccinini and Rone, among many others – have utilised the labour of others in creating pieces that have been avidly collected by individuals and institutions alike, and generally considered to be the work of a single “author”.
Many of those works have been informed by religious or spiritual belief systems, too.
Speaking in Canberra on Friday, federal arts minister Tony Burke gave a clear indication that the involvement of non-Indignous assistants in the creation of an artwork should not in and of itself be considered grounds for its dismissal.
“I won’t be telling First Nations artists whether or not they are allowed to be assisted,” he said. “I won’t be doing that, and I won’t be telling any creators what they can and can’t create. That’s certainly not my job, that’s certainly not my style.
“What matters is to make sure that people have creative control,” he added. “And to the extent that there are allegations that there was no creative control, then that’s important for us to be able to work through the facts on that.
“But I certainly have no intention of implying a standard and set of rules around First Nations artists that are not applied to any other artists in the world or throughout history.”
Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.
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