Aboriginal Art

Buying Indigenous Art

Covering Australian Indigenous* art and design is something we fully admit that we haven’t been very good at over the past few years. In 2017 we want to change that. This year, we’re committed to covering Indigenous art regularly, and to that end we have enlisted the help of two experts – the amazing women behind Willie Weston.

Through their Melbourne based business, Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti create curated textile and wallpaper collections featuring the work of Indigenous artists, for use by interior designers and architects. Prior to launching Willie Weston, Jessica worked as a researcher and arts manager specialising in Indigenous art. She spent time in the Northern Territory with Indigenous arts organisation ANKAAA, tutored and lectured at the University of Melbourne, and conducted research as part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Economies Project. Laetitia has worked as a curator, writer and project manager, including as an exhibitions assistant at Heide Museum of Modern Art and as the co-director of the Melbourne Art Fair in 2012.

Jessica and Laetitia are kicking off with an informative brief to buying Indigenous art, which will be followed up by monthly profiles on outstanding Indigenous creatives.

Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti

Paintings by Warakurna artists being photographed and documented. Photo – Tim Acker.

Tarnanthi Art Fair, Adelaide, 2015. Photo – courtesy of John Montesi and Tarnanthi.

Mick’s ‘Tjala Tjukurpa – Honey Ant Story‘ 140cm x 153cm’ from the ‘Walytjapitiku Laina – Family Lines’ exhibition, now showing at Alcaston Gallery. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Alternate view of ‘Tjala Tjukurpa – Honey Ant Story‘ 106cm x 144cm by Mick Wikilyirialso, an artist from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) Lands showcasing works at Alcaston Gallery. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

New columnists Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti. Combining their wealth of experience in the Indigenous art market and research field, the pair also run textile and wallpaper label Willie Weston. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Jessica Booth
Laetitia Prunetti
23rd of March 2017

The Indigenous* art market can seem complex and daunting to the novice buyer. So many galleries selling so much art – where to begin? How to tell a reputable seller from an unethical one? And how to know whether your purchase supports the artist who created it?

While not exhaustive, this guide suggests some places to buy Indigenous art, and things to keep in mind when buying.

These tips mostly relate to art from remote areas – which has historically been favoured by unethical opportunists – rather than to art by ‘urban’ artists, who often work independently through commercial galleries. They also concern art sold in the primary market, where artists receive payment for the sale of their work.

First, some background:

Indigenous art centres are government-funded, Indigenous-owned organisations. They are usually located in remote communities and provide art production facilities, training and promotion to member artists.

Commercial galleries mount curated selling exhibitions, sometimes in partnership with remote art centres. In fact, art centres often reserve their best work for these shows, which offer artists access to metropolitan markets.

It’s important to know an artwork’s provenance, or source. Art produced through art centres, whether purchased from the art centre directly or from a commercial gallery, is generally sold with a ‘certificate of authenticity’ – one way of demonstrating provenance. These certificates contain the artwork’s details (e.g. artist, title, date and catalogue number). However, not all sellers offer certificates, and buyers should be aware that this documentation can vary considerably in terms of authenticity.

If an artwork has dubious provenance, resale can become difficult. Poor or unknown provenance also means it’s hard to establish whether the artist has been paid fairly. Art sales provide one of few income sources in many remote communities, supporting the livelihoods of some of Australia’s most disadvantaged groups.

Organisations like the Indigenous Art Code (IAC) and the Australian Commercial Galleries Association (ACGA) exist, in part, to help buyers differentiate between ethical and unethical sellers. If a gallery is a signatory you should see the IAC or ACGA logo in their space or online. However, membership is voluntary and there are ethical galleries who are not signatories, so the best approach is to do your homework!

Research the artist – Who is the artist and where are they from? Get acquainted with their style, find out whether they are represented by a gallery and get an idea of what their work sells for. Getting familiar with an artist’s practice will help you navigate the market when you’re ready to buy.

Ask questions – ‘You should expect to be informed about the artist’s background and exhibition history, and whether they work independently or through an art centre,’ says Vivien Anderson, of Vivien Anderson Gallery. Has the artist been paid fairly? Can the seller supply a certificate of authenticity? As Gabrielle Sullivan, CEO of the Indigenous Art Code, says: ‘Anyone doing the right thing by the artist should be able to give you this information.’

Of course, not everyone agrees about the best places to buy, and some fantastic remote area artists choose to work outside the art centre system. However, with a bit of research and by asking the right questions, you can ensure you buy beautiful art that also supports the artist who created it.

Great Places To Start

Go to an art fair – Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, Desert Mob, Revealed or Tarnanthi.

Visit a gallery – Aboriginal and Pacific Art, Alcaston Gallery, Outstation Gallery, Short Street Gallery, Utopia Art Sydney and Vivien Anderson Gallery, to name just a few!

Or, if you can, buy directly from an art centre! – Many welcome visitors and some are in spectacular country! Learn more about art centres through these peak bodies: AACHWA, Ananguku Arts, ANKA, Desart, IACA and Umi Arts.

Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti will be back in a fortnight with their first Indigenous artist profile. To find out more about the duo, and their work with Indigenous communities through Willie Weston, visit their website.

* The authors acknowledge and recognise the diversity and distinctness of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For brevity, however, the term ‘Indigenous’ will be used throughout this column when referring broadly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artists.

Artwork ‘Tjala Tjukurpa – Honey Ant Story‘ 112cm x 153cm by Mick Wikilyiri whose joint exhibition with Paniny Mick is now showing at Alcaston Gallery. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.


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