Culture Vultures

Warning: Relatives of the artist are advised that images of Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula appear in this article

Culture Vultures:

The commodification of art is at the heart of the debate over the authenticity, or otherwise, of Aboriginal art. But, writes Sue Smith, is it fair - or even appropiate - to pick on the Aborigines in particular.

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

A version of this article was first published in The Courier Mail, Saturday April 24 1999

"They (the women) make them, I sign them", famous Aboriginal artist Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula was reported as saying, and the old argument about Aboriginal art took off again. He reportedly revealed that scores of works sold under commission from an art gallery owner were in fact painted by his daughter, Nellie, and daughters-in-law Leanne, Pamela and Elizabeth. They were then signed by him. Tjupurrula also reportedly said that with some paintings, "I do the markings first and give the canvases to the women to complete."

He subsequently backtracked a little, at the instigation of the gallery involved, but the debate was raging by then.

It is a debate that follows kerfuffles over hoaxers Elizabeth Durack and Sakshi Anmatyerre (non-Aboriginal artists who represented their work as that of Aborigines) and the case of Kathleen Petyarre. Her right to the 1996 National Aboriginal Art Prize was stridently questioned in the media when it was revealed that her former boyfriend assisted in the painting of her winning work -- though she was subsequently exonerated by an enquiry instituted by the Museum of the Northern Territory.

More recently, there was the discovery of forged Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri paintings in Sydney.
The latest reports about Tjupurrula's work sent shivers of horror down the spines of those who buy art as investment. Tjupurrula's works hang in manjor private and public collections and sell for up to $40,000 each.

But stop.

If Jeff Koons in New York faxes directions to a team of workers to build a floral puppy for him at Sydney's Circular Quay, it's 'considered excitingly avant-garde.
Over hundreds of years, many of Europe's old masters, including Rembrandt, put their name to work produced with the assistance of pupils and apprentices -- a workshop situation, if you like, very much like Tjupurrula's.

In Japan, Hokusai's woodblock prints -- described as his creations -- were produced with the assistance of teams of artisans.

What's the difference? Why is one acceptable and the other open to question? Everyone welcomes debate over the authenticity of art works generally. Authenticity matters. It matters historically as a means of bearing witness to the past. But the commodification of art -- especially in the late 20th century when expensive pieces have become a form of currency -- certainly also makes authenticity an important matter financially.
Fame, rarity and uniqueness boost the value of art works -- and thus encourage faking. This is because past masterpieces are a limited resource: an expanding market always needs more originals and looks constantly to other cultures for new objects. Since ethnic remoteness also has a cachet of authenticity, previously unregarded artefacts -- like Aboriginal art over the past 20 years -- become sought after,and faking of them has become widespread.

Many people dislike the hijacking of art by finance. They find it dehumanising in that the aesthetic, spiritual and other inherent qualities of the work only matter to the market as a means of assaying its value, much like testing gold. But hijacked it has been.
Yet the process of commodification doesn't mean that forgeries and corruption are necessarily more endemic in Aboriginal art than in other areas of the art world.

Recently the perception that this is so has tended to lodge in people's minds since Aboriginal art became a media issue. But this may be both an injustice to the Aboriginal art market and wishful thinking about the squeaky-clean nature of the rest of the art trade. Indeed, collectors are aware that art fakes and mis-attributions are common at all times and in all places -- everything under the sun has been faked, from Greek icons and Rembrandt paintings to "antique" African and Indo-Chinese statues, providing employment for entire families and villages of copyists.
Amid all this it must be remembered that Aboriginal art really means something unique, and that individual artists have custodianship of certain Dreaming stories or themes -- "ownership" that can be loaned to others, but that does not make the finished artwork any less the inspiration of an artist because others have played a hand in it. We are dealing with a culture that is based on a sense of community, of family, of communal effort.

That aside, critics often miss the point that in Australia today, the most commercially significant area of faking affecting Aboriginal people is not the upper end of the Aboriginal art market, where only a few famous artists and rich buyers are involved. Rather, it is in the $900 million-a-year duty free industry, which services thousands of foreign tourists seeking Aboriginal-theme clothing, paintings, carvings, sculptures and craft works.
Adrian Newstead, president of the Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association, says the souvenir/tourist art market is where Aboriginal artists and consumers sympathetic to them are being significantly ripped-off: "A huge amount of bogus product -- T-shirts, artefacts, souvenirs, gifts -- is appearing at the Gold Coast and Cairns and in other high-volume tourist area," he says.

Efforts are being made to curtail this trend, with Art Trade -- an association of 43 Aboriginal art galleries, art centres and consultants -- publicising genuine Aboriginal products and registering ethical traders. Later this year, an extra measure will be put in place, with a government-backed authenticity label.
The indigenous art curator at the Queensland Art Gallery, Margo Neale, doesn't say outright that the current debate over Aboriginal artistic collaborations is ridiculous, but observes: "We do know that there are similar situations in non-Aboriginal art, but they're not making the front page (of newspapers)."

On the other side of the country, Neale's counterpart at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, indigenous curator Brenda Croft, describes the nature of the media debate as "sensationalist" and says she is concerned about the effect it will have on artists and their work.

But already the Kathleen Petyarre affair has clearly done harm to that individual's reputation. Will Clifford Possum and Turkey Tolson be the next victims? As well as harming careers, there are genuine issues of taste and insensitivity towards Aborigines involved in these matters.

Many observers were dismayed by the way Turkey Tolson, who speaks limited English, was twice persuaded to sign statutory declarations which reflect poorly on himself and members of his own family: the first obtained to support the original report in the national newspaper; the second, subsequently obtained by his Alice Springs dealer, in which aspects of the previous statement were contradicted.

The situation would be farcical if it was not so sad. We are told a translator was used to make the situation clear to the artist, but as any pollster knows, a reasonable answer to any question depends on how well a question is framed. In Adrian Newstead's view, Turkey Tolson may well have been inappropriately questioned: "There are nuances in language and Aboriginal people will always answer, 'yes', if they're pressured, because of a cultural bias ... it's a way of dealing with the questioner."

For people involved with Aboriginal people and their art, there is no doubt that the recent scandals have also seriously damaged an industry providing lasting benefits to Aboriginal communities. Newstead says: "All over Australia, young people are walking off country properties, leaving the towns, because there's no work for them.

"Yet, out in tiny remote Aboriginal settlements, who could ever have imagined that people would have been able to earn a living producing something that would appeal to the well-heeled congnoscenti in the cities? It's an industry that's been a modern miracle for Aboriginal people, providing economic independence, cultural maintenance and social bonding. But now these articles are doing enormous amounts of damage to the credibility of the industry."

Newstead has another point to make: "There are digital artists that sit in front of computer screens raiding images from all over the world," he says.
"Why is Aboriginal art being treated so differently? There is a very small element that requires regulation but there are plenty of people working on it. The questions that lie beneatht he surface of this issue are essentially racist -- essentially saying that Aboriginal artists, galleries and representatives are perpetrating some fraud on the market."

Art lovers, meanwhile, may wish that these controversies would fade away, allowing them to return to the innocent pleasures of gazing at an Emily Kngwarreye's shimmering dots or an Arnhem Land painter's Crocodile Dreaming.

Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

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