Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Assistance or interference? Scandal for scandals sake in Australian art world

This week saw controversial footage emerge of a young woman painting on the canvas of Pitjantjatjara artist Yaritji Young. After a four-month investigation, the Australian newspaper has claimed that five Indigenous artists and five non-Indigenous former assistants from the APY Art Centre Collective believe ‘white studio staff significantly interfered with Indigenous artworks.’1 The claims have been strenuously denied by the Art Centre, though we are yet to hear from the artist herself. The Guardian reported that Alcaston gallery, who represents Young, said it was her prerogative to use assistants however she wants.

APY Arts Centre Collective released a statement which speaks on behalf of the artists, and seeks to make clear that the work performed by assistants (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) does not compromise the artists’ Tjukurpa (also called creation or dreamings):

True industry experts understand the line between assistance at artists’ direction and interference with the artistic process and know that APY ACC has never crossed this line. It is grossly offensive to the many hundreds of proud Anangu who work with APY ACC to suggest otherwise, or that they would tolerate their Tjukurpa being interfered with.

The Australian appears to enter into a one sided debate about the role of assistance and collaboration in Indigenous art by not giving explicit details from the investigation. It might also prove to be the case that there are dissatisfied past employees (which the APY ACC statement alludes to). Time will hopefully reveal the exact circumstances, however, this isn’t the first time authenticity scandals like this have been broken in this particular newspaper.

Controversies erupted several times during the 1990s, a time when Aboriginal art was reaching new monetary heights via international audiences. Fast forward and the industry was valued at $250 million in 2019-20, according to a recent report which also found that two in three artworks were not produced by First Nations artists. Questioning the regulation of and remuneration to the artist in this industry is a serious and ongoing concern. This recent allegation has the potential to damage the sector, but we’ve seen this before and it’s the intention of this newsletter to look at things in a considered way.

Then as now observers were quick to point out that some Indigenous artists work in a collaborative fashion. Comparisons with the Italian Renaissance masters also problematically appear. Young, who is described as one of Australia’s most revered painters and a joint winner, along with her sisters, of the Wynne prize, works in this way. The National Gallery of Australia specifies ‘Young’s collaborative work has been produced with Tjala Arts, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, and the Ken Sisters Collaborative.’ This suggests special circumstances in which collaboration was explicit. The Australian investigation is focused on a conception of artistic authenticity which relies on solo authorship. It’s not clear where the reporter Greg Bearup sees this line, it’s clear APY ACC themselves do.

Young’s dreaming or Tjukurpa is the Tjala (Honey Ant) and it forms the subject matter for many of her works. It is a gross violation of copyright and lore to paint someone else’s Tjukurpa but assistants are employed to do underpainting and other similar tasks. Tjala Arts is also the name of the art centre representing several artists from the APY lands (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara an area of remote north-west South Australia) and is part of the APY Art Centre Collective.

The Australian article does give brief explicit detail in quotes from Anangu artist Paul Andy who ‘claimed APYACC general manager Skye O’Meara painted over his design on a work titled Emu Dreaming that was meant to depict his grandfather’s Tjukurpa. “That must be her dreaming,” he said. “When there were other (artists) there, she would do the same for those other artists as well,” Mr Andy claimed.’2 Other allegations are made but the other four artists and five assistants are not named or quoted in the Special Investigation (the Australian also ran other comment pieces in the same weekend edition, further adding to the sense of scandal).

To put this recent controversy into context, or just complicate our understanding of the present allegations, I’ll explore two examples of previous scandals.

Kathleen Petyarre

In 1996 Alyawarre artist Kathleen Petyarre (c. 1940-2018) won the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, the country’s most prestigious. It was then alleged by the artist’s estranged Welsh husband, Ray Beamish, that he had painted the winning work as well as others attributed to her. The news broke in the Australian and was reported around the world with the same line used in this week’s revelations: the potential to undermine the Aboriginal art industry.3

Petyarre strenuously denied these claims and like Young she was highly regarded and her work highly saleable. She said Beamish had assisted her prepare canvases under her supervision. ‘He had helped mark out larger canvases and accurately located the middle of the canvas’.4 The subject of her work is also the dreamings, like many Aboriginal artists across the continent, including Kathleen’s aunt Emily Kame Kngwarrey (whose work I have explored previously in this newsletter). Her dreamings were given to her by her grandfather, and only she and her sisters were permitted to paint their stories.

In the following year as controversy about the authenticity of Petyarre’s work reached international audiences, the Board of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory investigated. Board Chair Colin McDonald found the allegations of Beamish were ‘not proved’.

In 1997 key representatives including Sotheby’s chairman, Robert Bleakley and assistant director at the National Gallery of Australia, Andrew Sayers, did not expect the controversy to impact the prices of Aboriginal artworks. Petyarre’s award was not altered and she eventually returned to painting, after taking a break due to the impact of the controversy.

Her work remains highly valued and can be found in many national and international gallery collections. Auction estimates available through the Sotheby’s website from a December 2019 auction place one of her works at between $25,000 and $35,000, thought the final figure is not openly accessible and auction prices are such bizarre ecosystem. (Sotheby’s was responsible for the largest sale of Aboriginal art (their term) outside Australia in 2022 when two artworks by Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung artist William Barak were purchased through crowd funding by his descendants).5

Elizabeth Durack

In 1997 another controversy shocked the Australian art establishment when Elizabeth Durack, a Perth-born artist revealed she had created and sold work under the name of Eddie Burrup, an invented Aboriginal artist. The revelation came in an Art Monthly Australia article.

Durack is described as a ‘pastoral dynasty descendant’ by Vivien Johnson in her witty summation of controversies from 2000.6 Durack’s grandfather, Patrick Durack, owned large cattle stations and gold prospecting land in western Queensland and the Kimberley in Western Australia. Patrick Durack arrived in Australia in 1853, following other family members, after surviving the Irish famine and made his fortune from the land as so many did in the second half of the nineteenth century. She spent her youth on these stations and explained, in an interview in 1997, how her and her sister came to be adopted into the Aboriginal families.

In the same interview, which is available on the National Film and Sound Archive website, she describes how her and her daughter—who ran a small gallery in Broome—conceived of using a ‘nom de plume’ to exhibit Durack’s work. She frames the appropriation of Aboriginal culture as arising because the works themselves were not appropriate for a non-Indigenous artist to exhibit, they didn’t look ‘white’, she deprecatingly refers to her ‘failed career’ and it wasn’t until her daughter said they looked “Aboriginal” that she considered the possibility of using another name.

From 1995 onwards works by Eddie Burrup appeared, first through the Durack Gallery, Broome. The following year ‘he’ was invited to participate in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the same year that Petyarre won the $17,000 prize. Durack described Burrup as her 'alter ego’ and continued to make work under that name until her death in 2000. Examples of Durack’s works can be viewed on the website dedicated to her estate.

This is an extreme case of overstepping, it is very different from a non-Indigenous person providing underpainting. To invent and interpret another culture amounts to a gross violation and one which Durack’s estate knew to be wrong when they exhibited her work in London in 2000, citing potential vandalism by ‘detractors’ were it to be exhibited in Australia.

They were not alone

The 1990s appears have been the heyday for artistic and literary hoaxes. Mudrooroo, a Nyoongah author with alleged African-American heritage, published six novels and four volumes of poetry, winning literary prizes across Australia. In 1996 he was revealed (by his sister) to be Colin Johnson, white guy.

Wanda Koolmatrie, Aboriginal author and winner of the Nita May Dobbie Award for women writers for My Own Sweet Time. Described as an autobiography: ‘Wanda, an Aboriginal girl makes it in the tough city counter culture of the mid-sixties and early seventies. Writing song lyrics and working odd jobs she travels between cities, passing a sardonic eye on the hippie culture around her.’ In March 1997 the author was revealed to be Leon Carmen and his agent John Bayley, white guys.

Sakshi Anmatyerre, who marketed stationery and paintings as an Indigenous artist before the designs, motifs and totems were contested and eventually withdrawn from sale, reveals a different facet of the appropriation of First Nations culture: the commodification of First Nations culture that artists have to contend with on non-art objects. While Young and Petyarre achieve high prices and international recognition for their work, there exists a huge industry of fakes designed for a tourist market. Anmatyerre was revealed to be Farely French, from Calcutta. Like the example above, French took a name from an Aboriginal community and passed it off as his own, causing hurt and offense in the process.7

Some lessons were not learned in the 90s, however, and there are many examples of overstepping which do pop up, the longer you look. In 2010, in the Blue Mountains, controversy erupted around a non-Indigenous sculptor and their gallery-owner-partner seeking to erect an image of the Wandjina (also spelled Wanjina), sacred to the people of the Kimberley region, at their wellness retreat. As with other examples, they were really upset when told they couldn’t appropriate another culture.

Lessons from the past?

As early as 2000 Marcia Langton observed that ‘the barely concealed suspicion of the most acerbic critics of the Aboriginal art market is that transactions are driven by a demand for primitivist art product as surrogate contrition’.8 Such contrition has been and continues to be highly profitable, though the artist doesn't always profit to the same extent as dealers, middle men and sellers. How do we reconcile the financial with the creative? How should the cultural productions of the oldest living cultures be valued? Artist Ben Quilty wrote a letter in support of Tjala Arts and APY ACC. He described the art from APY as ‘the greatest art movement on the planet in my lifetime’.9

If there is anything to be gained from examining past examples it might be that the contrition which Langton describes can also be—in the case of Durack—an over identification with First Nations culture. She knew she crossed the line, in spite of saying she didn’t want to hurt or offend any Aboriginal people with her actions. This remains something often heard and raises important questions about national identity in Australia.

The allegations that Beamish worked on Petyarre’s canvases are of a different type, closer, obviously to the current controversy. Evident are the risks for First Nations artists when non-Indigenous art centre managers and assistants overstep while meaning well. Kim Mahood captured this dynamic in her essay ‘Kartiya are like Toyotas’ which described a well-trodden trope of well-meaning yet transient non-Indigenous manager in regional Aboriginal affairs. These are the risks and yet each art centre is unique with artists organising their studios to their own specifications. Galleries including the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, will not be conducting reviews into the provenance of the works in their collections by APY ACC artists.

The investigation by the Australian demonstrates that there are artists with concerns about the behaviour of non-Indigenous managers and assistants and a need for more clarity around these roles and what level of collaboration or assistance is accepted by each artist. It’s also always good to be on alert for a scandal for scandals sake. Look slowly, look critically.

This is a post from Slow Looking, a newsletter about art and history. Subscribe at https://nikitavanderbyl.substack.com/