OUTBACK TOUR: Carpetbagging And The Art Of Doing Business Ethically

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When you’re out in ‘the middle of nowhere’, particularly in Australia, it’s pretty easy to get lost. But not if you’re travelling to Tjukurla, a tiny Aboriginal community in the Western Desert, a few hundred kilometres west of Uluru.

There, locals have made it impossible to miss the turnoff to the iconic desert art town, courtesy of an enormous shoe… or more specifically, an enormous Aboriginal art painted high heel, which has become iconic around the region and a beacon for people who love the Western Desert art style.

Of course, getting to Tjukurla, even with the advantage of an enormous landmark to guide you, still requires a pretty substantial amount of effort. It’s over 810 kilometres by road from Alice Springs, which is itself more than a thousand kilometres by road from anywhere else.

If you’re not quite up to the trip – and the New Matilda Outback Tour isn’t likely to go there any time soon – then the good news is an Aboriginal-owned art gallery in Moree in the north west of NSW has launched an exhibition of some of Australia’s most iconic Western Desert artists.

Yaama Ganu Art Gallery, which means ‘Welcome All’ in the Kamilaroi language – is an initiative of the Moree-based Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES), a local organisation that founded in the early 2000s to try and tackle unemployment in a town with a quite infamous history of racism.

AES was so successful it became a national initiative, but it’s never forgotten where it came from, and with a strong focus on Moree it built its own gallery and café smack bang in the middle of the main street of the small country town, population 10,000. 

Almost a quarter of the Moree population is Aboriginal, and while Yaama Ganu – known nationally for leading the way in the ethical treatment of Indigenous artists – displays local art, it’s also got a substantial collection of art from around the country.

Gallery Director’s of Yaama Ganu, Toby Osmond and Catherine Madden, said the latest exhibition to hit town features five artists from Tjukurla – Mrs N Giles (who passed away suddenly earlier this year); Katjarra Butler, Bob Gibson, Mrs E Giles (deceased). All hail from the Western Desert region and all are renowned for their art.

Bob Gibson is also renowned as a recluse. He lives about three hours from Tjurjkula, and pops into the art centre every few weeks to drop off work and get more supplies. Legend has it he keeps his car running during the visits.

Osmond says the exhibition – apart from just appreciating great Aboriginal art – is about fostering the growing Aboriginal Art Centre movement at remote locations around the country.

“Yaama Ganu only work with Aboriginal owned and operated art centres and are proud members of the Indigenous Art Code,” said Mr Osmond.

“They’re all government funded – they get a small amount each year – and by us supporting them as well, it enables the artists to stay on country as opposed to going into what we call the factories in Alice Springs, where they will be carpetbagged.”

‘Carpetbagging’ is when Aboriginal artists work for very little (or no) money for non-Indigenous dealers, who then on-sell the work for a substantial profit. It’s a major problem in the Indigenous Australian art movement, with major towns such as Alice Springs hosting poor but very talented artists in ‘workshops’ for days, sometimes weeks at a time.

“There’s plusses and minuses. Me personally, I don’t like anything about those places,” said Osmond.

Co-Director of the Yaama Ganu gallery in Moree NSW, Toby Osmond.

“You hear stories of artists being made cups of tea all day, they get sandwiches and a couple of hundred bucks, and they think it’s a pretty good result. But the work produced in that time is sold for thousands of dollars.

“What resonates for me with Aboriginal art is the connection to country they have,” says Osmond. “And that’s what comes from the art centre network, from artists working on country. Sitting on a cold concrete floor in Alice Springs, painting 500km from home is not going to foster that connection.”

Osmond said the other downside to workshop-produced art is that artists are often directed what and how to paint.

“I’ve seen it happen first hand. The workshops will say ‘Today we just want you to paint red yellow and blue because that’s what selling’. But artists out on country, at art centres, have complete freedom to paint how they want.”

Osmond says the best thing about the art centre movement is that it’s Aboriginal controlled.

“A lot of the time, the artists mostly only speak language, and if you’re going to sell art you need someone who can communicate freely with galleries.

“The model is an Aboriginal board made up of senior artists, usually with a whitefella running the place. The art centre managers run the run back end, schedule exhibitions, look after the finances. So it’s a system that seems to work.”

The art centre movement also fits in around local priorities and the communal nature of Aboriginal culture, says Osmond.

“They have this really lovely system with how the art centres manage the artist’s finances so money generated through sales of artwork can help to sustain the artists, their families and the whole community.

“Some of the artists will go and get $500 in $5 notes and as they’re leaving the art centre walking back home they’ll drop money on the ground for the community, or for the kids.

“A Warlukurlangu artist, Shorty Robertson was really well known for that.”

Osmond says Yaama Ganu’s ethical approach to dealing with Aboriginal art has helped build not just the Moree-based gallery, but artists everywhere.

“We have about four exhibitions a year but we have work going into our stockroom all the time. We’ve developed a solid reputation – we’re seen as the good guys.

“If we sell a painting, if you buy something today, we’d contact the art centre today to notify them of a sale and get them to invoice the gallery, so that we can get the money straight out to them.

“You’ve got to remember, it’s the only non-welfare source of revenue stream out there. A lot of these people are living below the poverty line, so we see it as really important.”

If you can’t get Tjukurla, or even Moree, you can visit Yaama Ganu online here. And you can find out how to buy art ethically by visiting the Indigenous Art Code.

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Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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