Continuing with my popular ‘Top 10’ series, I’m going to review a segment of artists that aren’t all yet prominent on the secondary market but who are making huge waves on the primary market and should be watched closely in the future.
Urban Indigenous artists can be loosely defined as those based in the urban centres, descended from communities who bore the brunt of colonisation and dislocation, generally featuring less traditional mediums and styles and more political overtones.
The best works of these artists are always challenging and with a strong narrative, but often not easily accessible on the secondary market – taking the form of installation or site-specific pieces. Those that do make it into private collections are, to date, tightly held.
With so many important urban Indigenous artists currently producing this was a really hard list to define – but from the collectors that I deal with, these are the names that are making the most waves in the market at present.
(I also couldn’t help including a few honourable mentions at the end so make sure you don’t miss those!)
1. Lin Onus
Lin Onus leads my list as the most successful urban Indigenous artist. Onus has also featured in my most recent Top 10 in the number 2 position of the Most Collectable Contemporary Australian Indigenous Artists.
Onus’ work has experienced incredible success at auction. His top works are consistently met with strong prices and last year we saw a new auction record achieved by Deutscher and Hackett with Riddle of the Koi, 1994 selling for $561,200 IBP.
A pioneer and a true heavyweight of urban Indigenous art movement, Onus developed a distinctive visual language using a combination of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal imagery. He would later influence many artists seen here in the list below.
Having seen such a meteoric rise in prices over the past 4-5 years, it will be interesting to see where prices go to from here.
2. Gordon Bennett
Gordon Bennett is one of Australia's most significant and critically engaging contemporary artists, and in my opinion – the most undervalued.
His artworks push the envelope on issues of identity, calling into question racial categorisations and what drives society towards these ‘perceptions’. Sadly, the issues still have ongoing relevance today.
Personally I am drawn to his Pollock-inspired period of 1993-1995 - such as the example illustrated that I was honoured to sell last year.
Bennett’s work is strongly sought after by a number of the most significant collectors and with such a strong and resonating narrative, prices can only go in one direction.
3. Brook Andrew
Brook Andrew is an artist that uses a wide range of mediums to engage his audience on issues of race and history. His work with archival material explores how cultures create historical constructs and how they manipulate later generations through the images they leave behind.
By far his most successful and recognised artwork on the secondary mark is the illustrated Sexy and Dangerous, 1996 which currently hold his top seven high prices on AASD.
Andrew has also done some very impressive installation work. What comes to mind is the huge response he received from his Theme Park exhibition at the AAMU in Utrecht in 2008 and also his redesigning of the Queensland Art Gallery’s permanent collection installation as a part of the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8) in 2015-2016.
If you like Andrews work, make sure you keep an eye out for my Annual Catalogue exhibition in June - where I’m offering two of his highly sought after works.
4. Trevor Nickolls
Another pioneer of urban Australian Indigenous art and one that is truly undervalued on the secondary market.
Nickolls was a prominent painter in the 1970s and 1980s when Australian Indigenous art, particularly from the Central Desert, was reaching international prominence. Nickolls’ work, in contrast to the dot paintings and storytelling of that region, depicted urban themes that paved the way for future urban Indigenous artists.
A notable accolade for Nickolls was that he represented Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale alongside Rover Thomas - the first Australian Indigenous artists to do so.
Still relatively affordable, strong paintings by Nickolls should be on the radar of all serious collectors. His larger format, complex and detailed compositions tend to sell best on the secondary market.
5. Tony Albert
Tony Albert is one of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists. Influenced greatly by fellow Brisbane artist Gordon Bennett, racial stereotypes is a theme that drives much of Albert’s work.
Since winning the Telstra Award in 2014 with the powerful work We Can be Heros, 2013-14, he has featured heavily in Australian Indigenous Triennial – Defying Empire along with a major exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery that will start on 2 June this year.
Along with Richard Bell and Vernon Ah Kee, Albert is a founding member of the Brisbane-based collective, proppaNOW.
Although Albert’s work very rarely shows on the secondary market (to date), he is definitely one to look out for in future.
6. Reko Rennie
Reko Rennie started his practice by immersing himself in Melbourne’s graffiti art scene as a teenager. His work heavily draws upon this background whilst also incorporating Indigenous motifs that connect to the designs found on historical objects such as ancient broad shields and dendroglyphs (carved trees).
An exciting project that Rennie was recently involved in was at the Lyon Housemuseum in Kew. His Olympic pool sized artwork now sits underneath the next building instalment of the Housemuseum that is due to open later this year.
You may have also heard of the artists recent and highly promoted bitter-sweet performance where he drove an old Gold Rolls Royce up the Hume Highway and thrashed it in the outback dust.
Rennie often includes his own personal tag of a crown, a diamond and the Aboriginal flag in his work - these symbols speak to Aboriginal sovereignty as well as drawing back on graffiti cultural motifs which resonate strongly today.
7. Daniel Boyd
Daniel Boyd's work challenges the traditional history of Australian colonisation, calling for the Australian Indigenous experience to be brought into dialogue with the more Eurocentric view that is still widely taught.
If you're in Melbourne, Boyd is currently exhibiting at STATION Gallery in South Yarra until the 29th of March. His work was also heavily featured in the critically acclaimed NGA exhibition – Defying Empire.
Daniel Boyd is perhaps one of the most sought-after and collected Indigenous artists on the primary market today. And although his work very rarely appears on the secondary market, he will be a significant name in future.
8. Tracey Moffatt
The most recent Venice Biennale representative on this list is Tracey Moffatt, who is certainly an artist with unparalleled international acclaim.
Twice reaching a hammer price of $190,000 at auction with Christies in 2002 and 2004, she was a leading champion for Australian photography and multimedia. Her prices have come down since that time but she still continues to be an artist whose name features heavily in all art circles.
It’ll be interesting to see where the artist’s prices go next – the importance and wide reaching admiration for her work should support her secondary market in the future.
9. Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones recently made waves with his artwork Barrangal Dyara (skin and bones) which involved 15,000 white shields positioned on the area where the Garden Palace once stood in Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens. The Garden Palace, which burned down in 1882, held nearly all of the known artefacts of Jones’ Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people – the fire in effect wiping much of the groups’ physical history.
Jones is an incredibly committed artist that does much for Indigenous culture, even outside of his own artistic practice. He is working closely with Carol Cooper from the National Museum of Australia to catalogue the designs carved on South East Australian shields. And through his work he is able to draw awareness to cross-cultural differences that would normally go unnoticed or ignored.
True, Jones’ large scale installation work is less accessible than most, but the immense impact he creates warrants his inclusion on my list.
10. Michael Cook
Michael Cook has received immense critical support having only recently turned artist from commercial photographer in 2010. Using photography as his medium Cook stages scenarios in which a role reversal takes place between Colonizer and Indigenous. His current exhibition – Invasion with Andrew Baker in Brisbane is clever and full of wit, creating scenarios where native Australian animals (and robotic humans) invade the heartland of England in the most exaggerated of role-reversals.
Invasion is Cook’s most ambitious project to date — is intensely symbolic, but also confident and greatly progressive. This series, as well as Object (see the NGV collection), are now very strongly on my radar.
11. Vernon Ah Kee
Ok I’ve cheated here and listed 11 artists but I simply had to include Vernon Ah Kee on my list.
Ah Kee’s conceptual text pieces, video, photographs and drawings have been widely exhibited and his works sit in important institutions and private collections around the globe.
Much of his work is based on scientific photographs from the 1930s – taken at a time when the indigenous people were seen as a ‘dying species’. The large-scale drawings Ah Kee produces of family members, including his grandfather and great-grandfather, show us a commonality in the human emotion of his subjects; the sorrow, the anger, the tenderness and the curiosity. It’s powerful stuff.
Ah Kees work (like many of the practicing artists above), rarely shows on the secondary market, but is highly prized by major collectors.
And that’s my Top 10 (or 11!) Most Collectable Urban Indigenous Artists. As mentioned in the intro, there are many artists I would have readily included in this list, but in the interest of keeping it brief I had to draw the line somewhere.
Those who I believe are ‘knocking on the door’ are the likes of Christian Thompson, Destiny Deacon, Richard Bell, Michael Riley, Robert Campbell Jnr, Julie Dowling, Dale Harding, Clinton Nain and another Queensland based artist - Fiona Foley.
If you see strong works by any of the above practitioners come onto the market, they deserve serious consideration.
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