untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

“Aren’t I Aboriginal enough for you?”

ImageThe title of this post recalls a comment by the brilliant artist, administrator and activist, Bronwyn Bancroft, at a conference I organised a while ago. When someone in the audience took issue with the fact that we hadn’t included an artist from a remote community in the line-up of three speakers chatting about the Aboriginal art market, Bronwyn stood up and said exactly that: “Aren’t I Aboriginal enough for you?”

It would be hilariously funny if it didn’t lay bare a deeply troubling truth.

And now it seems that the unsettling equation that underpins the Aboriginal art market manifests elsewhere. You know the one – the formula goes a little like this:

Indigenous Australian + remote central Australian lifestyle = authentic.

Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition, has declared Ken Wyatt, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Hasluck in Western Australia, a little too urban for his liking.

Wyatt is a descendant of the Yamatji, Wongi and Nyoongar nations, and was born at Roelands Mission farm. His mother was one of the Stolen Generation. But that’s not quite enough for Mr Abbott. You see, according to Abbott’s dogma, to qualify as an “authentic representative of the ancient cultures of central Australia”, you need to live in “central Australia”.

So there you have it.

Move away from a traditional, desert-based lifestyle, and you no longer qualify as an “authentic” Aboriginal person.

I’ve written elsewhere about the iffy fixation with ‘authentic’ Aboriginality in the art market and what it means for the sustainability of the Aboriginal art industry. The premise is so fundamentally wrong, based as it is on an obsolete Western obsession with ethnographic classification and the romantic vision of the ‘noble savage’.

If we accept Mr Abbott’s edict, does that mean that he is not an ‘authentic’ Catholic because he doesn’t live in the Vatican City? OK – specious analogy. But, still. Sorry. The whole thing makes me more than a little cranky.

The upside for Mr Abbott? He demonstrates an enviable capacity to run with both feet planted firmly in his mouth.

(Footnote for those of you outside Australia: Mr Abbott is also “that man” lambasted by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her much circulated misogyny speech.)

(PS: the link above is to my article, Joining the Dots: the Sustainability of the Aboriginal Art Market, as it was reproduced in an earlier post. The full article was published in UNESCO’s journal, Diogenes, in August 2011, but you have to pony up some cold, hard folding stuff to read it on the Sage website. The link to my blog post is free, and has the same info, but it doesn’t look as pretty as the full pdf. If you do want to read it in its final form, the link to the pdf via Sage Journals can be found here.)

(image: via news.com.au)

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