National Gallery of Australia Announces Review of 28 Indigenous Paintings After Allegations of Interference By White Art Assistants

The National Gallery of Australia announced it was reviewing the attribution behind 28 Indigenous paintings featured in a major exhibition scheduled to open in early June, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Wednesday.

The NGA’s review was prompted by a report from The Australian in early April alleging that white studio staff had been painting on the works attributed to residents of Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY), sparsely populated lands in remote South Australia home to more than 20 Aboriginal communities. The newspaper’s findings were the result of interviews with former gallery staff and Aboriginal artists about whether the work of white art assistants interfered with the artistic process.

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“The aim of the Independent Review is to clarify whether the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) artists attributed as the creators of the paintings to be included in the Gallery’s upcoming Ngura Pulka exhibition exercised effective creative control over the creation of the paintings, and so can properly be described as the artists responsible for those works consistent with the National Gallery’s provenance policy,” museum director Dr Nick Mitzevich said in a statement Wednesday. 

The exhibition Ngura Pulka – Epic Country is described by the NGA as “one of the largest and most significant First Nations community-driven art projects to have ever been developed.”

“All parts of Ngura Pulka are being entirely conceived, created, directed, and determined by Aṉangu people,” the gallery said on its website. “Home to 2,500 people, the APY Lands, in remote South Australia, support a network of Aṉangu communities, including seven key art centres.”

The NGA’s independent review panel consists of lawyers Colin Golvan and Shane Simpson, as well as First Nations advisors Yhonnie Scarce and Maree Meredith. Golvan is an expert in copyright protection for Indigenous arts. Simpson is an expert in property and copyright laws in the areas of arts, entertainment and culture. Scarce is a Kokatha and Nukunu glass artist. Meredith is a Bidjara woman and vice-chancellor of Indigenous leadership at the University of Canberra.

The Australian‘s investigative report has also brought up serious questions around the ethics of the production and integrity of Aboriginal art in the country, especially since the APY includes the famous Ken Sisters, winners of the $50,000 Wynne Prize for landscape painting in 2016. Aboriginal artist Paul Andy told The Australian through a translator that Skye O’Meara, the general manager of the APY Art Centre Collective would contribute her ideas and painting to his works. O’Meara has consistently denied these claims.

Artworks by APY artists are also increasingly popular at auction, with some selling for thousands of dollars. The National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Art Gallery of South Australia also have “significant collections of work from the Anunga people of the APY Lands”, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The APY Art Centre Collective, which represents 500 artists and seven arts centres, issued its own statement strenuously denying “the over-arching narrative” from the reports about its artworks being compromised as reported in The Australian, calling the reports “disingenuous.”

The organization said it “does not hide the fact that art assistants assist in the underpainting process,” describing it as when “heavily diluted paint is poured, sprayed, or slopped onto the canvas, often with large painting brushes. Multiple layers are then applied by the artist only.”

The APYACC also called the allegations published by The Australian “infected by a paternalistic view of how indigenous art should be made, devoid of contemporary, professional practices which are not hidden from anyone wishing to observe them.”

The APYACC’s statement concluded by calling the newspaper’s allegations of non-Indigenous assistants completing unfinished artworks “false and seriously defamatory” and that it was taking legal advice on the issue.

The NGA said it expects to receive the findings of the independent review by May 31.


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