by Associate Professor Christine Alder
University of Melbourne, Victoria
Over the past few years the Aboriginal art market has
been the subject of considerable media attention which has raised
questions about the authenticity of Aboriginal art. Such challenges
are of significant concern for a number of reasons. First, they challenge
the integrity of Aboriginal artists and others involved in the Aboriginal
art market. Second, they threaten a significant source of economic
resources for many Aboriginal communities. And third, they threaten
the Australian international art market of which Aboriginal art forms
a significant component.
However, several of the questions that have been raised
in relation to Aboriginal art in Australia have in fact bedeviled
philosophers and art historians about art more generally for centuries.
At the same time, Aboriginal art does presents us with some further
When a buyer is about to buy a piece of Aboriginal art
there are probably two general questions in relation to authenticity
about which they might be concerned. The first is the general question
that would be an issue for the purchaser of any form of fine art,
that is, whether or not the named artist is responsible for the work?
The second question relates more to the purchase of a piece of Aboriginal
art, and that is whether or not the piece is an authentic Aboriginal
product? Both of these questions however present us with further dilemmas
that we now want to examine in a little more detail.
Is the named artist responsible for the work?
There are three situations that have led to questions
of authenticity in relation to this issue. None of these are peculiar
to Aboriginal art. The first situation is one in which the named artist
had nothing to do with the production of the piece. This is the classic
"fake" situation and there have been many famous international
examples of this as in the case of the fraudster John Drewe who in
1999 was sentenced to a term in prison for introducing some 200 faked
works onto the British art market over recent years.
The Aboriginal art market in the past five years has
seen allegations of comparable faking, where it has been claimed
in newspaper accounts that works by such well known artists
as Clifford Possum were produced by fakers hoping to cash in
on the established reputations of such artists.
The second situation is one in which the artist signs
works in fact produced by others. Historically, there is nothing particular
new in this practice either. Paul Rubens, among others, was well known
to have sold works to clients which were produced out of his studio
with perhaps little or none of the work actually being done by Rubens.
In the Australian Aboriginal art market, there have
been media allegations (which are contested) about works sold with
Turkey Tolson's signature, where, as in the case of Rubens, it is
alleged that the work was produced by others and afterwards signed
by Tolson. Questions have been raised with us about this issue in
relation to other Aboriginal artists. Most often the situation is
one in which the artist signs work produced by other family members.
It is here that we begin to come up against a fundamental
dilemma, or conflict, that arises when Aboriginal understandings of
their work is placed in the context of the expectations of the white
art market. For example, put simply, from an Aboriginal perspective,
if the artist approves of a family member painting a work that draws
upon the artists form/style, or use of motifs, or storyline, the product
may still be conceived of as the artist's responsibility. This issue
of the cultural context of the art production is also raised in relation
to the following situation.
The third situation arises when a single artist's signature
appears on a piece on which others have also worked. This is potentially
a much more widespread issue. It often relates to the shear magnitude
of the production of the work. For example, in the case of a large
dot painting, or a large work involving extensive cross-hatching,
others may participate in the production of the work. In other cases
an older artists whose eyesight is deteriorating maybe assisted by
a close relative.
This became a significant public issue in the Aboriginal
art industry with the work of Kathleen
Petyarre. Petyarre was awarded a major art prize,
but subsequently her de facto spouse, and an art gallery dealer, claimed
that he had participated in their production and that they were in
fact joint works. After subsequent research, an investigative committee
decided that the award could justifiably be made to Petyarre. Their
investigation included a close analysis of her previous works and
they in essence concluded that the painting was recognisably a development
of her earlier work, with a recognisable style and use of motifs and
story. A key issue is who conceived of the work, and in Aboriginal
culture, who owns the story and was responsible for the thrust of
Again this is not a problem peculiar to Aboriginal artists.
Both significant contemporary artists and historically, artists producing
exceptionally large works have employed others to participate in the
production of the final product.
Nevertheless, as a consequence of the publicity surrounding
this issue, most art dealers who work directly with artists indicated
they strongly discouraged more than one artist working on a single
piece of work. Art centre coordinators took different positions in
relation to this issue, but in general the position taken was that
if they felt that the work was in fact a collaborative effort they
would put both names on the work. If the work was however clearly
the idea, the story, the work of a particular artist who had simply
been assisted by another person, then the work may have a single name
Since working on art together is a way of younger artists
learning the stories and the skills, then one dealer we talked to
in our research suggested that collaborative works ought to be encouraged
rather than discouraged. Attributing the work both to the senior and
the junior artist would also be a way of the young artist beginning
to establish their own career.
The issue is the consequent retail price of the work.
Most people felt that with two names the work was worth less. However
one coordinator suggested if both of the artists had reputations of
their own, then the work may in fact be worth more. Some coordinators
suggested that collaborative work was not as widespread as thought
because the artists had to share the income from any product that
was produced jointly. The other side of the coin is that by working
with others, more works could be produced more quickly, and the work
of a relative may be worth more if a known artist was credited with
the work. Art centre coordinators felt that their situation meant
that they became so familiar with the style and story of individual
artists that they could tell when more than one hand had been involved
and that they would raise this with the artist to clarify the situation.
Thus far there has been no question of a "fake" or "fraud"
in relation to this issue emerging from art sold through art centres.
While the issue of people other than the named artist
participating in the production of a piece of art is not peculiar
to Aboriginal art, the situation does present some particular dilemmas
in the Aboriginal art area. First the occurrence of some of these
practices have to be considered in the context of the extreme disparity
between the rich and the poor in Australian society, and the fact
that Aboriginal people are the most economically disadvantaged population.
For some Aboriginal communities art is a significant source of economic
support. Another significant feature of the context, which is relevant
to our understanding of the potential for these practices to occur,
is the cultural understandings of individual responsibility in relation
to the community.
Another significant contextual issues relates to the
cultural expectation in some communities that some art be produced
by more than a single artist. This may relate, for example, to the
passing on of knowledge or to the expectation of the involvement of
more than one family grouping in the representation of some aspects
of the dreaming. These cultural values may clash with those of a white
art market that wants to see a work identified as that of a single
artist. This expectation however, may be inconsistent in some instances
with Aboriginal cultural expectations, and therefore a contradiction
arises between expecting both that a work be that of a single artist
and that the work is "authentically" Aboriginal. This leads
us to the second set of "authenticity" dilemmas that arise
in relation to Aboriginal art.
Is the piece of art an authentic Aboriginal product?
For some consumers, and others in the art market, the
authenticity of Aboriginal art has become associated with whether
or not "a story", most often related to the dreaming, is
associated with the particular piece. The problem is of course that
not all art produced by Aboriginal people has the same relationship
to a "story". For example, some work relates to body markings
or depictions of country. There is now a wide range of different forms
of Aboriginal art with different relationships to "traditional"
culture that make this expectation of a "story" not always
However, even in those forms of Aboriginal art that
traditionally have been more associated with the relating of a story,
the expectation that "the story" of the painting will be
relayed to the consumer presents its own problems. In his account
of the art of an Arnhem Land community, Howard Morphy indicates that
the relating of a story from the work was considered important by
the artists as part of a process of informing the consumers of Aboriginal
culture. However, he also details the layering of meanings/stories
in some forms of Aboriginal art that introduces a complexity to the
appropriate "story" to be related to the public in relation
to a particular work of art. Morphy also anticipates a problem that
we saw evidence of, and that is the supplying of stories for small
pieces by a gallery owner.
A second proposed criteria for establishing that
the work is authentically Aboriginal, is that the artist is
Aboriginal. But again this criterion presents a number of dilemmas.
In the fine art market, the situation that the consumer is concerned
to protect themselves against is perhaps best captured in the
Durack situation (a white woman who painted under an assumed
male name in a style understood by some as Aboriginal). The
issue is probably of more extensive concern in the tourist art
market. Is a didgeridoo that is mass produced by white folks,
but painted by Aboriginal people, an authentic Aboriginal product?
There are many woodcarvings in tourist shops that have been
produced in Asia and then painted in Australia by Aboriginal
people, and perhaps some non-Aboriginal people.
The use of this criterion also raises a number of ethical
questions. It is also potentially very demeaning for Aboriginal artists
to have to establish their Aboriginality. Should Jimmy
Pike have to establish his Aboriginality in order
for this work to be authenticated as "Aboriginal"? To require
Aboriginal people to establish their Aboriginal heritage is particularly
problematic in the context of a history in which there was extensive
rape of Aboriginal women by white men. The process by which the authenticity
of Aboriginal art is established on the basis assuring the Aboriginality
of the artist has been referred to as the "dog
tag" method of authentication.
A third criterion for whether or not the art work is
authentically Aboriginal asks whether or not the artist is entitled,
or has the authority from the relevant members of the Aboriginal community
to paint in a particular style or using a particular set of motifs
or icons. One museum curator referred to this as the "dot dolphin"
problem. For example one gallery owner told us of the work of a young
women that was selling quite well, but an Aboriginal elder came into
the gallery and indicated that she was not entitled to paint as she
had. The gallery owner removed the art from sale and put the Aboriginal
elder and the young woman artist in touch with each other.
This final criterion is asking whether or not the work
of art comes from, and is within the bounds of, traditional Aboriginal
culture. This is a very complex issue that raises a number of not
easily resolvable issues. Again we note that contemporary Aboriginal
art takes many forms and in fact has quite diverse relationships to
traditional culture. This dilemma becomes most clearest perhaps when
we consider the situation of younger, urban Aboriginal artists and
the dilemmas they may face in attempting to represent their Aboriginal
heritage and its implications for them in modern, urban society. We
face the challenge of working with Aboriginal people to ensure that
we do not further destroy their heritage, at the same time that we
do not become the "culturally correct" police who stymie
artistic development and creativity.
For us, many of these issues came together in relation
to a carving about which we were given different accounts of its authenticity.
Two dealers assured us it was authentic Aboriginal art because a man
who was definitely Aboriginal did it - he was a Torres Strait islander,
and one dealer gave us a biographical sketch of the artist. The museum
curator however, put it into the "tourist art" bracket,
because while the artist was Aboriginal, the sculpture drew upon the
style of the Tiwi Islanders, which he was not, and therefore it was
not authentic Aboriginal art. An artist may be Aboriginal, she or
he may come from a community with an authentic history of lengthy
connection with the dreamtime, but questions may still remain regarding
whether the work produced by that artist is "authentic"
in the sense of whether the artist is within Aboriginal culture entitled
to use the themes and icons employed within the work.
Our understandings of the meaning of "authenticity",
and the development of policies in relation to these issues, have
to be considered in the context of the circumstances and cultural
heritage of Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal communities are the
most economically disadvantaged in our society, and Aboriginal heritage
and culture often sometimes inconsistent with the white international
art market. Both of these features of Aboriginal life cannot be ignored
as we struggle with these issues.
In terms of more immediate strategic directions that
might be pursued specifically in relation to the art market to protect
the artist and the consumer, three have been suggested to us in the
course of our research. First, Aboriginal artists themselves need
to understand the workings of the art market, and the expectations
that the market has around concerns for authenticity. Second, art
dealers, including the art centres, need to play a much more proactive
role in the education of both the artists and the public around the
complex and unique issues of authenticity that arise with respect
to Aboriginal art. Third, the consumers themselves must become much
more informed about Aboriginal art and the process involved in its
It is unrealistic to expect that the fine arts market in particular,
will have its problems of authenticity resolved through the use of
any single or simple strategy, such as one set of rules or guidelines,
or a process which depends upon a label of authenticity (although
there certainly may be an important place for such labels within a
wide set of strategies). Informed consumers, informed dealers and
art centres, and informed artists working together as issues of authenticity
emerge should be able to begin to lead us along paths whereby in particular
situations questions of authenticity can be raised, examined, and
addressed within the complex perspectives that are an inherent feature,
and part of the creative excitement, of Aboriginal art.
The place and role of the art centres in the Aboriginal
art market could in particular be strengthened usefully. This does
not solve all of the problems because not all Aboriginal art will,
or should be sold, through centres (e.g. the art of urban Aboriginal
people). However, especially in relation to the art produced in remote
Aboriginal communities, it seems to us that the art centres play a
significant role as intermediaries and advocates between the local
culture and knowledge, and that of the white art market. It would
appear that there are at least two aspects of the authenticity discussion
that can be handled by the art centres. First they are in an excellent
position to advise the Aboriginal community about the white art market
- its expectations and the ramifications of certain practices, and
ensuring they are fully informed in relation to the situations of
exploitation that are often related to authenticity issues. At the
same time, they can be a significant source of educative advice to
consumers regarding the cultural foundations of the art produced by
specific communities, thereby helping to create a better informed
consumer in terms of their expectations.
Edited version of a paper presented at the Art Crime:
Protecting Art, Protecting Artists and Protecting Consumers
Conference held in Sydney, 2-3 December 1999.