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The end of Aboriginal Art?

June 2014


Women's Dreaming (2007) by Aboriginal artist Ningura Napurrula
Women's Dreaming (2007),
by Aboriginal artist Ningura Napurrula
acrylic on linen, signed "x" verso, 205cm x 145cm

Recently I have been pondering the future of Australian Aboriginal Art.

I wrote recently in a discussion that the urban Aboriginal artists in Australia no longer have the direct link to their roots in the outback and what we, of European or other non-Aboriginal genetic makeup, call the Dreaming.

This met with some debate, as I expected, yet it is a topic that is important in understanding what actually is Aboriginal art, where we are in its development and its future.

I stand by what I wrote in that discussion.

But let us look at Aboriginal art today, not in marketing or gallerist terms, but in looking at the whole movement of what is Aboriginal Art.

My thoughts have led me to believe that we are in the 3rd and final phase of the Aboriginal Art movement started in the 1970s.

The three phases, as I see them, are:

  • The original works created under the encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon in the 1970's. These were smaller works, often done on board.
  • The further development of the artwork created by Elder male artists, where the works were painted on canvas/linen and the commercial aspect of their works was starting to be appreciated.
  • The final phase. Artwork created by Elder female artists, who have progressed from assisting the male painters in applying dots to being recognised as artists in their own right.

Certainly, outside of these bands are artists such as William Barak, Tommy McRae (both 19th c artists) and artists pursuing a more Western style such as Albert Namatjirra, Lin Onus or Tracey Moffatt, the latter two being rightly regarded as Australian contemporary artists.

Untitled by Aboriginal artist Naata Nungurrayi
by Aboriginal artist Naata Nungurrayi
synthetic polymer on linen, 122cm x 152cm

That brings me to where we are now and what is the future for Aboriginal art.

It seems as if each month goes by we hear of the passing of another senior female Aboriginal artist. Ningura Napurrula and Dorothy Napangardi (accident) being amongst the most recent.

If we look at the artists still with us, we see that so many of them are very elderly and their painting years are either behind them or very close to being that way. Sadly, some are having their works done for them by members of their families and sold as being by the artist.

I discussed this in an earlier mailout and have been relieved to see many reputable galleries re-attributing such works as "collaborative" with an accompanying hefty reduction in price.

The fact is, these elderly artists will not be with us in the years ahead. Certainly, their artworks have already become difficult to acquire.

Is there then a 4th phase with the remaining younger artists who have grown up in western settlements or towns in the outback who will take their places?

I don't think so. How can they when they don't have the actual link, not just by birth, but from living the land, feeling the land, the land that their mothers/fathers, grandmothers/grandfathers, great-grandmothers/fathers had?

They can't.

Their experiences are more urban, more Western. Their education is a Western education. The "Dreaming" is still there, but the link is, in my opinion, spurious. It is like me claiming that I still feel the link to my Anglo-Saxon ancestors. I don't. Genetically I am still Anglo-Saxon, but that's where it ends. I, like everyone else, am a product of my upbringing, my education, my experiences and the time in which I live.

Mina Mina by Aboriginal artist Judy Watson Napangardi
Mina Mina,
by Aboriginal artist Judy Watson Napangardi
acrylic on Belgian linen, 180cm x 120cm

So why am I writing all of this?

Well, I truly believe that quality Aboriginal art is going to become so rare and desirable in the years ahead that if you really have an interest or passion for it, it is better to get in now rather than wait.

Prices dropped dramatically due to the GFC and the previous Australian Government's incompetent handling of a number of issues that negatively effected the Aboriginal art market.

But there wasn't, nor do I believe still is, a true understanding of the demise of the Elders and last of the Aboriginal artists who have had a direct link to the land.

When they are gone, so will the Golden Age of Aboriginal art end.

For further information regarding the artworks above or on asart's website, please contact us.
Anthony Smith and the asart team

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Anthony Smith has been invited by Art Antiques Design to share his expertise about art in a series of articles:

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