While the international market for Australian Indigenous art is still growing despite the economic downturn, the Australian market has been slowing down in recent years, having a direct impact on Aboriginal art centres and communities. This is however counterbalanced by two highly positive phenomena: the profusion of major institutional events celebrating Indigenous art and culture, and the rise and recognition of a strong Indigenous voice.
Recent months have seen the Indigenous arts calendar rapidly fill-up with major Indigenous festivals, exhibitions and art prizes around the nation and abroad.
November marks the inauguration of Corroboree, an exciting new annual Indigenous festival held in Sydney over 11 days and nights. The festival team is led by Creative Director for 2013-2015, Hetti Perkins, one of Australia’s most influential Indigenous curators. With close support from a Council of five elders, she has ensured that the voice and culture of the local Gadigal people is both respected and reflected by the festival.
Furthermore, at the end of September, Premier Jay Weatherill announced the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island visual arts festival to be hosted by South Australia in the Spring of 2015. The role of inaugural artistic director for the festival has been appointed to accomplished artist and curator, Nici Cumpston. Cumpston, a Barkindji woman from the Darling River region in New South Wales, was also announced the winner of the Premier’s NAIDOC award earlier this year.
Both of these festivals join Melbourne’s bi-annual Indigenous Arts Festival, which was inaugurated in 2012 and is currently in preparation for its return in 2014, not to mention existing events in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.
All reflect an increasing desire to showcase the dynamism and diversity of local Indigenous communities – an effort that presents an array of mutual benefits for the participants, audiences and State alike. But more importantly, these emerging festivals are being developed under wholly Indigenous leadership.
Adding to the development of Indigenous arts in Australia has been the abundance of Art Prizes awarded in recent months.
The Victorian Indigenous Art Awards have found a home in 2013 at its most prestigious venue to date, the Art Gallery of Ballarat, and has a prize pool of $50,000. This award joins the long list of recently announced and exhibited prizes, including since last August: the Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize, the Western Australia Indigenous Art Awards, the Deadlys, the Kate Challis RAKA Award, not to mention the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
These recent events do not only represent a growing engagement of the Indigenous community in the shaping and direction of Indigenous art happenings, but they also demonstrate a strong dedication to the promotion of all forms of Indigenous expression, ranging from traditional ceremony, painting and other practice, to interdisciplinary and multimedia installations of scales both grand and small.
The increasing breadth and frequency of these major events offer exciting opportunities for artists to communicate with new and wider audiences around the country, fostering greater understanding and respect for Aboriginal culture and identity.
Australian Indigenous artists also continue to be offered significant exposure by major institutions abroad.
At the time of this article, Australian Indigenous art is celebrated in exhibitions in Washington (US), Charlottesville (US), London (UK), Utrecht (The Netherlands) and Bordeaux (France). One exhibition in particular is of symbolically significant importance: Vivid Memories – An Aboriginal Art History at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux. Radically changing from previous curatorial concepts in France/Europe, it presents a transversal approach going beyond the classical oppositions between anthropology and art history, and the primitivism clichés, to understand the dynamism of this non-Western contemporary art movement.
As if to prove this point, a major contemporary art commercial gallery in Paris is hosting the very first solo exhibition of an Australian contemporary artist of Aboriginal heritage in France: Brook Andrew (also included in Vivid Memories) presents his Anatomie de la mémoire du corps : au-delà de la Tasmanie, at Galerie Nathalie Obadia, 7 Nov. – 28 Dec. 2013.
In spite of the global economic downturn, the international market for Australian Indigenous art is still growing, notably in Europe, and opening in Asia, with collectors diversifying and starting to buy Aboriginal art. Earlier this year a Chinese collector bought an entire exhibition of over 40 works by Waringarri, Warmun and Kalumburu artists.
In Australia the market has been slowing down, but there is another positive aspect of the profusion of Indigenous-involved, ethically sourced institutional events dedicated to Indigenous art and culture; it raises the bar in terms of quality and contributes to validating and solidifying the importance of the ethical, sustainable sector.
So what next? Perhaps such thriving developments are a sign that Australia is getting closer to answering Hetti Perkins’ call for a national public institution wholly dedicated to the arts of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders, as is already modelled in Canada and the USA. Whilst this might fill a large gap in the cultural landscape of Australia, it remains a project imbedded with political complexities. Not to mention, one that would require significant government support.
Hayley Haynes and Solenne Ducos-Lamotte
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