From tales of Aboriginal art ‘sweatshops’ owned by spurious dealers who pay their artists poorly (and have them work in less than ideal conditions), it can be difficult to navigate the contemporary Aboriginal art scene. That said, it is possible to purchase Aboriginal art in an ethical way which is great news for interiors addicts because the pieces look particularly fabulous in contemporary settings.
“Buying art at the best of times can seem like an overwhelming experience and this can be exacerbated when buying Aboriginal art with many stories still in circulation of bad practice and unethical treatment of artists,” says Nichola Dare of the Aboriginal Contemporary gallery located in Sydney’s Bronte. And with more and more people concerned about ethical art practices, Nichola has been kind enough to impart her Aboriginal art-buying tips.
With most Aboriginal art in Australia originating from remote community art centres (many of which are in the Northern Territory), the first thing you need to check for is a certificate that indicates as such. “Buying art produced from a recognised art centre is one way of ensuring that you’re purchasing an authentic work of art acquired through ethical means. Art centres are Aboriginal-owned and managed businesses that operate with the specific aim of facilitating and supporting the ethical creation, distribution and collection of indigenous art. Some art centres do sell directly to the public but more often than not they work alongside reputable galleries in the major urban areas who are better placed to sell the work,” says Nichola.
“Don’t be shy in asking the gallery owner as many questions as you like about where the art has come from. If the gallery owner is reluctant to share this information with you then that might be a warning. Ask the gallery which art centres they work with – the more the better! The art centres are very discerning as to their partner galleries and generally only work with galleries that operate with the same ethical rigour as them,” says Nichola who also says that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask how much money the artist is paid too. “This is not always exactly known but generally the gallery takes a 40 per cent commission and 60 per cent of the price goes back to the art centre,” says Nichola.
Also, you should ask if the gallery is a member of a peak body such as the Indigenous Art Code which ensures best practice for the artist, art centres and commercial galleries.
Ask for a Certificate of Authenticity
Given the dubious origin of many indigenous art works, make sure you ask for an authenticity certificate before making a purchase. “If the work has originated from an art centre then this will ensure its provenance. This will come in the form a Certificate of Authenticity. The certificate will have the art centre’s details on it, not the gallery’s. Different art centres’ certificates will look different depending on their logo, however they all have the same information on them,” says Nichola. This information includes the name of the artist, a picture of the painting and often the artist too, the size of the art work (make sure it matches the piece you’re buying), and a catalogue number which links the work back to the artist, art centre and the date it was produced. “The certificate will also include a story which will vary in length and detail between art centres and often vary from artist to artist depending on what has been painted,” says Nichola.
“Previously only the very best artists painted using linen as it was more expensive, however linen is being used less now and is being replaced by good quality canvases. Beware of thin, cheap looking canvas. Also, don’t be put off if sometimes there is dirt on the back on the canvas. Lots of the works from remote communities are still painted outside on the desert floor so they do get dirty. Sometimes the clean neat canvases are the ones to be wary of!” says Nichola.
Be wary of discounts
“As a rule of thumb the price of the artwork is dictated to the gallery by the art centre, ensuring that works by one artist are the same wherever they are sold. So it is very unusual that there is an opportunity for a big discount,” says Nichola. If the work is heavily reduced, it usually means it was initially priced well beyond its market value to accommodate the discount, or that the artist was not paid properly in the first instance.
“Also, if the gallery claims to be able to create a work for you in a custom-size that’s a massive red flag also,” says Nichola.