Australia’s National Gallery and three governments have launched separate inquiries into allegations reported by a national newspaper that non-Indigenous studio staff painted on First Nations artists’ works, including art due to be exhibited in the country’s capital in June.
The Australian published allegations on 7 April 2023 that non-Indigenous staff at Tjala Arts Centre, a First Nations’ owned studio in South Australia, had been filmed applying paint to a canvas attributed to a leading First Nations artist. Tjala Arts is a member of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Art Centre Collective (APYACC).
The newspaper also reported that ‘multiple artists’ had alleged that “white staff had interfered with Indigenous paintings” in other APYACC studios.
The allegations were quickly rejected by the APYACC, which labelled them “false and seriously defamatory” in a statement issued on social media.
The National Gallery of Australia announced on 10 April 2023 that it was commissioning an “independent review of the provenance and creation of” 28 works by Anangu artists due to feature in an upcoming exhibition, “to assess provenance authorship and the extent of the ‘hand of assistance’“.
Those works were due to be exhibited at the gallery from 3 June 2023 in partnership with the APYACC.
Five weeks later, on 15 May 2023, the Commonwealth, South Australian and Northern Territory Arts Ministers launched their own joint investigation into the allegations, before the National Gallery’s review concluded.
The National Gallery has stressed that it exercised “provenance and authorship research to the highest standards” through its procedures, conduct and policies.
In a joint statement with the National Gallery, the APYACC welcomed the gallery’s review and committed to “fully and openly participate”.
“It is important to all of our artists that there is no question as to the integrity of our process of the creation of our art“, the APYACC said.
The APYACC has ‘strenuously’ denied what it referred to as ‘the over-arching narrative that APYACC art and any artists are compromised’, stating “To the contrary. We believe our professional studios meet [the] highest standards of integrity and professionalism“.
The APYACC “does not hide the fact that art assistants assist in the underpainting process“. It said the video reported by The Australian showed “the application of a background wash“ as the final stage of an underpainting process.
The APYACC said this “is in no way interfering [with] the artist’s Tjukurpa [Dreaming] or out of the ordinary for an art assistant to take part in this process, including slopping or spraying the wash on the canvas at this stage, at the artist’s direction, indigenous or otherwise… Multiple layers are then applied only by the artist following the underpainting stage“.
“True industry experts understand the line between assistance at artists’ direction and interference with the artistic process and know that APYACC has never crossed this line. It is grossly offensive to the many hundreds of proud Anangu who work with APYACC to suggest otherwise, or that they would tolerate their Tjukurpa being interfered with“, the APYACC said.
The APYACC described allegations that non-Indigenous staff “have completed unfinished artworks” as “false and seriously defamatory” and indicated it was seeking legal advice.
The online report by The Australian on 7 April 2023 was accompanied by the statement that “The Australian is not suggesting the allegations are necessarily true, only that they have been made and warrant further investigation by authorities“.
The National Gallery has engaged Melbourne barrister Colin Golvan AM KC and solicitor Shane Simpson AM to undertake the review with First Nations subject matter specialists Kokatha and Nukunu artist Yhonnie Scarce and the University of Canberra’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership and Bidjara woman Prof Maree Meredith.
The gallery’s review will not consider:
- “the broader ethics and workings of the First Nations’ art market“;
- “the significance of the Tjukurpa (cultural stories)” of the 28 paintings;
- “whether individuals who contributed to the 28 paintings were entitled to do so under relevant First Nations cultural laws“; or
- “the authorship of other APY paintings not proposed for display by the National Gallery“.
The scope of the investigation, particularly its omission of First Nations cultural law, has not been without criticism.
The forthcoming exhibit at the National Gallery was to be titled Ngura Pulka – Epic Country and sought to provide “artists from this dynamic art movement coming out of the desert with an opportunity to showcase their works on a national stage“, the gallery said.
Other Australian galleries with APYACC works in their collections have pointed to their own processes to verify provenance.
For example, a spokesperson for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia reportedly said the museum “has a thorough acquisition policy for all artworks in our collection and artworks shown at the museum, and stands by these artists and the creative process of their work“.
The review commissioned by the National Gallery is due to be completed in late May 2023.
The National Gallery of Australia via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0