ABORIGINAL ART - It's a white thing!

by Richard Bell
Winner of 20th National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award 2003


This paper has been written to articulate some thoughts on this subject that may not yet be in the public domain. I am the primary source for most of the information gathered (often through personal experience or discussions with numerous people). I must say here that I am not an academic. Consequently, the style and tone of delivery will chop and change. It will be conversational, playful, serious, tongue in cheek, moralistic, tolerant, sermonistic and informative.

Aboriginal Art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The result of a concerted and sustained marketing strategy, albeit, one that has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal Art Industry. There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal Art. The key players in that industry are not Aboriginal. They are mostly White people whose areas of expertise are in the fields of Anthropology and "Western Art". It will be shown here how key issues inter-relate to produce the phenomenon called Aboriginal Art and how those issues conspire to condemn it to non-Aboriginal control.


Western Art: Its effect

During the last century and a quarter Western Art has evolved into an elaborate, sophisticated and complex system. This system supplies venues (museums, galleries, etc), teaching facilities (art education institutions, drawing classes, etc) and referees (art critics) and offers huge rewards for the chosen few elite players in the game (including artists, curators, art critics, art dealers and even patrons). This arrangement is not dissimilar to modern spectator sports. It is also not unlike ancient religions Ė substitute Gods, sacrificial offerings, High Priests, etc.

Like some voracious ancient God, Western Art devours all offerings at will. Sometimes the digestion will be slow and painful. However, it is resilient and will inexorably continue on its pre-ordained path that is to analyse and pigeonhole everything.

Western Art is the product of Western Europeans and their colonial offspring. It imposes and perpetuates superiority over art produced in other parts of the World. For example, the African Masks copied by Picasso. Westerners drooled at Picassoís originality - to copy the African artists while simultaneously ignoring the genius of the Africans.

Any new "art movement" is, after the requisite hoopla and hype, named and given an ISM, that is duly attached to the end of a noun, e.g.. "Modernism". This "nounism" doesnít transfer to non-Western art. Words like primitive, ethnographic, provincialist or folk-art suffice. Below the ISMs are "Schools". A noun followed by School. For example, the Heidelberg School.

Aboriginal Art is considered a "movement" and as yet has not graduated to ISM status by being "named. I shall do so now. I name Aboriginal Art HIEROWISM. It is the modern hieroglyphics. Also, there is always controversy (lotsa rows) so I think itís appropriate. So. How is it that an unqualified Black canít name an Art Movement?

Prior to the 20th Century, art produced by Westerners from former colonies was not considered to be up to the standard of art produced by resident Europeans. The North Americans demanded, and begrudgingly attained, parity with their European cousins. In fact the axis of power has actually shifted away from Paris to New York and their artists are at the forefront of Western Art today. Not so their Antipodean counterparts who struggle with what has been called The Provincialism Problem (Terry Smith in his 1974 article of the same name). This has produced a cultural cringe of massive proportions that requires artists from provincial outposts to be able to merely aspire to mediocrity.

Provincialism permeates most levels of Australian society. Consequently, it weighs heavily on the industry catering for the art of Aboriginal Australians and renders most of those involved in that industry unworthy of the roles they have given themselves. It is unwise to market Aboriginal Art from the Western Art aesthetic and attach an Aboriginal Spirituality (an exploitative tactic that suggests that the purchaser can buy some). Perhaps it would be wiser to market this form of art from a purely Western construct. Demand that it be seen for what it is Ė as being among the Worldís best examples of Abstract Expressionism. Ditch the pretence of spirituality that consigns the art to ethnography and its attendant "glass ceiling". Ditch the cultural cringe and insert the art at the level of the best in western art avoiding the provincialism trap.


Spirituality and Ethnocentricity

There is no doubt that attaching Spirituality during a sale of Aboriginal Art helps greatly in closing a deal. Western dissatisfaction with Christianity since the 1960s has sharpened focus in this area. However, important matters havenít been given due consideration. Matters such as:

Other important issues arise out of the "Ethnographic" approach to Aboriginal Art. Anthropologists play a crucial role in the interpretation of Aboriginal Art. Their approach is, by definition, ethnographic and its classification system fits cosily into Ethnographic Art. Consider the classification of "Urban Aboriginal Art". This is the work of people descended from the original owners of the heavily populated areas of the continent. Through a brutal colonisation process much of the culture has disappeared. However, what has survived is important. The Dreamtime is the past, the present and the future. The Urban artists are still telling dreamtime stories, albeit, contemporary ones. The Dreamings (of the favoured "real Aborigines" from the least settled areas) actually pass deep into Urban territories. In short, the Dreamings cannot be complete without reciprocity between the supposed real Aboriginals of the North and the supposed Unreal or inauthentic Aboriginals of the South.

Many Urban artists have rejected the ethno-classification of Aboriginal Art to the extent they donít participate in Aboriginal shows. They see themselves as artists Ė not as Aboriginal artists.

The real problem arises out of the very nature of Western Art. Westerners need to sort and categorise everything in order to make sense of the World. That they do so in an ethnocentric manner is academic. The world of music is not dominated by Western Classical music - different styles stand alongside each other with extensive cross-fertilisation from different cultures. Not so in visual art.


The Art Centres

Aboriginal Art has foreshadowed the establishment of community art centres throughout remote areas. These centres assist by providing advice, marketing opportunities/strategies, art supplies and documentation. The contact person is the Art Advisor who is almost always White. These centres are run according to the communityís needs and aspirations.

The Art Centre takes a one third commission of the (wholesale) price for the services it provides. It consigns work to a network of galleries throughout Australia and overseas at an agreed retail price. For example, the art centre values a work at $600 and its share is $200. The gallery takes a 40% commission for selling the work; therefore the retail price is $1000. Thus the artist receives $400 or 40% plus the applicable service provided by the art centre.

That scenario works well for artists operating on that level of income. If the artist is on a ten fold larger income, the level of costs incurred by the art centre may be the same, or comparable, yet the artists cut remains at 40%. Well below the 60% (minus costs) that other Australian artists receive. In any event, the amount of money an Aboriginal artist gets, rarely, if ever, stays in his/her pockets. Generally, it is shared among family and friends or their community.

The Governmentís continued financial support of the Art Centre movement ensures some level of Government control over the industry that caters for Aboriginal Art. Their considerable contribution makes it look good. They think it justifies their appropriation of Aboriginal imagery in advertising campaigns, etc. They think that they have bought our culture. Well, soorrreee. It never happened.


The New Tribal Order

It is now approaching the fourth decade of Art Centres and they have spawned a new tribe of people called BINTs (been in the Northern Territory). It must be said, though that the largest tribe in Australia is the Lyarmee who get their name from their ability to tell very convincing lies Ė especially to themselves. There is emerging, as we speak, a tribe of honorary Bints known as the bookee (because they learn everything about Aboriginals from books and fully fledged Bints). The Bookee rarely, if ever, deign their presence upon the Aboriginal People about whom they have become recently expert.

Bints get close to Aboriginal People and culture to ultimately return South where they proclaim their newly acquired "pseudo-Aboriginality". They believe this modern form of Aboriginality is superior to the Urban Aboriginality of the Blacks from these long ago conquered lands. And, if they donít actually believe this to be true, they have a sneaking suspicion that it is.

This phenomenon further clouds the authenticity or "realness" of Urban Blacks. That is, we (urban blacks) can be authentic Aboriginal People. We are not purebred Aborigines. Our culture was ripped from us and not much remains. Most of our languages have disappeared. We donít all have black or even dark skin. We donít take shit from you. We look disdainfully at you bringing our people from the North to parade them like circus animals to your audience. An audience ever curious to see a live version of the noble savage and one no less keen to congratulate themselves for not wiping out the entire Aboriginal race. We resent how you keep them away from us and we feel sorrow and sadness for OUR People. We have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Still, we survive.


The Regional System

You have erected and maintain barriers between us Aboriginal Peoples. Those barriers serve to re-enforce the Regional System (classification of Aboriginal Art based on geographical areas - for example, Western Desert, Eastern Arnhem Land, Urban, etc).

Within this system does there lie an insidious, sinister co-incidence to ponder? Whether or not, the racial purity of the artists is a serious consideration. Given the previously discussed issues of spirituality and noble savages it is difficult to believe that it is not. Then, is this system of classification not therefore racist? Or, should we believe that it is a coincidence and purely accidental? That it is not a postcolonial plot to divide and rule. That Australians are indeed the kindest, most humane colonialist power in the history of the World and that Australia is without doubt the best country on the Planet Earth.

These questions are intricately and intrinsically enmeshed within the Australian legal system, its society and in its national psyche. The Native Title Act, 1993 (NTA) is the manifestation and embodiment of these issues Ė its flagship is Aboriginal Art. It is the new symbolism of the new Nation.


The Native Title Act

The NTA specifically requires Aboriginal People to prove that Native Title exists (in the claimed area) by means of song, dance, storytelling, etc. We have to prove that we are related to the birds, the animals, the insects, the microbes, the Earth, the Wind and fire. This is an extremely difficult task even for the Aboriginal People with minimal "White" contact.

The task for Urban Blacks becomes monumental and mostly impossible. To date, every determination by the Federal Court of Australia has been appealed to, or is on appeal, to the High Court of Australia.

The degree of difficulty facing Aboriginal People in proving their right of inheritance is in direct contrast to non-aboriginal people who merely have to prove they are related to another human being. Is this not therefore racist?

The High Court, during its Mabo decision (which precipitated the NTA), overturned the legal fiction of Terra Nullius. Under both International and British Law at the time of settlement of Australia there existed three methods by which Sovereignty could be acquired by foreign States:

    1. Conquest
    2. Cession
    3. Terra Nullius (Latin for Ďland with no peopleí or Ďempty landí).

The British Government chose the doctrine of Terra Nullius as its method of acquisition of Sovereignty over Australia. It is safe to assume that they did this to avoid the need to negotiate with the Native Peoples about the terms of the exchange of Sovereignty (Treaties) which was required had they chosen to invoke either Conquest or Cession.

The High Court of Australia must be admired for its creativity. It invented a NEW element to enable acquisition of Sovereignty. They called it IMPLIED CESSION. This element has no legal precedent in either British Law or international Law. It is another legal fiction. They have inserted a lie for a lie. As it must be admired for its creativity so the High Court must be condemned for its audacious land grab.

The relationship between the NTA and Aboriginal Art is undeniable. The relevant requirements of proof are inextricably linked:

White Australia uses Aboriginal imagery and native fauna and flora to promote tourism and other industries. These things belong to the Black Fella. However, an underlying assumption that arises out of this use of our imagery is that there has been a conciliation process through which an equitable partnership between Black Australians and White Australians has been created. Patently, blatantly, gratingly, this is not true. Never, ever has the White Fella sat down and talked with us about all of the things they now call their own (they even call us their Aborigines - as if we are their chattels). It is true, however, that they have talked to and at us on many, many occasions. But only on relatively minor matters like Native Title.



The paternalism and social engineering of the old colonial regimes are cynically matched and even surpassed by the new postcolonial ones. The Australian Government continues to assert Aboriginal People donít have rights Ė that we have privileges. Of course, this is also conveniently misconstrued to project to their electorate that Aboriginal People are somehow more privileged than are Whites. Another recent example is the "Reconciliation" process that once again suggests conciliation at some prior date. It never happened. Reconciliation was a con. Now they find that they have to begin to re-con their silly nation. Denial is a crucial part of Government strategy.

The underlying essence of land tenure in Australia is paternalism. That Aboriginal People donít own the land; couldnít own the land; never owned the land; that we donít understand ownership of land; that we couldnít/canít understand ownership of land. That Aboriginal People arenít/werenít fully evolved human beings. That we canít manage our own affairs. That we canít do without you. That we were lucky that the English "settled" our lands. That you have been here too long to be denied your Land Rights. This IS the prevailing attitude in this country.

You donít believe this is to be true? Then ask yourself the following questions.

Please circle either Yes or No.

Do you believe, and I mean REALLY believe, Aboriginal People:

  1. Once owned all of Australia? Yes/No
  2. Still own all of Australia? Yes/No
  3. Still have rights to land that have not been properly negotiated? Yes/No
  4. Had a recognisable form of land tenure? Yes/No
  5. Were "civilized"? Yes/No
  6. Are "civilized"? Yes/No
  7. Deserve to own all of Australia at any time? Yes/No
  8. Deserve to own all of Australia now? Yes/No
  9. Deserve to own any of Australia at any time? Yes/No
  10. Deserve to own any of Australia now? Yes/No
  11. Deserve to own any of the good parts of Australia? Yes/No
  12. Can manage their own affairs? Yes/No
  13. Should be thankful for everything you have done for us? Yes/No
  14. Should be thankful for some things you have done for us? Yes/No

Now. Ask yourself what you believe. Then what you think the average punter believes. And donít Bullshit.

Having confirmed your paternalism, if not racism, consider your view and position in relation to Aboriginal Art and indeed Australian Society. Perhaps you should also consider that you are an uninvited guest behaving like a "Star Boarder".

No one ever consults Aboriginal People on important matters. No one asked if they could take our gold out of our land. No one asked us if they could run up a credit bill for hundreds of millions of dollars. Little wonder then that people like Osama bin Laden think they can interrupt our peaceful resistance without having to consult the Aboriginal People. If you can do it. He can do it.



It is time, now, to discuss the distasteful and discomforting subject of the appropriation of Aboriginal imagery. This practice has been accruing for centuries throughout the World (according to Jacques Derrida et al). It has become an accepted movement in Western Art called, appropriately, Appropriationism. The Aboriginal People of Australia and people from other former colonies are most upset about Appropriationism and consider it to be stealing. We couldnít care less about Western artists appropriating one another. But, we object strongly to the appropriation of "our" artistsí work by non-aboriginal people.

There are several causes of distress arising from appropriation and its so-called "death of the author" argument. Firstly, the artist may not be the sole owner of the copyright of the "story" or the imagery contained in the artwork. Secondly, the "sharing" of imagery between the coloniser and the colonised is suggestive of an equitable agreement between the artists. Not true. Otherwise, the works would be collaborations. Thirdly, Aboriginal People all over the world are adamant that their respective cultures are not for sale Ė that our cultures are the only things we still own and that we will own and that we will struggle mightily to maintain that ownership.

Aboriginal People have stated our case against Appropriation. We are not asking artists to do the impossible or even to do something that is difficult. A vow never to pick your nose is impossible to keep. A vow for monogamy is difficult to uphold. That a desire by non-Aboriginal artists to overcome the aforementioned provincialism problem may urge them to appropriate Aboriginal imagery is not an excuse. Artists appropriate because they can. So too, a dog can lick his balls because he can. To all those artists who have resisted the temptation or who now desist, congratulations and thank you.



Aboriginal cultures throughout the World have been infested by plagues of Anthropologists down the Ages. Never more so than during the last three decades here in Australia. We have been the most studied creatures on earth. They KNOW more about us than we know about our selves. Should you ask an Aboriginal how theyíre feeling, the most appropriate answer would be "Wait Ďtil I ask my Anthropologist." They are stuck so far up our arses that they on first name terms with sphincters, colons and any intestinal parasites. And behold, the DO speak for us.

Countless books have been written about Aboriginal People by White folks. All their information (including photographs) is taken as and for free. Come the book launch and the Aboriginal informants are nowhere to be seen, naturellement! Of course, this shabby treatment is readily rationalised thus: "But they were so nice. I thought they didnít mind". Or: "But I didnít have any money then". Whaatt! No advance from your publisher? Perhaps theyíre just bums. However, it is suspected that they and their publishers are of the opinion that we are so desperate to talk to them, that they are sooo kind to be even talking to us that we must be thankful. How superior! I should suggest that the Australian Government advise publishers and the ologists with their praying mantras that it is prudent (and decent) for them to budget for these costs as a matter of due process. Information costs. The bank should also equip all Aboriginal People with an EFTPOS facility to rectify this blatant exploitation.

The work of anthropologists merely serves to perpetuate the prevailing hegemony inserting their anthropocentric-theological twist on the studied culture thereby paving the way for their religious allies to wreak their havoc.

Essentially, it is felt among Indigenous Peoples, that the anthropologists really have better things to do than to delve into our cultures. For example, they could analyse the colonialist cultures to understand the relationship between the imposition of powerlessness and terrorism. This would be an extremely useful (and welcome) contribution that would go a long way towards redeeming anthropologyís appalling reputation.



The most emotive issue to arise out of Aboriginal Art is the "E" word. No - not ecstasy. Exploitation. Despite or in-spite of the Aboriginal Art centre system, exploitation of Aboriginal artists has proliferated. In fact exploitation has become an art form that is so proficient that it is thoroughly deserving of an ISM. I give you Exploitationism.

There are numerous instances that can be quoted of Artists relinquishing works at extremely low prices to unscrupulous dealers to resell to realise exorbitant profits.

One profitable and exploitationismistic practise is to bring the artists to the "Big Smoke" to paint for a wage. In these cases the artists are paid a weekly sum that negates any further claim for payment. The dealer is not required to set aside any percentage to the artists even thought the works are sold for considerable sums of money. Donít believe it? Consider whether any dealer would bring to the smoke anyone other than the artists whose work is saleable and at good prices. This practice should be monitored and audited.

There is also the example of profiteering by accident. A teacher at a remote settlement is delightedly surprised at the artistic abilities of the natives and begins to collect (cheaply alright! Ridiculously cheaply) the earliest examples of those works. Some of those works surface decades later at auctions with reserves that resemble telephone numbers. The profit margin in the reserves of these works in some cases was upwards of 1000%. Is the teacher the sole beneficiary of this "accident"? Or, is there an arrangement in place where the artist (or their families) too benefit? If not, is this not also an example of gross exploitation?


The Triangle of Discomfort

Earlier in this essay, reference was made to the fact that the artists (through the Art Centre System) receive 40% of the consigned retail price for their work. While this is not ideal, there is a strong argument that it is fair. Let us assume it IS fair, for example, a work sells for $1000, the artists receive the obligatory $400, the Art Centre receives its $200 and the dealer gets their $400. See diagram 1.


Of course if the artist is directly involved the artist (Black, White or Brindle) must receive 60% (or $600) of the retail price. See diagram 2.


Unfortunately there are severe variations to these scenarios. For example, a work retails for $1000. The dealer takes the requisite $400. A middleman emerges who takes the remaining $600 having already paid the artist (or promised to pay) $100 or 10% of retail. Clearly, a case of exploitation. In this situation, what I have called the Triangle of Discomfort comes into play. See diagram 3.


The Triangle of Discomfort measures the excess above the recommended retail price, which is 1.5 times whatever the artist receives. It can be seen in diagram 3 that the dealer and the carpetbagger do exceedingly well in comparison TO THE ARTIST. Ultimately the co-operation of dealers is essential to overcome these sorts of problems.

Should an Art Centre not be involved in the sale of Aboriginal Art, and instead a middleman is involved, then that person should be permitted no more than 20% of retail as commission. Please note, these middlemen are there in numbers and they wonít go away. They need to be regulated in order to avoid the Triangle of Discomfort.

It might be said that this is difficult, almost impossible, to do. Not so. The Art Centres are well equipped, with the latest technology widely available to them. Due diligence towards the authenticity of the work would confirm the price paid to the artist should an Art Centre not be involved. There must be cooperation between the dealers and the Art Centres, even when the middlemen are involved. Any dealer or Art Centre not prepared to go though this process should be liable to legal sanction. Or, they must engage in some other activity.



It is a great source of discomfort to Aboriginal People that Aboriginal Art is not controlled by Aboriginal People. Indeed that is so for many other people. It has been shown that there are numerous issues and mechanisms that impact on the phenomenon known as Aboriginal Art. Its sustainability and the ability of the artists to re-invent themselves are not discussed here.

Aboriginal Art is bought, sold and promoted from within the system, that is, Western Art consigns it to "Pigeon-holing" within that system. Why canít an Art movement arise and be separate from but equal to Western Art - within its own aesthetic, its own voices, its own infrastructure, etc?

Please permit the proposal for the recommendation of an Ombudsman for the Arts in Australia to look after the interest of all of its artists. The Ombudsman must be able to intercede on behalf of artists with investigatory powers and with legal sanctions available to effectively deal with issues such as those mentioned above and any other important matters that may arise from time to time.

It is extremely doubtful whether Aboriginal People in Australia will ever be able to regain control of this important part of our culture. Obstacles and barriers have been cruelly and thoughtfully placed to deprive us of an equitable future. For example:

All these crimes serve the purpose of dehumanising us to justify to ALL non-Aboriginal Australians that itís okay to deny us justice. Forever.

There is no hope.



I would sincerely like to thank all the Aboriginal People who have kindly shared their knowledge and experience and to whom I owe everything and I dedicate this to them.


Richard Bell

November 2002.