10 May 2016 by Daniel Wright
When visiting a place where art is integral to the history and culture, purchasing a piece to take home can be a tempting proposition. Australia is one such destination, particularly its Northern Territory, which is home to much of the country’s Aboriginal heritage. But how can you be sure that what you’re buying is the real deal, that those benefiting from your buy are the artists themselves? Here, we try to pick apart the pitfalls of buying Aboriginal art on your next Australian holiday.
With intricate dotted Aboriginal patterns and stylised depictions of animals and hunters, authentic Australian art can make a fine addition to any home, be it for a splash of colour or simply as a wonderful way to remember your time abroad. However, with decidedly dodgy practices still littering the indigenous art trade it’s important to ensure your money ends up in the right place. Fortunately, things are better than they once were. In the not-so-distant past it would be common for artists to be ‘paid’ in food – or even drugs and alcohol – and works that unscrupulous dealers paid just a few dollars for to end up being resold for thousands with no benefit to the original creator.
However, following a senate enquiry in 2007, an indigenous art code was established, helping to ensure respect towards artists’ cultural practices and that fees are paid in cash rather than substances, particularly alcohol. While signing up to the code is voluntary, simply asking the seller if they adhere to it provides a good starting point for an ethical transaction.
So, where are the best places to look for ethically sourced indigenous art? While many might prefer to avoid street sellers, those that buy in this way are often dealing directly with the artists themselves. This most simple method of buying and selling art has been around on the streets of Alice Springs for decades and is helping to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among the town’s Aboriginal people. Sadly, however, buying this way doesn’t always ensure a fair price or even an original piece. In some instances, desperate to make some money, artists sell to tourists at well below the going rate. There’s also the chance that you might be buying a stolen painting or one not produced by the ‘artists’ making the sale.
A good place to start your search is at one of the ever-growing number of community art centres; set up to support indigenous creatives, they provide materials and sell and exhibit their work. Often paying artists a commission of around 50-60% per piece, the rest of the money goes towards the running of the centre, paying for materials and making sure artists are looked after with food and drink throughout the working day. Places to try include the excellent Walkatjara Art Centre, which is owned and run by artists from the Mutitjulu community and the award-winning Maruku Arts at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, which, as well as selling traditional dot paintings, also showcases hand-woven baskets and intricately crafted woodwork with pieces sourced from throughout the Red Centre.
Some hotels are getting in on the act too, with the Sails in the Desert Gardens Hotel at Ayers Rock Resort hosting the renowned Mulgara Gallery, which not only runs artist in residence programmes but also displays and sells everything from paintings and artefacts to didgeridoos and other tribal instruments.
Read more about Australia's Aboriginal peoples and Red Centre: