Article: Key and country
Key and country
toward an Indigenous archive of good intentions
Presented at Goldsmiths, London, 16 February 2009:
Creating the Global Image Archive: A workshop on images and their archives in cross-cultural and iner-disciplinary contexts
Organized by Dr Jennifer Bajorek, Goldsmiths CCS & Prof Claire Colebrook, University of Edinburgh
An informal archive could theoretically be built of great value to the history of Australian Aboriginal art. It would be pictures of paintings in progress which are posted on eBay for the purpose of authentication. Buyers of Aboriginal art from the desert desire such proof of authorship, feeling insecure that their prospective purchase may be painted by someone else, not necessarily a fake but a less-than-autograph work, perhaps painted by people in the family or wider community who do not have the great name. The physical outcome of the painting is not enough; but photographic evidence of a stage along the way with the author’s physiognomy in the picture is a prerequisite for the buyer’s confidence. Thanks to this practice—which is never required in the sale of European or Asian art—paintings come accompanied by photographs testifying to their construction and identifying the process of their making with a unique author.
As a result of this forensic institution of the art market, you can sometimes see what ground layers went on and how the various configurations grew. The instrument for assuaging western paranoia has unexpected museological benefits, opening up a window of curious cultural interest. We can gain insights into technique which would otherwise be impossible to obtain; but we can also capture a view of the artist’s social circumstance which would be hard to gain by other means. Rightly or wrongly, we are enriched by these processes of verification, perhaps in the same way that historians have recourse to border controls and police records and other statistics in formulating their understanding of the past.
On the technical side, for example, it is common in European traditions to begin with a sketch, to transfer this to canvas and build up the volumes, space and details piecemeal, working on several different areas simultaneously or in related succession, where typically the impact of one part will require a kind of reciprocal agency in another part; and the construction takes place as a chain of diametrical corrections. With Aboriginal art from the desert, we often see that the conception is more or less held in the head, while the artist proceeds from one corner to spread the idea with perfect lyrical anticipation till the opposite corner is reached. The analysis of artistic methods and formal characteristics of Aboriginal paintings is well served by the pictures on eBay.
In relation to the other peak of traditional art history (which is broadly described as the study of patronage) we can also observe some of the social or material circumstances of the painter’s life through such pictures. I enjoy looking at some documentation for a large painting by the late Lorna Fencer Naparrula, in which the splendid artist is assisted by two girls. As far as we can see, they are only in attendance, I imagine listening rather than talking, as the Elder relates aspects of the story in the painting. I have a strong sense from the pictures that the girls are learning something precious, which they could absorb in few ways other than patiently listening to an Elder of great wisdom.
The transmission of Indigenous knowledge is regarded as one of the greatest challenges that Australia faces in its policy framework. A bit like the art collector wanting to secure the resale value of an imminent acquisition, we talk anxiously of the sustainability of Aboriginal art from the desert regions. There is an understandable fear that as the current generation of Elders inevitably dies, their knowledge will not have been thoroughly handed down, that there will not have been sufficient reception on the part of the next generations, for a great multiplicity of disheartening reasons. Consequently, the future of Aboriginal art—at least in its currently prolific flowering—might be considered fragile.
As Aboriginal art, if not the whole of Indigenous culture, is much adored and prized, the threat of a dubious future is taken very seriously. The Government has called upon its Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to examine the circumstances of Aboriginal art production, resulting in a large report, Indigenous Art — Securing the Future: Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, June 2007.
The purpose of the inquiry lay in many parts. There was a concern that bad commercial practice—shonky operators or carpetbaggers by the vernacular—might bring discredit to the field, creating damage not only to the confidence of collectors but corrupting the very spiritual and artistic fortunes of desert artists who are exploited and end up churning out second-rate pictures on a cynical or resentful basis. There was a fear for the wholesale devaluation of what we in Australia would call the industry, as if at risk, as if imminently broken. There is fear that unregulated and unreasonable market pressures would lead to a messy disaffection, that the chaotic vulnerability of artists to carpetbaggers would cheapen the scene and wreck the high credibility that the Aboriginal Renaissance had earned internationally.
With honorable exceptions, carpetbagging is denounced as a risk; but it is not recognized as a stimulant. It seems to me that no one credits the relationships of friendship between store owners, say, and Aboriginal artists, when the store owners decide that they might run a line in Aboriginal art. Paintings produced on the instigation of such relationships might never have come into being otherwise. The proliferation of unregulated whitefellas offering Aboriginal artists a deal undoubtedly contributes something to the fertility (and perhaps spontaneity) of the contemporary scene.
But perhaps beneath these fears of intractable meltdown in the productive integrity of artists and retail, inviting a string of improbable bureaucratic responses (somewhat analogous to Mr Howard’s Intervention in Aboriginal society), there is an underlying anxiety about the structural fortunes of Aboriginal art from outside the communities and dealerships. It is the mortality of traditional ways, especially the oral transmission of the stories which constitute the Dreaming. Stories can be written down, theoretically; but a scholarly record of the immense corpus, though valuable in its own right, would not necessarily do anything for the survival of the spiritual significance that the live recensions involve.
Dr Diane Mossenson has noted that maintaining strong culture is ‘integral to the continual success of the Aboriginal art industry’:
we will soon witness in some areas of the country the death of the last custodians of traditional songs, ceremonies and dances. As a result artwork that we currently revere today will be produced in a different form and with different cultural integrity. It will, I suspect, be all the greatly diminished as artwork and as a record of culture.
The basis upon which we might speculate on such post-tribal production could be the work of a large proportion of Aboriginal communities from urban or regional towns. This is where the majority of Aborigines lives, as the Senate report establishes:
Over 70 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in urban centres. Art can be just as important to them and to their cultural and economic future as it can be to the Indigenous people of remote northern and Western Australia. The bulk of public support for the arts targeted toward Indigenous Australians has flowed to regional and remote Australia, and as this report shows, the effort has been more than repaid with beautiful art and craft, and the survival and thriving of a culture.
But now there are grounds for pessimism, as the Senate report confesses: ‘A key issue for Indigenous communities is the reality that as older artists and community members pass away, culture is lost including stories of cultural significance, dance and language.’ This was reinforced in various submissions to the Senate by interested and concerned individuals and organizations expressed, such as Desart.
People often talk about the elders passing away and the culture being lost. Aboriginal people are very distressed about the loss of culture and it is always a priority that the young people be trained in their own culture. 57 Desart, Submission 49, p. 10. See also ANKAAA, Submission 63, p. 10.
or Isabelle de Beaumont
I am concerned about the possibilities for the generation of elders that I met to be able to pass on this very ancient culture to the next generation, their children and grand children. Aboriginal Art thrives on love for a particular area of land called ‘country’, the artist’s country. You take that away and the art loses its roots as well as the specificity and power that captures so much international attention and acclaim. 58 Ms Isabelle de Beaumont, Submission 71, p. 1.
Assuming that the 70% figure is set to rise, as globalization progressively brings the focus of younger people to monoglot popular culture and consumerism—through the steady march of television and digital games, fashion and advertising and other aggressive marketing strategies—it seems important in reckoning with the future to build a conceptual framework that imaginatively reconciles the two Indigenous cultures.
One might propose an audacious analogy between the current stressful climate to a circumstance that we know better from art history. The crisis of cultural discontinuity is relatively recent in Aboriginal history, whereas it is very old in European traditions.
Western tradition has been clever at recording its own stories; and this labour has served well the various projects that are loosely called neo-classicism. Though commonly identified chronologically with the eighteenth century (like a period style) it is in fact a much broader and more wonderful paradigm which began in antiquity, even among Greek speaking people in the tetrarchies of greater Hellas and ancient Rome, in which progressively modernized poets and artists would seek an original core of knowledge in order to inspire contemporary reflections on the ancient stock. Even from the time of Alexander, the oral tradition which first generated this stock had been dead for centuries, and the inscrutable processes of time immemorial became unrecoverable. You could no longer tap into the oral tradition as a living entity, only as a fixed and partial record; and meanwhile, the visual and textual repositories gained a new sacralization. With the concerted effort to maintain the sacred, the prospect of a learned revival both enchanted the pious and tickled the fancies of the market.
In order to understand this phenomenon as a Renaissance and Baroque scholar, I too tackled the challenge of learning Greek and Latin, attempting to fathom the logic in Homer, the tragedians and poets, just as my predecessors did in Florence and Paris or Copenhagen. The challenge is to penetrate the spirit of the stories to the level of belief, where the god, for example, has the same awesome holy agency in the mind that he or she had for the ancients, who knew from birth the dread and potency of the divine motif.
Though worthy and capable of generating sumptuous art, from the Nike of Samothrace to Bernini and Thorvaldsen, there is something tantalizing, asymptotic or liminal in this project—not vain and forlorn as modernists thought—where the aim of the poetic condition is not unattainable in the sense of sublime but unreachable by dint of countless deferrals, where inner realities are conjectured by means of conscious artifice. You enter this tradition knowing your ignorance and seeking to plug the gaps; but of course no amount of book-learning altogether compensates for the absence of experiential acculturation, as when the process of induction into a living cult begins in the crib and a sense of remedial indoctrination never arises. The poetic becomes dependent on archives rather than things that your grandmother told you; and from this relatively academic reincarnation, the supernatural or numinous narratives are always in spiritual arrears. This inherently missing link is of a religious nature, where belief in a spirit world is desired in the sense of desiderata (wanting in both senses), a lack, a lack of access to something that you want and which in a sense belongs to you. Even if you can recover the language, you cannot artificially rehabilitate the belief; and this agnosticism is both antagonist and master, experienced as an unwanted hiatus for what we are spiritually wanting.
This analogy from European culture is not intended to translate to Australian circumstances as anything but a ghost; because the two histories are radically different. First, Hellenism always represented the mainstream or was instantly appropriated by dominant ideology (as in Rome) and became the humanist cultural blueprint for the privileged upper classes. There is certainly no analogy between today’s Aborigines and the powerful princes of Europe. Second, among artists, the image of the classical past was understood nostalgically, full of fondness and utopian fancies, seldom causing an artist to wrestle with alienation or the bitterness of dispossession. And third, the syncretic revivalists and the revived in Indigenous culture are not always separated by hundreds of years: in Australia, the counterparts to the oral inheritors and the neo-classicists are not always consecutive generations but sometimes live simultaneously.
Under the term syncretic revivalism I mean that artists often work within European illusionistic or figurative frameworks but adapt decorative motifs from the tradition of their mob.
We have in the same epoch a whole spectrum of Aboriginal artists, from tribal Elders with an immense sacred knowledge of the Dreaming, language and ritual, to artists who seek to distinguish and develop the motifs of the south-eastern states (where traditional ways were largely wiped out) to Aboriginal artists who wrestle with the legacy of Mondrian or who wage political polemics against globalization and reactionary politics and racism.
I am wary of taxonomies, for obvious social and art-historical reasons; and archives must always become unwieldy and complicated in order to accommodate the overlap that arises between categories. So if, like the Musée Branly, you could identify traditional owners of the Dreaming as absolutely distinct (on account of language and continuities of stories and living in collectivist societies), the syncretic revivalists have much in common with postmodern or post-colonialist artists of political sophistication; and a line between them—beyond the terms of gallery success and critical acclaim—is not so simply determined.
Nevertheless, government policy tends to align with taxonomic logic: the discourse is either about the protection of authenticity or the protection of quality against pressures of carpetbagging or the protection of the integrity of the tribal market against urban fraud. Or, in another sphere entirely, grants may be awarded to successful artists of an urban background, usually based on track record of exhibitions and publication. Finally, nervous attention is given to the question of continuity and hence the sustainability of Aboriginal art after the current elders die (with chilling echoes of the ‘doomed race’ theories that run throughout colonization).
So here is the implicit taxonomy: policy seeks to clean up the mess and promulgate risk management among the traditional owners of the Dreaming and their dealers. Meanwhile, artists conspicuously making pictures in a contemporary critical framework are handled within the ‘success-story paradigm’ that also operates with Eurasian artists. Finally, the question of continuity straddles the traditional owners and syncretic revivalists, without any great insight as to what might achieve a handing down of cultural material, beyond keeping the tribal cultures alive against the onslaught of globalization. The syncretic revivalists (and I apologize for this clumsy term) are not intrinsically in the picture.
In a way, I regret rehearsing this coarse classification but it may nevertheless shed light on a neglected part of our story. The act of cultural retrieval and healing, which I’m thinking about under the term revival, is also a creative and fragile thing; and it leads to community-building in a way that may not arise among postmodern contemporary artists, who are arguably locked into another form of globalized competitiveness which is also somewhat at variance with ancient Aboriginal culture. Without any invidious comparisons with European neo-classicism, the syncretic revivalist paradigm needs to be highlighted and above all conceptualized favourably, as it may well constitute a majority in years to come, if it is not already, and it is therefore unwisely neglected.
One of the most depressing preoccupations of policy which is also given an expression in the Senate report is the anxiety over tax compliance. Once it has become known that a lot of money changes hands over Aboriginal art from the desert, the Government needs to know that it is getting its fair cop, that its tax laws apply universally and that artists and dealers are not profiting beyond the law. There are legion problems in this, because the system depends on informal exchange of goods, maybe barter or possibly cash, both of which are instantly shared with a large community under codes of obligation and are never accumulated by a possessive individual. Above all, however, scrupulous book-keeping is antithetical to the traditional Indigenous way of life; and demanding tax compliance is a bit like the final step of cultural genocide.
Where health and social welfare are urgently needed—to say nothing of the necessity for keeping traditional learning alive—the Government proposes to put money into educating Aboriginal artists in tax-compliance. This presupposes a knowledge of spreadsheets, GST credits, all the subtleties of accounting practice. Even if the artists concerned were highly literate in English and numerate, which is seldom the case in remote areas, the articles of accounting and our extremely convoluted tax regimes are alien to the traditional Indigenous nation.
Where globalization does not throttle Aboriginal culture, bureaucracy surely will, from tax to copyright. Following the Senate report, the Australia Council produced its own document, Making Solid Ground: Infrastructure and Key Organisations Review, November 2008. This large text of 108 pp. was prepared after extensive consultation among Aboriginal groups throughout the states and territories of Australia by Fieldworx for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board (ATSIAB), which is part of the Australia Council for the Arts.
Like the Senate report, it follows a well-intentioned brief and reflects excellent faith in the purpose, to consolidate the production and health of the Aboriginal arts sector. But the language that predicates all the effective terms of the project is so exaggeratedly European that Indigenous consciousness, as even a passive critique of mainstream hegemony, is eradicated. Sadly, all this enjoins the say-so of Aboriginal people themselves, because once an Indigenous group is co-opted to comment on whitefella terms, the discourse is destined to fulfill whitefella expectations.
The emphasis of the Australia Council report is on the business planning side, ‘governance support and training, workforce development etc’.
In terms of the Key Organisations Funding Program, it was suggested that a strategic approach to nurturing and fertilising organisations to make them strong was needed. The key challenge for organisations is meeting the core costs of business—if this need is met it makes it easier to secure financial support from elsewhere for programs and initiatives.
The word key crops up 149 times, a bit like strategic, which appears 47 times, maybe conjoined with key, like ‘key strategic’. The word key can be tacked onto anything and is a very telling little word. The very image of the key, the like of which had never existed in Aboriginal culture, seems odd in this context, so altogether a symbol of private property and transferred by metaphor to a notion of importance. It is used without any sense of irony.
Anything to which a shade of authority can be attributed can be named key: ‘Each workshop was designed to respond flexibly to the needs of each community while focusing on the key issues surrounding the review of the Key Organisations Funding Program’.
The document records some unease with the term key but the concerns relate to the thresholds by which organizations qualify for funding.
The title of the Key Organisations Funding Program was problematic to a number of participants in the program for two reasons. Firstly, they felt that those organisations not funded through the program were deemed not to be key organisations in supporting Indigenous arts and culture. Secondly, some saw the word ‘key’ as elitist and a barrier to entering the program. Toward the end of the consultation process, the term Key Infrastructure Program was tested. The focus was on networked infrastructure, rather than identifying key and non-key organisations. This appeared to have general support.
True to the spirit of bureaucracy, and in spite of this insight, there is a pervasive dilemma about who is in and who is excluded, who gets money and who misses out. We might be able to throw away the key but never the invidious exclusivity that shuts people out and lets others in. What will the terms of the deal be? Once enlightened funding arrangements are set up, they can only be deemed fair if competitive; then there must be scrupulous processes of accreditation, all spawning more need for bureaucratic definition and checks and balances. It is not hard to imagine where the money will end up. New taxonomies can proliferate and we already have ‘Strategic Partners’ suggested as a new category, as well as ‘Affiliate Organisations’, which might be non-Indigenous.
All these items of recognition and formulation are well intentioned and are impeccably based on fairness, transparency and integrity. It is just hard to recognize art in the language. It is the language of offices, designed to communicate to other offices. It seems to me very unlikely to do anything for art or the longevity of a tradition. If only some of this energy went into the production of art and a broadening of the market to include syncretic revivalists sincerely connecting with their tradition!
Part of the reason for desert art prospering is undoubtedly the art centres, which have consistently ministered to the needs of the artists and successfully brokered not just the sale of the work to good places while cultivating the reputation of the artist but the very circumstances of production. The value of their work is hard to overestimate.
At the same time, however, another part of the story is the chaotic free-for-all, the almost random energies of a market at many levels, with incentives strewn around for good or bad reasons, countless spontaneous propositions, a certain excitement, an air of opportunity, maybe urgency and possibility. Sometimes, this is exploitative and sometimes it might result in paintings of lesser quality. But against this, there are strong reasons that justify the contribution of these so-called carpetbaggers, in fact just private entrepreneurs.
First, rotten arrangements also exist among whitefella art economies and whitefellas produce dreadful pictures in abundance, without anyone feeling that the scene needs to be regulated. Second, the so-called carpetbaggers can have relationships with the artists which are quite special. They might very likely be people well known to the artists, people who operate other businesses. I even once heard that a policeman tried his hand at dealing in art, no doubt a business that the senior sergeant did not want to hear about. As a result of these somewhat familiar characters soliciting paintings, a great deal of work is stimulated which would otherwise not be produced. Some artists make work because they feel a compulsion to make it; but others may only produce work because someone suggests quite compellingly that it would be valued and rewarded with immediate and tangible returns. Finally, the assertion that carpetbaggers only inspire bad pictures is unfounded and, I feel, has a tendentious element, based on the conceited assumption that only the legitimate anointed are capable of eliciting good quality art from otherwise wayward or unreliable or over-pressured artists.
The desire to control the scene makes me suspicious that it’s probably about protecting the interest of people who are already well established and who resent the alternatives that go through eBay stores or even direct auction on eBay. No case history ever comes to light. It is all assertion and the few facts about quality that we possess are so awash with absolutist rhetoric that critical statements are hard to find, much less believe.
Robert Nelson, January 09
 ‘Carole Best described … the various levels of authentication (or non-authentication) that can exist in Indigenous visual arts. Using work by Kumantji Possum Tjapaltjarri as an example, she listed nine categories that the art could fall into:
• securely provenanced works, both signed and unsigned;
• insecurely provenanced works both signed and unsigned;
• securely provenanced works signed as Kumantji Possum but not by his hand;
• insecurely provenanced works signed as Kumantji Possum but not by his hand;
• family works signed by Kumantji Possum Tjapaltjarri;
• unsigned family works which show evidence of Kumantji Possum Tjapaltjarri's hand;
• securely provenanced works that Kumantji Possum Tjapaltjarri did not recognise as his;
• several dozen 'known' forgeries, the identification of which involved significant resources at the time; and
• an unknown number of unidentified forgeries currently circulating in the art market.’
Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Indigenous Art — Securing the Future: Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, June 2007, 4 §8.8
 However there is not agreement about the extent to which, or even the reasons why, this is a problem. Mr Ullin was just one stakeholder who questioned the level of concern in some quarters about the role of family members: “It is also ironic that at the same time as some people are expressing concern about the role of family members in the provenance of works, there is, equally, widespread concern that the next generation in these Indigenous communities will not be mentored and develop the artistic skills that would lead them to one day being major artists in their own right.” Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Indigenous Art — Securing the Future: Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, June 2007, § 8.11
‘The committee recognises that, even if all these measure were implemented, the issue would not disappear. There will always be a few individuals seeking to profit unfairly from the work of others, whether in Indigenous art or any other industry. However, the committee was concerned at the extent of issues relating to the integrity of the Indigenous art market...’ 8.31
Additionally, Arts Law claimed that the lack of recognisable authenticity protection mechanisms may also affect the financial viability of the sector. Buyers of Indigenous art need some guarantee that the work they purchase is authentic, and the lack of certainty about the authenticity of Indigenous art work can have an impact on the value of such work in the market.30 §9.48
The carpetbagger phenomenon is not, therefore, clear cut. The term is often used in a derogatory sense for many buyers who have worked in the bush over many years and built up a strong relationship with individual artists. One submission from Mr Eccles noted that it also often reflects the gulf between the art-trained gallerist and the rough bushy 'who may well have spent a whole lot longer actually among Aboriginal people'.25 He also noted the irony of one dealer dismissing another because they 'trade in art as a commodity', as though this was not the business of all commercial art dealers. §8.21
 ‘Arnold Bloch Leibler and the Jirrawun Arts Corporation see the ATO as having a positive role in educating Indigenous artists about the importance of tax compliance. They see this as crucial in terms of assisting Indigenous artists understand their tax compliance obligations and as an opportunity to contribute to the collective well-being of their communities through reducing exploitation.’ 31 §10.39
‘Further testimony by Mr Oliver illustrates the potential mismatch between ATO tax requirements and Indigenous family obligations: “[T]hese guys are paying 48c in the dollar already. We started that 4 years ago with poor old Freddie here. We came clean because we felt that we could not articulate the issues if we did not lead by example. We knew that working through the tax issues gave strength to Aboriginal people because you could leverage from that. It is not like black fellows get a special deal; they do not get a special deal. Freddie pays 48c in the dollar. He had to pay back the ATO 10 years of tax, so you can imagine what it is like for him. He lives in an obligation society and he is the sole income earner for a very large family. There is a lot of pressure on people like Freddie; there is pressure on artists at Waringarri; there is pressure on artists at Warmun. They are the sole income earners, other than people who have got mining royalties or whatever. There is so much pressure on the art centres. Artists like Freddie have huge obligations. They have their own social welfare system with their capital.”’33 §10.42
 ‘Indigenous notions of cultural and intellectual property differ markedly from non-Indigenous notions of intellectual property. For instance, under Indigenous customary law, intellectual property rights are communally owned whereas under non-Indigenous laws these rights are owned by individual creators. Under Indigenous customary law, intellectual property rights are generally not transferable but transmission, if permitted, is based on a series of cultural qualifications. Under non-Indigenous laws intellectual property can be freely transmitted and assigned, usually for economic returns for a set time and in any medium. Intellectual property right holders can decide how or by whom the information can be transmitted or assigned. In addition, Indigenous customary law emphasises preservation and maintenance of culture, whereas non-Indigenous laws place an emphasis on economic rights.’8 §11.8 However, ‘The Myer Report into the contemporary visual arts noted that for Indigenous cultures, intellectual property rights are an integral component of their cultural heritage.5 The nature or use of Indigenous heritage material is such that it is transmitted or continues to be transmitted from generation to generation. It is also regarded as belonging to, or originating from, a particular Indigenous group(s) or its territory.’6. §11.6
 ‘There was general agreement at the Adelaide workshop that leading as well as building organisations should be included in the funding mix. It was also agreed that organisations could be considered a ‘key organisation’ even if they weren’t funded under the Program.’
These works find their way into galleries, or are sold on the internet through e-Bay and similar websites for inflated prices. These paintings are likely to be presented to unsuspecting and ill-educated consumers as high-quality work with questionable if not fraudulent representation of the paintings' authenticity. §8.19
The committee does not doubt that stories of unethical treatment of artists by some unscrupulous operators have their basis in fact. However it also recognises that there is not necessarily clear agreement on one 'right' way to do business between artists and galleries or dealers. §8.23.
Even assuming that a legitimate Indigenous artist produced the art, it might be of poor quality or unrepresentative of traditional Aboriginal experience or lore. A number of examples have been highlighted in the submissions whereby artists produce 'rubbish paintings' for the dealer to make quick money.20 ibid. §8.18