Over the last 12 months I’ve seen a clear curatorial push at several of our major institutions and museums to avoid exhibiting and acquiring significant artefacts and historical objects, with a stronger focus on contemporary works.
While this exposure is important for contemporary artists and their respective communities, I fear it misses the bigger picture. Let me explain.
First of all it needs to be said that Indigenous artefacts and historical objects should be seen, studied and most of all celebrated - not hidden, demeaned and forgotten about.
There is a strong and healthy market for these important objects, driven largely by a core group of collectors who care deeply about preserving Indigenous culture, in many cases repatriating pieces from collections overseas and also putting in the crucial research that institutions simply do not have the time for.
The quiet but evident campaign by a new wave of curators to push contemporary Indigenous artworks to centre stage and hide the historical artefacts in the wings (or, more accurately, into storage), may in turn thwart the overall market in the long term.
Why is this happening?
A number of negative stories in the media for a minority of cases have led to a growing misconception that most, if not all of these objects, were wrongly taken from Indigenous people and in turn should be given back to the communities and/or donated to museum collections.
This perception has lead to some considering the commercial rotation of these objects as being politically incorrect – which is what I believe is behind this curatorial trend. And it’s completely misguided.
My concern is that when we see less of these important objects, at exhibition, in collections or in the media, our knowledge, curiosity and appreciation for the culture will inevitably decrease.
There are two main reasons why I think this would be a tragedy.
Firstly consider the strong and undeniable link between historical artefacts and the work being produced by Indigenous artists today. There is a direct lineage from these early works to the contemporary artists who use the same elements in their compositions. One feeds directly into the other.
Take, for example, this mesmerising work by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri which achieved an artist’s record when it sold for AU$286,471 at Sotheby’s London in 2016. These masterful compositions, full of drama and rhythm, could not have been achieved without the stories and techniques passed from one generation to another. Starting with the shimmering designs carved into shields through to sand paintings used in ceremony.
And what about the work of Reko Rennie who, as well as drawing heavily on his background in graffiti, references Indigenous motifs that connect to the designs found on historical objects such as ancient broad shields?
It would be great to hear Reko’s opinion on this. And I would love to see a combined exhibition of his work with the artwork of his ancestors (it cannot be denied that these early artefacts were created by significant artists in their own right).
What about Jonathan Jones who, among many other projects, used a collection of early shields to create a contemporary installation at The Australian Museum in Sydney. Artefacts and historical objects are at the core of his work. Perhaps an interview with Reko and Jonathan on this topic could make a great blog for a later date?
I’ve also witnessed major collectors increasingly crossing over into both collecting fields, simply because the works stand so strongly together - side-by-side.
My argument is that the current movement away from history (by some of our leading institutions and Museums) loses sight of where the work actually comes from. And that won’t end well.
Now I’ll admit, I used to have a different opinion – I used to believe that historical artefacts, though vitally important in themselves, held contemporary art back by limiting it to an ethnographic capsule. I used to think they should be considered separately, each given space in order to shine on their own.
But over the years I’ve completely changed my mind. When exhibited together these works feed off each other, representing the same symbols of resilient strength and of survival - thereby becoming stronger as a whole.
The current exhibition at the NGV is a perfect example of this. ‘Colony: Frontier Wars’ runs concurrently with ‘Colony Australia 1770-1861’ and is the component of the two exhibitions that is told from the Indigenous perspective.
The NGV collections of 19th century shields and drawings by William Barak and Tommy McRae lead seamlessly into works by urban Indigenous artists like Brook Andrew, Maree Clarke, Michael Cook and Gordon Bennett. This is a story that couldn’t be told without the historical works – because it’s the whole story that needs to be told. (Make sure you check out ‘Colony’ before it finishes mid-July).
My second point is a far more measurable one, and that’s the role of historical artefacts in the Indigenous art market.
When the Indigenous art market collapsed after the GFC and the media unjustifiably lapped up stories of an industry rife with over-supply and carpet baggers, I regret I didn’t take a more prominent stand against the tide. What the industry desperately needed, at that time, was true leadership and a combined, cohesive industry voice.
But the interesting point to note here is that during that whole period, from 2008 till today, the price of artefacts actually steadily increased. I saw this when I was working at Sotheby’s - the contemporary market fell flat but interest in early historical objects never wavered.
In this way the sale of artefacts, at auction and privately, during this period helped keep the whole Indigenous art market stable - supporting it with steady sales the whole way through. In a sense the artwork from a bygone era helped pave the way for a sustainable and contemporary future.
I’ve used this graph before but it helps to illustrate the activity in the years following the GFC (data sourced from AASD). We all know what happened – a meteoric rise followed by a dramatic collapse in 2008. But note the plateaued section post-2010 – it was during this time that the historical works of art and artefacts helped stabilise a fractured and vulnerable contemporary market. The artefacts helped keep the entire Indigenous market alive.
And the artefacts market is still incredibly strong today – just take a look at the recent auction at Sotheby’s in London where the core of 20 historical objects attracted huge interest and all but one sold extremely well on the day. Lot 4, for example – a rare broad shield, was sold for AU$128,492 IBP (and the good news is it will be returning to Australia), or lot 7, a rainforest shield which sold for AU$66,461.
The success of these London sales is clear evidence of returning international interest both in the contemporary and the historical works of art - which can only be a good thing for the market as a whole.
Now that the contemporary Indigenous art market is gaining momentum once again, we can’t leave the historical artefacts behind by excluding them from public view at our major institutions.
These objects will continue to play a supportive role to the contemporary movement – albeit in a different way - being a cornerstone to the cultural symbolism, ritual and ancient technique created by the oldest living culture on the planet.
So I guess I’m asking - if artefacts helped support the market during a critical period, will our National and State institutions continue to support these significant, historical and treasured works of art by making them more accessible to a wider audience?
I would hope so.
Entries for the 2018 Annual Catalogue of Australian Indigenous Art are about to close.
The exhibition will run from 31 May - 16 June at William Mora Galleries.
There are still a few spaces left for major works, so if you're considering selling....