Brolga Project is a new, fresh initiative which believes while rural drift is a tremendous blight on our regional communities, it also offers fantastic opportunities.
One of the opportunities the project is working on, is the development of a vertically integrated boutique in China, which can sell Australian Indigenous Art and some associated merchandise. The reason behind this notion is three-fold: 1) the artists will maintain ownership of their art until it's sold, 2) there could be opportunity for some associated employment with the transport and packaging of the art, the making of frames etc., and 3) once the concept is working, there will be opportunities to replicate it for other groups such as local cheese or small wine producers.
Touted by Airene Wong (pictured above), a Chinese national with trade, business experience and world travels behind her, the concept is now talking to partners to build on the platform Airene has laid down.
And she's certainly travelled some miles in her research, covering much of Australia's Northern Territory meeting with artists, also Cherbourg in Queensland and Moree in New South Wales.
Airene's report on her research to September 2010 is below, she has recently arrived back in China and is now in Shanghai looking at possible venues.
Friday, 3 September 2010
A précis of the Indigenous Arts Market in Australia, and opportunities for a Chinese Boutique.
By Ms. Airene Wong, Alumni of the University of New South Wales.
In July this year I visited aboriginal communities in Moree and Cherbourg with Brolga Project founder Richard Cowley. I had just completed the final exams of my Masters degree in marketing at the University of New South Wales, and I was looking for a new challenge to undertake before returning to my homeland, China. Richard’s concept was a bold one: the creation of a new market for aboriginal art in China.
Moree and Cherbourg gave me an initial opportunity to meet Richard and understand how the Brolga Project works. I came away from the trip excited and ready to explore the world of Australian indigenous art. In the course of my research I learnt about the Darwin Aboriginal Arts Fair. That was on 9th of August. Unfortunately the fair was on 12th to 14th and I figured I would need a decent vehicle to get around the Territory. A mad scramble ensued to find a car with willing drivers able to get me from Sydney to Darwin in 2 days. I was lucky and arrived in Darwin on the 12th after 36 hours straight driving, sleeping in shifts. There was something surreal and disorienting about getting into a car on a winter’s morning and disembarking a day later in the tropics. Like being in a plane, except instead of in flight entertainment and monotonous cloudscapes, there were roads lined with kangaroos at night, the sun rising over the desert outside Cloncurry, the giant smokestacks of Mt Isa in the morning and a succession of dusty, one-horse outback towns. If nothing else that part of the journey really drove home to me just how big and empty Australia is.
At first Darwin seemed like just another slice of bland Australian suburbia, but over time its distinctive, multicultural vibe, its proximity to Asia and its stunning natural setting started to grow on me. It quickly became apparent that the aboriginal arts scene is one of the Territory’s major industries, with Darwin as its commercial capital. That industry was laid out on a platter for me at the Darwin Aboriginal Arts Fair. This was a very impressive show housed in Darwin’s ultra modern convention centre. The range and quality of the works was excellent, with representatives from more than 50 arts centres. As an NT
event, the Arnhem Land style (characterized by cross hatching and X-ray images), and the desert style, (dot paintings made world famous by the Papunya Tula Arts Centre) were strongly represented. But there were also representatives from the Kimberly and as far away as the Torres Strait islands. Each region, and each centre within those regions, boasts its own unique style of painting. In addition to paintings there was also a strong showing in sculpture, wood carving, grass weaving and textile printing.
Business was brisk with collectors and gallery owners from southern Australia as well as overseas flocking to the Fair. It was a distinctively Darwinian sight to see well heeled European gallery owners rubbing shoulders with elderly aboriginal artists, dressed in rags, and sitting in circles on the ground under the trees outside the Convention Centre.
I made contact with several arts centres, but the most fruitful on a personal and professional level was with Louisa Erglis, the newly appointed manager of the Warnayaka Arts Centre at Lajamanu. On the day after the show ended I met up with Louisa in Katherine and accompanied her, and her posse of artists, back to the community at Lajamanu. Lajamanu is an aboriginal township of 1200 people about 600km out of Katherine on the edge of the Tanami Desert.
It’s 100 km from the Wave Hill Station where the Goorindji people staged the historic strike in 1961(?) which heralded the beginning of the aboriginal land rights movement. Lajamanu is on Goorindji land, but its population is Warlpiri who were forced to settle there by the Government in the 1950’s. It’s a dry and dusty place where the stark differences between the priorities and material conditions of aboriginal and other Australians are only too apparent. With dilapidated houses and thousands of kids and dogs roaming the streets and people camping in shanties in the surrounding bush and old people who remember first contact with white men and the Warlpiri language spoken in the streets much more than English, it is totally unlike any other Australian town I have ever visited. However, underneath the difference and disadvantage, it was obvious that Lajamanu was a pretty peaceful place with some really beautiful people
Apart from the shop and the air service, neither of which employ any locals, the Arts Centre is the only functioning business in Lajamanu. It’s a community owned business that is heavily reliant on public funding (and Louisa’s selfless managerial legwork). But it is also a hive of activity with 5 or 6 paintings completed every day by a floating population of mainly elderly female artists. The most famous is Rosie Tasman. Rosie is more than 80 and has been recognized along with Emily Kngwarreye and Amy Johnson as one of the founders of the Western Desert art movement. Her style has evolved over the 50 odd years of her career from a conventional Western Desert dot painting style to a more freeform use of line and colour. As with the Western Desert
school, the works of Rosie and the other Lajamanu artists can be seen as meditations on “Country” and “Dreaming”. Pieces are abstract representations of specific landforms and mythological or historical events and are intimately tied up with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Pieces with titles such as “Seed Dreaming” and “Bush Potato Dreaming” are pictorial representations of ceremonies and songs, which are themselves narratives about myth and country. I spent several days observing the artists at work and helping Louisa stretch canvasses, photograph and catalogue the works. On one memorable occasion I collected ochre with community elder Gerry Jangala. Apart from being a senior artist, Gerry is a Moses like figure who brought his people into the community from the Tamani desert in 1960, following a series of prophetic dreams!
It is hard to overstate the significance of the Arts Centre, and the aboriginal art movement as a whole, for the development of Lajamanu and other communities like it. For one thing, as Louisa pointed out, when aboriginal people create artworks, “its probably the only time they don't have some whitefella standing over them telling them what to do.” The pieces themselves, with all their meaning, are a link to the people’s traditions, as well as a means of transmission of culture to the next generation. Where aboriginal people are often negatively typecast as uninterested or unable to participate as proletarians in a market economy; they produce art with ease and enthusiasm. Moreover, as artists, they form an elite class of “knowledge” or “creative” professionals whose output commands a high value in the market economy. This is an advantage not just to the individual artists and their extended families, but also in legitimizing aboriginal culture and people in the eyes of the wider community.
Unfortunately, my travels revealed some ominous signs that, in Australia at least, the aboriginal art market may be facing a time of glut and saturation. On the production side, Arts Centres with a comfortable public funding safety net and a workforce that wants to keep busy, continue to produce more pieces than they can expect to sell. On the sales side several gallery owners from Australia and Europe confessed to me that the market had collapsed since the Global Financial Crisis. A tour of the commercial galleries in Katherine and Darwin confirms this impression, with high inventory levels combined with high prices leading to the closure of some outlets.
In such an uncertain environment, the Brolga Project’s idea of opening up a new market in China for aboriginal art could provide a timely lifeline to this vital industry. While the rest of the world remains mired in recession following the GFC, China’s growth rate has barely slackened. China’s own art market is very strong and there is a growing demographic of art buyers in China. Australian aboriginal art has won international status and recognition over many years. Yet it is barely represented in China. A recent exhibition of the Papunya Tula school at the National Gallery in Beijing was, by all accounts, a great success. As a Chinese marketing graduate with an appreciation of fine art and a passion for development work, I feel privileged to be a part of such an exciting project. My research into the aboriginal arts scene in NSW, Qld and NT has barely scratched the surface. But from the little I have seen so far, I can see a great deal of potential in the idea of opening a new market for aboriginal art in China. I look forward to following this up with some in depth research into the Chinese side of the equation when I get back home.
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