Rumours got my artists rejected: dealer
Ashleigh Wilson | July 30, 2009
THE way John Ioannou sees it, some of the nation's best Aboriginal artists are being sidelined because of him.
Mr Ioannou, the private dealer at the centre of last year's bitter split in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, yesterday accused award organisers of discriminating against his clients.
He said a "vicious whispering campaign" was to blame for none of the artists associated with his gallery -- including Tommy Watson and Helen McCarthy -- being named among the 93 works shortlisted this year.
"There were some great works in there," Mr Ioannou said. "Had somebody else put them in, some if not all of them would have been accepted."
Last year's awards were marred by dramas after seven remote art centres withdrew 14 shortlisted works to protest against the inclusion of art associated with Mr Ioannou. While five of his artists were named as finalists last year, Mr Ioannou told The Australian it was "fairly obvious" why the four works he entered this time had been rejected.
"I put it down to last year's protest, which was pretty much a disgrace," he said.
One of the more controversial figures in Aboriginal art, Mr Ioannou is aware of rumours, swirling around the Aboriginal art scene that he underpays, mistreats or exploits his artists.
But he said no one had ever presented any evidence of wrongdoing -- which he denied -- and he had nothing to hide.
"I'm quite open to opening my books and showing everybody what I've done for the artists," he said. "I look after my artists quite well. I do a lot of things that most people don't do for them."
Mr Ioannou, the director of Agathon Galleries in Melbourne and Sydney, is the "preferred client" at the Irrunytju art centre in the central Australian community of Wingellina. Through Irrunytju, he has worked closely for several years with Watson and other artists from the community.
He said Watson had sold more than $5 million worth of paintings over the past three years, and his exclusion from the Telstra awards was unfair.
"It doesn't stop the clients recognising that he's one of the greatest artists of all time," he said. "What is happening is that he's being denied his rightful place in Aboriginal art history.
"For someone of his stature to be blacklisted and treated this way is just outright cruel.
"He has never done anything to anybody apart from choosing to work with me."
Asked to respond to Mr Ioannou's accusation, the Northern Territory government's arts department said in a statement that the preselection panel was made up of independent, well-known and respected industry figures, and the shortlisting process was conducted with the "utmost integrity and scrutiny".
"The quality of the work is assessed according to the artist's capabilities as demonstrated in the work entered, rather than according to the artist's reputation," the statement said.
Now in its 26th year, the award is open to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Winners will be announced on August 14, with a $40,000 prize for the most outstanding work.