• Culture

Investing in (genuine) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

Questions to ask, what to look out for when buying authentic Indigenous art

By Maria Noakes

When it comes to buying art most of us make decisions based on emotion. We might respond immediately to the colour, the composition, or be drawn to the story the artwork tells.

But there’s much more to consider when you’re making a purchase particularly when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works.

The misappropriation of Indigenous culture and exploitation of artists is well documented in Australia so purchasing ethically and authentically should be front of mind when it comes to choosing the perfect art piece.

“Making sure you buy ethically is not just about protecting your investment as a buyer, it is about making sure artists are respected and treated fairly,” says Stephanie Parkin, Quandamooka, Chair of the Indigenous Art Code (IartC), an organisation that promotes principles of fairness and transparency in relation to agreements between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and the businesses who sell their work.

Art sales and the sale of licensed products provide an important income stream for many Indigenous artists, art centres and communities across Australia so it’s essential that you do your homework and ask the right questions to make an informed decision.

“Most businesses selling the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are working fairly and transparently with artists. Unfortunately, some are not, and the artist might not be receiving a fair price for their artwork. As a consumer, you can ask what percentage of the sale price is returned to the artist. A gallery with nothing to hide will be upfront about this. If they aren’t you might want to reconsider your purchase,” says Gabrielle Sullivan, CEO of the IartC.

Protecting the rights of artists is the best way to respect culture and create economic opportunities for artists and communities, says Chad Creighton, CEO of Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub Western Australia (AACHWA) and a Bardi and Nyul Nyul man from the Kimberley region of WA.

“What we want to stop happening is some of Australia’s most vulnerable people being taken advantage of,” he says. “It’s not just about money, it has real impacts on people’s social and emotional wellbeing as well as culture, and it is deeply disrespectful.”

Chad Creighton, Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Art Centre Hub of Western Australia at Raft Rock, WA

Chad Creighton, Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Art Centre Hub of Western Australia at Raft Rock, WA

So if you’re looking to purchase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art where do you start and what are the questions you should be asking? 

Questions every buyer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art should ask are:

  1. Who is the artist?
  2. Where is the artist from?
  3. How did you get the artwork or product in your gallery or shop?
  4. How was the artist paid for their work?
  5. If it is a reproduction of an artist’s work, how are royalties or licensing fees paid to the artist?
  6. How long has your gallery been around? If it’s suddenly appeared from nowhere, where were they before? And where will they be next week? Is your gallery a member of the Indigenous Art Code?  If yes, you know it has agreed to follow the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct.

A 2017 Federal Parliamentary inquiry accepted findings that an estimated 80 per cent of Indigenous souvenirs and merchandise sold are fake. 

Currently however there are limited protections available under Australian law for Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP). 

IArtC along with the Copyright Agency and Arts Law Centre of Australia are advocating for change in this area, including the introduction of standalone ICIP legislation.

Gabrielle says the legislation wouldn’t just relate to visual arts it would relate to all forms of Indigenous cultural expression. Additionally, as an interim measure, they want to see an amendment to the Australian Consumer Law to prohibit the sale of fake Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and craft.

Alisha Geary is hoping to help artists through Provvy, a platform that empowers artists to claim ownership of their work as well as monetise it through tokenising their artwork into non fungible tokens and selling the usage rights of their assets. 

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman descended from the Gurang-Gurang, Deibau and Wuthathi clans from Queensland, Alisha created Provvy after realising the struggles Indigenous artists faced in maintaining control of their artworks when trying to build a sustainable income from their work.

Provvy founder Alisha Geary

“Some businesses weren’t getting licenses for artworks the correct way,” she says. “They thought if they could buy the painting that they could use the artwork on whatever they wanted. We’re trying to give artists more revenue streams beyond just selling paintings.”

So, whether it’s a major artwork or a tote bag that you’re in the market for, “fair business is good business” according to Stephanie from the IartC. “As consumers you play an important role in not only supporting artists directly, but also the families and communities within which those artists live and work,” she says.


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