WITH THE twang of Australian country music coming from a paint-splattered radio, Deanna Perrule Williams dabbed vivid blue and green dots on to white canvas.
“It shows one of the stories from the Dreaming time that our ancestors told us,” she said, holding up the half-completed picture. “This is a water hole, and these are kangaroo tracks.”
The 25-year-old Aboriginal artist is fortunate – her dot painting will be sold to a respectable gallery by the art centre in which she works in the isolated desert settlement of Ltyentye Apurte, 50 miles down a corrugated dirt track from Alice Springs. However, many other Aborigines are being ripped off by unscrupulous dealers who pay them with alcohol, drugs and second-hand vehicles – or corral them into squalid sweatshops where they are forced to churn out poor-quality paintings.
Abuses in the Aboriginal art industry, estimated to be worth up to £200 million a year, have become so acute the federal government has launched a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry was due to have submitted its report this week, but has encountered such a mountain of evidence that its findings won’t be released until June.
Evoking 50,000 years of heritage, Aboriginal dot paintings are snapped up by tourists and hang on gallery walls from London to Los Angeles, but eager buyers have little notion of the “carpet baggers” who roam remote desert communities offering a pittance for works of art that will eventually be sold for tens of thousands of pounds.
Indigenous culture is also being appropriated, from tacky plastic figurines of spear-wielding warriors, made in China and sold in the tourist emporia of Alice Springs and Darwin, to didgeridoos painted with faux-Aboriginal designs by backpackers. Artists are vulnerable to exploitation due to their poor English, rudimentary education and because they live well below the poverty line in settlements that are often hundreds of miles from the nearest town.
They often have only the vaguest concept of the value of their work, despite the growing international popularity of Aboriginal art. The recently opened Musée du quai Branly in Paris features a large section of Australia’s indigenous art. Paintings by well-known artists such as Rover Thomas have fetched more than £300,000.
Despite the huge sums, most Aboriginal artists are surviving on just £600 a year, the senate inquiry has been told. Popular artists have had their works copied or their signatures faked on lesser-quality paintings.
“More and more new players have come into the industry because they see a buck to be made,” said John Oster, executive officer of Desart, which represents 43 Aboriginal art centres in the desert around Alice Springs. He added: “The demand for good-quality work is absolutely incredible – production can’t keep up. That creates a pressure cooker situation where people will bend the rules.” About a quarter of the Aboriginal art produced in the central desert region is bought by illegitimate dealers, Desart estimates. Aboriginal artists are put up in dingy motels in Alice Springs, sometimes 10 or more to a room.
Backyard dealers use threats of violence and pressures of debt to compel them to produce dot paintings in assembly line conditions. “They charge exorbitant rates for rooms, so that the artists rack up debts they’re never able to pay off,” said Oster.
Artists are paid around £80 per painting which are then sold for up to 10 times that, either on eBay or to galleries prepared not to ask too many questions. An artist who gave evidence anonymously to the inquiry complained of “slave labour” conditions, and described how elderly and sick Aborigines were crammed into filthy motel rooms. “The conditions are disgusting,” he said. “There is third-world abuse going on. A lot of the artists are abused physically and mentally.” While many artists are chronically underpaid, others are rewarded with alcohol or drugs. “The whole industry needs cleaning up,” said Judy Lovell, from Keringke Arts Aboriginal Corporation. “There’s no system by which you can tell who’s an ethical dealer and who’s not.”
In a submission to the inquiry, the Northern Territory government said there had been “an increase in fakery and forgery of Aboriginal art, and widening unethical practices.”
An Aboriginal minister in the government, Marion Scrymgour, said the “overwhelming majority” of didgeridoos sold to tourists were fakes. “There is some anecdotal evidence here in Darwin at least that they have been painted by backpackers working on industrial-scale wood production,” she said.
The inquiry will consider introducing stricter regulation of the industry, including a code of conduct and the licensing of dealers and galleries. Some galleries are already authenticating artworks with microdots – tiny circular marks, almost invisible to the naked eye, which, when viewed under a microscope, show the artist’s name.
Restoring credibility to the art industry is vital because for many remote Aboriginal townships it’s the only source of employment aside from government-run work schemes.
Formerly known as Santa Teresa, Ltyentye Apurte was established as a Catholic mission in the 1950s for Aboriginal families who had been forcibly moved from their traditional lands. Of its 600 inhabitants, around 90 adults regularly paint. Their work has been shown in exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne and Paris.
“It makes us proud to think our paintings go all the way around the world,” said Williams, her fingers sticky with paint. “Plus, we can earn good money if we work hard.”