Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Warning: Relatives of the artist are advised that images of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri appear in this article

Lifting Shadow from Aboriginal Art
Various Galleries 1999

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

This review was first published in The Courier-Mail. Wednesday 10 March 1999

Clifford Possum TjapaltjarriTHE Aboriginal art market in recent years has soared to great heights while periodically being racked by the exposure of fakes. Now 1999 is shaping up to offer more of the same, as a new scandal casts a shadow over the first indigenous shows of the year.

In February, a critic praised a Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri show at Sydney's Corbally Stourton/Christopher Day gallery; last week, it was reported that Tjapaltjarri claimed about 20 of his paintings, valued at about $35,000 each, in Corbally Stourton's Sydney warehouse were fakes. The central desert artist also inspected five of his works owned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and said that two of the more recent additions were not his. The suspect pictures had been donated last year by a Sydney collector who had bought the works from Corbally Stourton.

The art trade generally seems to be reeling a little from this latest fake expose, but Michael Eather, of Brisbane's Fire-Works Gallery -- which is opening its own Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri show this Friday -- says he is confident about the works his gallery exhibits.

"I'm sending Clifford a photo of every work that's in the show, for him to sign off on the list of works," says Eather. "I'm 99.9 per cent sure that they're works of Clifford Possums's."

Whether Tjapaltjarri will travel to Brisbane (from Sydney) to inspect in person the Fire-Works show -- which includes pictures from the last couple of years on consignment from a number of different sources -- is as yet undecided.

But Eather is quick to point out that Fire-Works were the first to bring Tjapaltjarri to Brisbane four years ago, and that the gallery prides itself on its close relationships with Aboriginal artists and communities -- an essential element, he says, in ensuring the authenticity of works.

"I think that particularly with names like Clifford (Possum Tjapaltjarri) and Rover (Thomas), you've got to know your sources and trust them," he says.

Other dealers also echo Eather's point about obtaining works from reliable sources. Lance Blundell, of Brisbane's Redback Art Gallery (formerly Savode) -- which this month is presenting a show of Aboriginal sculpture from the remote desert community of Utopia -- comments: "I only deal with sources I know and trust. So long as you're sourcing work straight from the (Aboriginal) communities it's OK. "

Doubt comes in where individual dealers get hold of Aboriginal artists and get them to work for them; often these works are poorly documented and subsequently misrepresented."

Things would obviously be simpler if all traditional Aboriginal artists from remote areas only offered their work through the 38 Aboriginal community art centres which operate across northern and central Australia, but as Michael Eather argues, such expectations are unrealistic. "The artists are quite free agents," Eather points out. "Often they don't have just one studio or one principal dealer. They may work for a community centre for a majority of the time, but if they're visiting another town or city, they may want to paint and be offered money (by a dealer) directly for their work."

Eather hopes that the problems of Aboriginal art authentication, and other matters, may begin to be sorted out with the founding (in Alice Springs last November) of the Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association. One purpose of the Art Trade organisation will be to investigate complaints about the legitimacy of work, before they go public. "Art Trade will try to resolve matters before they are litigated in court and in public, because a lot of people get tarnished along the way," says Eather.

But Eather admits that Art Trade, though a positive beginning, still has a long way to go. Still, he says, he and others are trying to put aside commercial rivalries and work together to clean up the art trade industry. Why?

"Because I worry about the artists; often they're pawns in the game. With the current kerfuffle over Clifford Possum's work, he probably feels most ashamed or saddened by the fact that (in the faked works) the stories are wrong. The stories -- the content -- in the paintings are paramount for Aboriginal people," he says.

"In the white art world, Aboriginal work often reads as just abstract art, but within the black art world, it can be very shameful if the story's wrongly put down."

Yet, despite the way faked Aboriginal art keeps turning up like the proverbial bad penny, no one sees anything other than a bright future for the Aboriginal art market.

"The industry's not going to die," says Eather emphatically.

Lance Blundell says: "The Aboriginal art market will be increasingly driven by the growing interest of overseas collector and big galleries in Europe and the US. Eventually overseas prices will raise the prices of Aboriginal art here."

Yet, Philip Bacon, who has occasionally exhibited major Aboriginal artists along with his stable of big name white artists, says: "It is still possible to buy great Aboriginal art -- by painters like Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas -- for around $50,000.

"It will be five or ten years before the prices of the Aboriginal School begin to equal those fetched by mainstream Australian artists like Arthur Boyd and Jeffrey Smart."

Obviously, the time is right to buy Aboriginal art now -- if you are careful. And Brisbane -- where authenticity is generally carefully vetted and prices are lower than in Sydney and Mebourne galleries -- could be a very good place for buyers to start their Aboriginal collections. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's works are being offered at Fire-Works from $1,500 to $4,500;

Aboriginal sculpture by Utopia artists, at Redback Art Gallery, is priced from $150 to $1,500. `Sculptures from Utopia', Redback Art Gallery, 60 Khartoum St, Gordon Park, until March 20; `Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri', Fire-Works Gallery, 678 Ann St, Fortitude Valley until April 11. On April 13, ABC TV shows a documentary about Aboriginal art and the marketplace, `Art from the Heart'

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