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Aboriginal Art and Australia

Aboriginal Art and Australia
  • On January 14, 2014

Australian Aboriginal Art is much sought after internationally, but Australians overall and Aborigines themselves benefit little from it. By John August

Gordon Syron is an Aboriginal artist who understands the market better than most, having run an art gallery in conjunction with his partner Elaine. It’s a closed shop – particularly for Aborigines. Gordon : “The whites have stolen our land – and now they’re trying to steal from our culture as well.”. Internationally, Italians and Greeks are involved in their art and sculpture, but Australian Aborigines are not involved in the selling of their art. It’s partly the vestiges of a “Mission Mentality”, of “telling the black fellas what to do”, but it’s certainly a good earner for those involved.

Its about productive Aborigines claiming a fairer share of the value they create. Gordon thinks that just as Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, it has also “ridden on the black’s back” – with unwaged Aborigines working as stockmen to even have that wool based wealth. So what is the total value of all the Aboriginal art produced in the last few decades ? How much stayed in Australia ? How much stayed in Aboriginal hands? How many Aboriginal groups have been able to preserve and show their own art?

In addition, though, it seems that very little has remained in Australia – with international art dealers denying not just Aborigines, but also the Australian economy, of almost all of that value (To be fair, in the 1990s the Australian Government prohibited the export of art worth in excess of $20,000 without paying tax.)

Some “dealers”, who Syron calls the “Carpetbaggers”, tour the outback and (for example) buy art for $300 that they sell at overseas auctions for up to $30,000. At one stage Syron was circulating, buying art on a much more honest “advance-plus-commission” basis.

The “Carpetbaggers” were not impressed — one said to Syron that he could get shot saying what he did. Syron said he did record the conversation because he’d had personal experience of the homicide squad. Syron had previously served a life sentence in prison.

Syron learned to paint in prison, reproducing the masters (he also learnt some tip from forgers, too). These “original copies” are much appreciated, and rarely sold publicly, though owners do sporadically surface to verify authenticity.


His signature work, inspired by his experience, is “Judgement By His Peers” – a white person in the dock is surrounded by black figures with a golliwog-like appearance – some are half paying attention to the case – others seem to gossiping.

Who appreciates art? Private collectors keep it for themselves and speculators buy it just to sell it later? Either way, unless loaned to galleries, it’s kept out of the public eye. And apart from speculators, some dealers manipulate the market to inflate prices.

In times past, Elaine Syron took early morning photographs of Aboriginal paintings when they made their ephemeral stop in Sydney Galleries on their way overseas, probably becoming lost forever. It was her attempt to keep some record of that art in Australia.

Gordon’s art has a biting, satirical style, and was initially difficult to sell – no galleries would provide a private exhibit. They were displayed publicly in the NSW Parliament House, the “Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Exhibition”, but this was not a selling exhibition. So Elaine opened her own Gallery in order to show Syron’s work. Things did change. Gordon’s work entered the mainstream and started to sell. Over the years, Gordon’s work has mellowed (he is now 67). Before 2000, his works focused on “Invasion Day” and similar themes. But since then, Gordon has been inspired to paint the “Aboriginal Fairies” and “Where the Wildflowers Once Grew”.

“Black Fellas Dreaming Gallery” started selling work by other Aboriginal artists. And Gordon, like so many passionate artists, became reluctant about selling his best work – and then wanted to keep the better work of other Aboriginal Artists, too. He has a love-hate relationship with the market. To the extent that appreciative, passionate people can pay good money, great even if there’s the bittersweet realisation that the public probably won’t ever get to see it. But seeing it dominated by speculators, market manipulators and transient international art dealers makes you feel a little ill.

To display his private collection, they started up the Bangalow gallery. There was no external support, however, and this could not be sustained.

Wanting to move their Art Gallery to the Rocks, they had several meetings with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. The authority was keen at first, but suddenly backed out when existing Galleries became concerned about the possible competition from real Aboriginals. Competition from an Aboriginal who would have shared more of the wealth with the artists themselves, but never mind. It’s a closed shop in other ways too.

There were never any Aboriginal valuers of Aboriginal Art — adding weight to the idea that “They stole our land and now they sell our culture”. Still, with the help of a white valuer, Gordon is soon to become Australia’s first Aboriginal valuer of Aboriginal Art.

And, being fair – some white players in Australian Aboriginal Art have been supportive. A white valuer is sponsoring Gordon’s application. The Hogarth and Cooee Aboriginal Art Galleries, while they sold art overseas, were willing to let Elaine photograph it. But such beacons are in the minority. Further, all humans beings, black or white, can be corrupted by money. Gordon has seen a few Aboriginal artists “go bad” in their pursuit of money.

The Syron’s collection includes cultural art — rather than the kangaroos and Emus which are the tourist mainstay, it includes representations of sexual organs and reproduction — the so called “Bunda” art. These artworks frequently tell stories with moral and sexual lessons, similar to fables. The NT artist Yirawala retains sexual organs in his work – something the white dealers wanted him to exclude. Unlike other artists, however, he refused to buck under and keep them in.

Then you have “crosshatch style” and “X-ray” art, which does have a traditional origins in Aboriginal culture.

While they have a few “dot” style artworks, they’re a recent development — prompted by a non-Aboriginal, Geoffrey Bardon in 1977. It does incorporate Aboriginal influences, of course — but think about all the documentaries you’ve ever seen on rock paintings – you never see any “dots”.

Their collection includes Aboriginal Art from all over Australia – be it contemporary art, traditional art, or cultural art that which has a story attached, or speaks of the history of the Aboriginal people — they plan to found a museum / gallery where this art can be viewed by all Australians, a “Keeping Place” – so that rather being sold into a private collection, it can be kept in the public eye.

Gordon and Elaine’s story is a fascinating one. We can only hope that more Aborigines act to wrestle control of the market for Aboriginal Art away from whites – for, in so doing, they can retain more of the wealth they generate — and perhaps “make a good living” as Gordon would put it — and further inject more of that wealth into the economy for all of us.

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