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Aboriginal art Haute Outback

The art of Australia's Aborigines is garnering awards, selling for six figures at Sotheby's auctions and drawing travellers to city galleries and dusty villages in search of rising talent. Not bad for paintings recently dismissed as 'folk art.' LASZLO BUHASZ explores the appeal of this bold and intricate work, and offers a guide on where to start hunting


By LASZLO BUHASZ found at the Globe and Mail  UPDATED AT 3:03 AM EDT Saturday, Oct 16, 2004 

Aboriginal memorial   CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA -- Enter the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the first thing you see is the Aboriginal Memorial, possibly the most unique and beautiful commemoration to the dead anywhere.

An installation of 200 hollow-log coffins that stand upright and oddly at ease in the modern space, the memorial is to the thousands of indigenous people who lost their lives defending their land during the first 200 years of European settlement on the continent. The logs, like the ones used in dupun, a traditional mortuary ceremony, represent "a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all aboriginal people who have been denied a proper burial," said Susan Jenkins, the gallery's assistant curator of aboriginal and Torres Strait islander art.

But as I stood in this modern institution, beyond the solemn and poignant nature of the memorial I was struck by the sheer primitive beauty of the paintings that decorate the logs. I had come to Australia to learn more about Aborigine culture -- visiting remote communities in Arnhem Land, the great parks south and east of Darwin and the archeological site of Mungo National Park in New South Wales -- but I had not expected to become so engaged by the country's indigenous artwork.

Here, in the capital's premier art museum, it seems natural that the log coffins occupy pride of place in the building's first gallery. Prepared by 43 artists from Central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, the designs of clan totems that represent connections to ancestral beings are executed in a palette of red, yellow, white and black. Their bold and intricate images -- framed by dots and accentuated by fine crosshatching using brushes made from human hair -- are stunning examples of an art form that has exploded in popularity both in Australia and abroad.

Paintings, carvings and sculpture that recently were dismissed as "folk art" are today garnering awards and selling for six figures at Sotheby's auctions. International art collectors and visiting tourists are hunting through art galleries in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin and even Alice Springs and other Outback communities for indigenous works that are not only aesthetically appealing, but can also be good investments.

The past decade has seen exhibitions of aboriginal works tour the world -- including the Jalanguwarnu exhibit on display this past summer at Ireland's Carlow Institute of Technology, borrowed from the University of Virginia's Kluge-Ruhe Museum. And the art form will soon play a prominent role in cultural institutions in Toronto and Paris.

african artBamileke, Kingdom of Bakassa, Cameroon
Cameroon King (Nguambo), mid-19th century
wood, traces of pigment
Height: 156.5 cm
Gift from the Frum Collection, 2001
©2004 Art Gallery of Ontario

Art Gallery of Ontario

Founded in 1900 by a group of private citizens as the Art Museum of Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is now the 10th largest art museum in North America, with a physical facility of 486,000 square feet.


The AGO currently has more than 38,000 works in its collection, spanning the 11th century to present day.

When the Art Gallery of Ontario's new permanent galleries reopen in 2008 after a $500-million redesign and expansion, a major collection of Aborigine art will have its own place of honour under the same roof as the European art from the Thomson Collection, the African art donated by the Frumm family and Canadian First Nations acquisitions. This is thanks to a recent 1,000-item windfall collected by an anonymous Toronto donor over the past 15 years.

"An assessment we have from an appraiser is that it is the finest collection of its kind in North America," Dennis Reid, the AGO's chief curator, said in an interview.

The collection, primarily composed of artifacts from the 19th and early 20th centuries, is particularly rich in shields, boomerangs and other objects of use that were created at a very high artistic level. Part of the rationale for the gallery's expansion is to present new material "that extends the idea most people have about what constitutes art," Reid said. "The [Aborigine] artifacts are deeply imbued with religious and cultural meaning. They were collected as art and that is how we will be displaying them."

In Paris, one of the world's great cultural capitals, Aborigine art will soon be a prominent feature in a new museum that will house France's large, but scattered, collection of indigenous works. 

artgallery new south wales When the $330-million Musée du Quai Branly opens in early 2006, it will feature ceilings painted by artists recruited from Australian Aborigine communities by senior curators at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney and at the National Art Gallery in Canberra.

While it is easy to understand why the intricate patterns and impressionistic dot paintings can be visually appreciated in terms of a Western aesthetic, an added appeal of the form is its deep cultural and spiritual significance. As explained recently by anthropologist Margaret Smith, director of Virginia's Kluge-Ruhe museum, it is almost always connected to "Dreamtime" mythology, the complex network of creation stories that define Aborigine connection with the land and their relationship with every living creature.

Dense with layers of narrative and symbolism, much of it has its genesis in ancient rock paintings by ancestors tens of thousands of years ago and only recently transferred to modern media such as canvas and board. With Australia's aboriginal population of about 450,000 spread across the vast continent and divided into about 20 language groups and many more clans, regional art is rich with variety.

But if the cultural and spiritual symbolism is lost on some buyers, its potential for rapid monetary appreciation is not.

In 1972, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula sold a complex painting called Water Dreaming at Kalipinya for about $140. In 1997, the same painting was bought by a California collector for $189,450 at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne. Three years later, he sold it, again at a Sotheby's auction, for almost $448,000. And an Australian newspaper reported last year that an American woman who bought three paintings in Alice Springs in 1973 for about $100, had them valued at more than $100,000 by Tim Klingender, Sotheby's director of aboriginal art.

While those kinds of bargains are rare, the thirst for high-quality works seems unabated. This July, Sotheby's Melbourne auction of aboriginal art grossed $5.2-million in one day. One painting of Uluru (Ayers Rock) by recently deceased artist Rover Thomas was bid to almost $621,000.

But not all quality work is out of reach for the average art-collecting traveller. Some of the country's finest paintings are coming out of small communities of the Utopia region northeast of Alice Springs and small works produced there can be had for less than $400.

Dozens of large and small galleries in major cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Darwin are now specializing in quality Aborigine art. And visitors with a more intense interest can take Aborigine-themed tours into more remote corners of the country that will combine a chance to learn more about indigenous cultures with a chance to buy art closer to the source.Sydney, where most North American visitors to the country first arrive, is also an important stop for all major art exhibitions touring the country. On show now until Dec. 12 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for example, are 300 works from Western Arnhem Land, created by well-known artists such as John Mawurndjul.

Excellent galleries in Sydney include Walkabout Art in the suburb of Leichhardt, where first-rate aboriginal art can be purchased for between $1,000 and $10,000. Last year, a painting by Gloria Petyarre, one of the seven sisters in a famous Utopia family of painters, could be had for less than $5,000.

At Gavala, Sydney's only Aborigine-owned and operated fine art gallery, authenticated indigenous art, painted didgeridoos, carved and decorated rhythm sticks and boomerangs can be purchased for prices affordable for most visitors.

In the city's Bondi district, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art gallery is the regional representative of top artists including Kathleen Petyarre, Abie Loy, Jimmy Nerrimah, Karen Casey and Arone Raymond Meeks, as well as the Spinifex Artists of the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia.

In Melbourne, one of the best places to look for quality indigenous art is Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, which for more than 20 years has been a showcase for artists from remote desert communities such as Papunya and Balgo Hills, and the Tiwi Islands, located 100 kilometres from Darwin off the north coast. And in Darwin, Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery has one of the largest collections of authentic regional art.

Hard-core collectors hoping to snap up a work by a future Rover Thomas can make the trek to Alice Springs -- 2,100 kilometres from Adelaide and even farther from Sydney -- for Desert Mob, the annual September/October exhibition of work by artists from the remote communities that dot the vast Red Centre of the continent. In its 14th year at the Araluen Galleries, this year's exhibition -- closing tomorrow -- features 400 works. Artists from dusty outposts such as Borroloola, Blackstone and Wingellina travelled for up to nine hours on dirt tracks to the event to stand beside their creations, the best of which have been snapped up.

The personal connection between artists and buyers has become more important in recent years. The aboriginal-arts industry is estimated to be worth $184-million annually and growing at about 10 per cent a year, and has become a fertile ground for a new breed of fraudsters. Mass reproductions, a proliferation of didgeridoos carved and painted by white backpackers, and a series of high-profile fraud scandals has made buyer contact with artists a valued commodity.

That contact was appreciated last year on the Gove Peninsula of remote Arnhem Land, when Maurizio di Maggio, a broadcaster with Radio Monaco, commissioned a decorated didgeridoo from local artist Gayili Marika, an elder of the Galupa community near the bauxite-mining town of Nhulunbuy. Di Maggio, there to take an Aborigine cultural tour, accompanied Marika into the eucalyptus forest, saw her cut down a tree hollowed out by termites, and later watched her paint the instrument with ground ochre and decorate it with graceful herons, added with a tiny brush made from her hair.

The cost: $200 Australian. The experience: priceless.

"I could have bought a didgeridoo for less money at a tourist shop in Sydney or Darwin," di Maggio said. "But think of the memories I'll have of its creation when I look at it leaning in the corner of my Monaco apartment."

Pack your bags


The National Gallery of Australia: Parkes Place, Canberra; 61 (2) 6240 6502;

Art Gallery of New South Wales: Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney; ; 61 (2) 9225 1700.

Walkabout Art: 70 Norton St., Leichhardt; ; 61 (2) 9550 9964. Operated by World Vision Indigenous Programs. 

Gavala: Harbourside Shopping Centre, Darling Harbour, Sydney; 61 (2) 9212 7232; .

Coo-ee Aboriginal Art: 31 Lamrock Ave., Bondi Beach; 61 (2) 9300 9233; .

Hogarth Galleries Aboriginal Art Centre: 7 Walker Lane, Paddington; ; 61 (2) 9360 6839.

Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi: 141 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; 61 (3) 9654 2944; .

Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery: Corner of Mitchell and Knuckey Streets, Darwin; ; 61 (8) 8981 1315.
Desert Mob Event runs in September and October 2004.


Above: Paddy Kunmanara, “Paddy’s Story of his Country”, 2004, acrylic on linen, 152.5 x 122 cm, Minymaku Arts


AAT Kings: 1-800-353-4525; . Offers a series of tours that explore aboriginal lifestyles and culture in Australia's Northern Territory.

Birds, Bees, Trees and Things: http://www.   or ; 61 (8) 8987 1814. Offers small-group tours in Arnhem Land's Gove Peninsula.


For lists of galleries and descriptions of aboriginal art, visit the website at .

Australian Tourist Commission: 1-800-369-6863; .

Aboriginal Tourism Australia: .

© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. 

Jalanguwarnu - Aboriginal Colour and Flair comes to IT Carlow

It’s the first exhibition of Aboriginal art in Ireland for many years, and probably the biggest exhibition of Aboriginal art ever presented here.

With 30 works ranging from bark paintings and canvas paintings to fibre sculptures and wood sculptures, this exhibition offers great variety. Some of the works on show as part of Jalanguwarnu, are not only spectacular works of art, they are spectacular in scale. Karrku – a group work is approx 10ft tall x 22 ft wide, while Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s My Country is 5ft tall x 16ft wide and Gambali Nurruwuthun’s Munyuka Wanga is almost 12ft tall x 3ft 6 wide.

Jalanguwarnu is a Warlpiri term for ‘contemporary’. The exhibition has been selected from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection at the University of Virginia, USA. This is the largest collection of Aboriginal Art outside of Australia, and Dr Margaret Smith, the Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Museum, curates Jalanguwarnu.

As part of Jalanguwarnu, Margaret has asked one of Australia’s leading contemporary Aboriginal artist Fiona Foley to make a new work. Fiona has exhibited widely in Australia, Europe and all over the world.

Fiona, whose grandfather emigrated from County Waterford, will present Beyond the Sea, an installation exploring the forced migration of Irish people to Australia. Is there a sense of collective loss to foreign shores? How do we go about remembering these people? Fiona’s Installation takes place in the derelict chapel in the Presentation convent. The walls are painted in a stunning blue, with beautiful colours and light coming through the stain glass windows. The entire floor is covered with a sea of over 2000 poppies. There are two dinghies and a High Cross embedded in the floor in the centre of the Installation to represent and remember Irish peoples forced departure to Australia.

Port Douglas Oceanic Art Gallery Port Douglas Oceanic Art Gallery Specializes in Australian Aboriginal Art both Contemporary and Traditional. We feature the Lockhart River Artists, Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeeyno, Samantha Hobson and Silas Hobson. The Lockhart River Art Gang Are a group of young contemporary painters from the east coast of Cape York, who have achieved considerable success in Australia and overseas. Their fresh vibrant paintings reflect their lifestyle, culture and the environment in which they live. Their work encompasses important belief issues such as kinship groups and community responsibility. This diverse range of subject matter involves traditional stories, laws and even good fishing spots. The artists create works that are influenced by the rain forest and Coral Sea surroundings in which they live, along with traditional stories and contemporary issues within their community. Representing a new generation of indigenous art, the artists have made an impact on the Australian visual arts. The Lockhart River Gang is a wonderful inspiration for all Aboriginal communities. 


3/38 Wharf Street
Port Douglas,
Qld, 4877

Specialising in Contemporary Indigenous Art

Tel: +61 7 40994494
Fax: + 61 7 40994417

Monday to Friday 10am to 5.30pm Saturday 10am to 1pm

READ Also: Aboriginal painting

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