For 40,000 years Abo­rig­i­nal artists have pro­duced stun­ning works, says An­thony Smith

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An­thony Smith cham­pi­ons abo­rig­i­nal art

Let me take you to the home of the old­est con­tin­u­ous artis­tic move­ment on the planet: Aus­tralia. The art move­ment is that of the Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines.

Abo­rig­i­nal art is found in col­lec­tions and homes around the world and many here in Nor­folk. Its con­tem­po­rary ‘ab­strac­tion’ and dec­o­ra­tive qual­ity are the main at­tractions.

But, in fact, the works are far from ab­stract. The best ex­am­ples de­pict sa­cred knowl­edge, with many works con­tain­ing a di­rect link to the Dream­time, the an­cient his­tory and myths of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture.

I re­mem­ber watch­ing a TV se­ries, Art+Soul, that dis­cussed Abo­rig­i­nal art over 40,000 years, its devel­op­ment and pop­u­lar­ity to­day. The pre­sen­ter, was Hetti Perkins, an ex-cu­ra­tor of Abo­rig­i­nal art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and of Abo­rig­i­nal her­itage. She was as­tounded when she took an Abo­rig­i­nal elder, an artist, around the gallery’s col­lec­tion and, when view­ing a work, he be­gan to chant.

She asked him what he was chant­ing to and he said it was the paint­ing he was look­ing at. It was for him a sa­cred text as op­posed to a sim­ple art­work. As­tound­ing.

There are hid­den mean­ings and/or knowl­edge in some of these works that can also re­mind us what has been lost over the gen­er­a­tions. Not all Abo­rig­i­nal art is good and/or spir­i­tual. A great deal of Abo­rig­i­nal art is sim­ply pro­duced for a tourist mar­ket. Many peo­ple as­sume that their paint­ing is of high qual­ity, but of­ten this be­lief is sim­ply based on not hav­ing any point of ref­er­ence. As with any art­work, it’s just so im­por­tant to do your home­work.

Some buy­ers pre­fer only to pur­chase works that have come di­rectly through Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity art cen­tres, as if the works there have more cred­i­bil­ity as op­posed to pur­chas­ing via pri­vate deal­ers who buy di­rectly from artists. Hav­ing pur­chased from both, cer­tainly, buy­ing art­works from com­mu­nity cen­tres is in some re­spects eas­ier, par­tic­u­larly in re­gard to pric­ing. How­ever works that I have pur­chased from deal­ers who buy di­rectly from artists tend to be of a higher stan­dard, though they can be more ex­pen­sive too.

As with any valu­able art, there are fakes or, more of­ten, in­cor­rectly at­trib­uted works. How­ever, such ac­tiv­ity was mostly per­pe­trated with de­ceased and high value artists’ works.

To­day, there is a huge aware­ness of this is­sue amongst deal­ers and we are all wary. I re­mem­ber see­ing a num­ber of paint­ings in Lon­don that were sup­pos­edly by a fa­mous artist. They just didn’t con­form in their ex­e­cu­tion to paint­ings I knew were by her hand so I ap­proached the com­mu­nity cen­tre and spoke to the man­ager there.

She con­firmed that the works were in fact done by mem­bers of the artist’s fam­ily even though they were pur­chased through the cen­tre as by the artist. The fact is that there can be huge pres­sure on suc­cess­ful artists by their fam­i­lies to pro­duce more and some­times they sim­ply can’t.

When you have the op­por­tu­nity, look and look again at these works. They are unique, prim­i­tive, con­tem­po­rary, up­lift­ing and in the best works, spir­i­tual.

On that note, have a spir­i­tual and very Merry Christ­mas.

ABOVE: Abo­rig­i­nal art Mur­die Nampi­jinpa Mor­ris/asart Ltd

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