In the global economic downturn all artists are doing it tough. How will the Aboriginal art industry ride it out? A CRC project will attempt to come up with some answers.
In any picture of the Aboriginal economy, especially on remote communities, the art industry would have to be seen as the shining light, for the way that it has engaged large numbers of people, bringing them purpose, cultural prestige, income and opportunity. So why is it, in particular, the subject of a seven year research project by the CRC for Remote Economic Participation?
It's not the only focus for the CRC of course – there are 12 research areas all up – but Aboriginal Art Economies is a flagship project with a $1.5m budget and will run for the entire seven years of the CRC's life, with the final years devoted to "rolling-out" the research findings in practical ways.
Perth-based research leader Tim Acker has hands-on experience of the industry stretching back 15 years. He was for instance a manager of the famous Warlayirti Artists in Balgo, WA and more recently was one of the co-founders of the Canning Stock Route Project.
Mr Acker acknowledges that the Aboriginal art industry is the "single most obvious and long-term success story to come out of remote Aboriginal Australia", but he says it is still "characterised at pretty much every point by some form of fragility": "The way art is produced, the community circumstances, the art centres, the connections between artists and galleries, the GFC and the overall downturn in the art market in the last few years, all those things have put into sharp relief that there is nothing fixed about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art sector."
And some of fragility has come about because the industry it has been "too successful", he says. For example, there are issues of over-supply and in this regard, the marketing of art on the internet has been a double-edged sword. KIERAN FINNANE reports.
Pictured above: Nancy Nyanyarna Jackson working on her painting in the Warakurna Artists studio. Photo by Rhett Hammerton
What really got the weavers going was thinking about the nature of eagles, how they care for their families. They were camped not far from Amata, the home community for several of them, in the APY Lands of South Australia's far north and were working on a commission from Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.
Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton's husband would come along to the camp every day and bring the women meat, including the favoured bush turkey. They ate the flesh and used the feathers in their weaving. Nyurpaya would think her husband was just like an eagle that goes out hunting meat for his whole family.
Hunting is what the eagle does best, he is an expert hunter and great provider – that's what the women like about eagles, what they admire in them.
"Our good men are just like the good eagles, they bring the meat home."
Several of the Tjanpi weavers travelled into Alice Springs, to speak at a forum on Monday about experimentation and innovation in desert arts. The presence of a skilled translator, Linda Rive, and the stimulus of a slide show that documented their artists' camp and the development of the work, allowed them to relate in rich detail their experience of this commission, with the final work currently showing at Tandanya.
What was particularly compelling was to hear about the thinking behind the work: their woven birds are much more than objects to delight the eye. They draw on the strength of their ancient culture and its lessons for everyday living, perhaps never so poignantly relevant as now.
KIERAN FINNANE reports.
Pictured, top: Tjanpi weavers from Amata with their finished 'big birds', from left Nyurpaya Kaika, Yaritji Young, Paniny Mick (obscured), Ilawanti Ken and Naomi Kantjuriny. • At right: An eagle brings home the meat for its young. Painting by Ilawanti Ken. Photos courtesy Tjanpi Desert Weavers.