Aboriginal art? Between dots and X-ray fish and Lin Onus and Tracey Moffatt, I'll admit there was something of a gap in my knowledge. A great, screaming canyon, really. So I read the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Tradition Today: Indigenous Art in Australia and Wally Caruana's excellent Aboriginal Art, from Thames & Hudson's World of Art series, on the plane to Darwin. Well, the bits that were about Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands. Or the bits that had pictures, at any rate. And then I watched RV, with Robin Williams, until the urge to scream became too much.
But it doesn't take many days in the Top End to get a feel for what's happening in Aboriginal art today. It's a world where politics is rife, where racial friction is a near-constant concern, a world that money and the market has warped, yet at its core there is work of great beauty and intrigue, a culture of great richness and depth, the longest continuing art tradition in history, that, though complex and in some ways closed to the understanding of outsiders, is the most immediate connection most of the wider world has to Aboriginal experience.
How, then, do those of us outside Aboriginal communities reconcile the great fascination we have for these works with our knowledge that the dollars and time we spend to acquire them have great power, for better and for worse, to affect the very culture that intrigues us? How do we balance our interest with our concern that there are people engaged in selling Aboriginal art who don't always have the artists and their communities' best interests topmost in their minds? How do we reconcile the understanding that art is an important cultural expression for Aboriginal people, but also an important economic enterprise? And, at the end of the day, how do we get the best deal without contributing to the problem?
Aboriginal people around the country produce art, whether they're in Melbourne or Mulga Bore, and you don't necessarily have to travel to lay hands on good, authentic artworks. But for perhaps the greatest range and the closest readily accessible connection, the Northern Territory is where you want to be. Whatever your take on the ethics of buying, it seems the closer you are to the source, the better price you'll pay and the greater fraction of that fee finds its way into the hands of the artists. Darwin has several Aboriginal-owned and otherwise outstanding galleries offering art from the Top End as well as all over. Perhaps more critically, though, it offers these galleries alongside proximity and access to several diverse Aboriginal communities, including those in the Tiwi Islands and at Oenpelli, Injalak Hill and Maningrida in Arnhem Land, making it a natural base for any art-buying expedition.
You'll want to have a look at what's on offer around town first up. The public Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is a great place to start. It's the home of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, the most prominent indigenous art prize, which runs from August to October - the winner of the award, the top gong, receives $40,000. Talking to curator Franchesca Cubillo about what was on the up in Aboriginal art, it seems that beyond the core of highly valued works from big names like the late Rover Thomas, Papunya Tula Artists and other older Aboriginal men engaged in large-format painting, it's the work of women artists that's attracting the most interest from savvy collectors. "Women have always been involved as art producers," Cubillo says, "but they'd more often help their husbands, doing dot paintings, or help their fathers with bark paintings. Now there has been a real rise of indigenous women painting in their own right." Linda Syddick, the Marika sisters, Banduk and Dhuwarrwarr, from north-east Arnhem Land and Dorothy Djukulul from Ramingining are just a few of the artists Cubillo names, women who have been taught by their fathers in most instances, and shown how to do the artwork, drawing upon dreamings of their ancestors.
"A lot of fibre work that women have been producing has really been underappreciated too," Cubillo says, "like the beautiful mats that come out of western Arnhem Land." Mention of fibre-work leads to talk of how the longevity of an artwork affects the perception investment buyers have of its value. "Acrylic on canvas is really durable and people are buying it; bark paintings, because they move, they flake off, borers might get in, just aren't collected as much." Here the question of authenticity comes up. Cubillo says, though, that it's wise to remember that the barks were only a relatively recent response to market interest themselves.
"Anthropologists and missionaries wanted to collect portable forms of indigenous work like rock or body painting," she notes, "and that's how bark painting started." It's wonderful, Cubillo says, that people have the opportunity to travel north to purchase indigenous art, "because they have the chance to see the environment in which the artists are producing the work, and to meet them".
Among Darwin's commercial art spaces, the Mason Gallery is very much geared to the investment crowd. It offers works from names such as Minnie Pwerle, Billy Nolan, Barbara Weir, Kathleen Petyarre and Willy Tjungurrayi. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of both the exposure of its artists and the number of zeros on its price tags, is the Darwin Visual Arts Association. Indigenous art isn't its sole concern, but it's a good place to catch shows from emerging artists, such as 'Darran Darra', the exhibition of works by urban Aboriginal artists that Tibby Quall curated in 2006. Raft Artspace in Parap shows a lively program of contemporary Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art (perfect for a post-Parap Market browse).
Back in the CBD, the Karen Brown Gallery on Mitchell Street is perhaps the city's premier commercial gallery, exhibiting works from a mix of big names and interesting newcomers, most of them indigenous, from Tennant Creek's Joan Nancy Stokes and Robinson River's Stewart Hoosan's acrylics to the digital prints of Darwin's Therese Ritchie. Down the road is Maningrida Arts & Culture, the shopfront face of one of the country's biggest indigenous artists' co-ops, marketing both works from a range of artists reflecting the broad scope of the interests of the east Arnhem Land community. Barks, prints and acrylics from the likes of Ivan Namirrkki stand alongside impressive carvings, instruments, fibre sculptures, woven mats, dilly bags, coil baskets and string bags.
And visiting communities, when it comes down it, is what it's all about. Hopping on a light plane to the Tiwi Islands for the day is certainly the part of the journey that left the strongest impression on me. Don't think of the six-seater plane so much as 'terrifying' as 'personal' - there's something endearing about sitting in a cockpit that still has a factory-mounted cigarette lighter on the dash, and you're over the islands in half an hour, tops. Bathurst and Melville Island lie 100 clicks north of Darwin, Melville being the biggest island in the country after Tasmania. The 2500 or so Tiwi Islanders have a culture distinct from that of the mainland, and have held claim to their land throughout European settlement.
Wally Caruana notes in Aboriginal Art that the isolation of the Tiwi from outside contact has resulted in a different artistic bent to the mainlanders, which also draws on different dreaming stories. Caruana highlights the centrality of the pukumani funeral rites in Tiwi culture and art - the pukumani poles that are a key part of these rites are not only the most identifiable forms unique to the Tiwi, but also one of the icons of Australian indigenous art in full. (The arrival of Tony Tuckson's collection of pukumani grave posts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1959 was a watershed moment in Australian art, something Hetti Kemerre Perkins, a curator of the gallery's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, describes in her introduction to Tradition Today: Indigenous Art in Australia, as "a flurry of controversy around the appropriateness of their inclusion in a public art gallery collection".) Tiwi art is something else, even to the untrained eye: the Tiwi make baskets not of woven fibre, but stitched painted bark panels. Their jewellery can be elaborate, there's a distinctive beauty to their animal sculptures, and they are unusual among Aboriginal arts co-ops for their ceramic works.
A day's tour with the Tiwi Art Network, an alliance of three art centres, takes in Tiwi Design at the township of Nguiu on Bathurst Island, then Munupi at Pularumpi and Jilamara at Milikapiti on Melville Island. Beyond works that often don't get seen at the city galleries and getting the best prices and a clear assurance of where your money is going, you get a sense of connection with what you're buying that comes with seeing acclaimed artists like painters Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, painter Susan Wanji Wanji and potter Robert Puruntatameri at work. Talking to these artists, seeing how they live and getting a sense of the landscape that influences their work is what it's all about.
There's precious little in the way of anything apart from the houses (most of which, in the dry season, present the curious spectacle of their roofs serving as temporary storage for everything from bicycles to ladders) in the communities. The cemeteries are definitely worth seeing, as they contain a great many Pukumani poles in various states of repair alongside gravestones and plain white crosses. There's the pretty, frangipani-framed St Therese's Catholic church at Nguiu, just down the road from the Tiwi Design workshop, where Father John McGrath radioed Darwin to warn of the approach of Japanese fighter aircraft in 1942. All timber and louvres, its altar is decorated with traditional Tiwi designs.
On Melville Island you see pretty, breathtakingly pure, prohibitively shark and croc-stocked beaches. There are the waterholes that the locals have deemed croc-free enough to swim in, the charred shells of mud mussels, oysters and other shellfish testament to many a riverside revel. You're also bound to see people kicking a footy around. They're mad for Aussie Rules around these parts; the Tiwi, they say, play
a fast game. The local grand final is the biggest social event of the year - the island floods with people as boats cluster on the shore and the airport thrums to the sound of non-stop landings. It's also the day of Tiwi Design's big annual sale.
Drop any expectation of touch-screen display-filled visitors' centres and hard-sell. Open-sided sheds, some of them crammed with works, with paint-spattered tables and with many artists, others empty save for tools, timbers slouched against walls, a lone carver and the ever-present dog, are more like it. If you're lucky, someone might be cooking damper on an electric frying pan, though Winnie Blues and instant coffee are more the norm. Your correspondent picks up a very fine ironwood carving of a dugong by Romolo Tipiloura, which leads inevitably to discussions with various Tiwi about its spiritual (and more often, culinary) significance. The dugong, it transpires, is the pork belly-and-scallops of the Arafura Sea. Surf 'n' turf in a single beast, though they are, of course, out of bounds legally speaking unless you happen to be a Tiwi Islander. It's a horizon-broadening thought. I paid $150 for the piece. A larger work from Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, fetches something like $12,000 even here, but you can also pick up her smaller pieces for prices in the hundreds.
Back home, a quick Google reveals Tipiloura's ironwood carvings of birds in the same style as my now-treasured dugong asking a couple of thousand euro in a Paris gallery. The difference isn't quite so dramatic when the comparison is with Sydney or Melbourne, of course, but it's still pretty substantial, even after you factor in shipping costs.
Whether you choose to view it as a unique holiday with an artistic twist, or an art-buying excursion with a big dash of added cultural colour and richness, an excursion to the Top End is indisputably one of the best ways to get up close and personal with indigenous Australian artistic culture, and it'll be the rare and unusually closed-minded visitor who doesn't come home bearing a much more valuable bounty than just prized canvasses and objects. "When you come up here, you understand that what the people here are doing is culture," says Tiwi Design's art coordinator Angela Hill. "They're not sitting here thinking about galleries and art buyers, they're regenerating their culture. That has a special mystique and value all its own."