Thursday, 30 July 2009

Rumours got my artists rejected: dealer

Interesting article about entries into the Telstra Aboriginal Art awards and the bun-fight last year in relation to one particular dealers entries. It seems a year down the track and the issue is still very much alive. I've seen many dealers struggle to gain entries into The Telstra Aboriginal Art awards, yet others have done so. It makes it very difficult to judge if there is anything more at play other than the quality of the art and without some kind of proof, those that don't make it in are going to have to accept the judges decision. Very interesting article though.....

Rumours got my artists rejected: dealer

Ashleigh Wilson | July 30, 2009

Article from: The Australian

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.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Albert Namatjira: fame but not freedom

This is a long and involved article but well worth the read. Albert Namatjira was a true pioneer in the world of Aboriginal Art despite him painting in more traditional "white fella" style and his contribution should never be underestimated. It also gives an incite into the struggles faced by Aboriginal people in the earlier part of the 20th century, in particular for their right to full citizenship. Have a read and feel free to leave your comments.

Albert Namatjira: fame but not freedom

Albert Namatjira, the indigenous art pioneer, brought the joyous colours of the outback to countless Australian homes, but living between two cultures destroyed him, writes Paul Toohey | July 25, 2009

Article from: The Australian

AS Albert Namatjira lay dying, his old friend and toughest critic -- a critic of Namatjira's human failings, not his art -- spoke the Lord's Prayer as the famous artist struggled to say the words he knew so well.

Lutheran pastor Friedrich Albrecht's Finke River Mission at Hermannsburg had taken Namatjira from the cradle and now it was taking him to the grave.

The mission, west of Alice Springs, had baptised, schooled and married Namatjira. Albrecht had encouraged Namatjira's early artistic attempts but later came to fear success was destroying him and publicly censured the artist at the height of his fame. Albrecht was now kneeling at the artist's side, with Namatjira's wife, Rubina, asking for God's grace as an extraordinary life slipped away.

On Thursday, August 6, 1959, Namatjira was taken to Alice Springs hospital with pneumonia. On Friday he was sitting up and apparently well but on Saturday he collapsed and was in and out of consciousness. At 7.45pm, his heart gave way. Namatjira had just turned 57.

Namatjira was the first Aboriginal artist to achieve commercial success. His presence in the landscape stirred the national conscience. But it is clear, 50 years on, that a conscience can do only so much. Art brought Namatjira fame but not, in the end, freedom.

Namatjira understood his position in Australian society. He had allowed himself to be paraded as an example of what an Aborigine could achieve, though he did not participate as a grateful toy. Ethnologist Charles Mountford said Namitjira would greet whites "as an equal, without condescension and without deference". Namatjira had looked around and decided he wanted what they had. In the end, denied it, he raised his middle finger to it all. The public battles around his citizenship and his descent into chaos were the final, fatal indignity.

To some, Namatjira was a great watercolourist; to others, a chocolate-box painter. The insinuation that he painted only in the "white" style was raised by some critics during his life, but they weren't quite sure what they wanted Namatjira to be. He was, after all, a pioneer. The real criticism came after his death, in shabby revisionism that suggested the central Australian dot-painting movement was the ground zero of Aboriginal art.

Namatjira's paintings were, and remain, living maps of his love and connection to country.

"Very much so," says Tim Klingender, head of Aboriginal art at Sotheby's auction house. "They're not painted from a desert man's aerial perspective, but they are of areas (that) have greatspiritual significance to him. His is a hugelegacy."

Mountford, who once sought out Namatjira in a bush camp, said the artist drew for him his "dreaming place". The design had a central circle and parallel lines leading out to four ovals. It showed men cleaning yelka nuts and, as these things go, it replicated a geological formation at his birthplace.

Namatjira did not employ the designs in his popular work but the symbols that would later be popularised in galleries across the world carried deep meaning for him.

Albrecht once said that Namitjira didn't like painting; he did it only to make money. Given that Namatjira set off on three-month solo camelback journeys to the spinifex-gashed MacDonnell Ranges to paint, given the superb detail of his work, which were not garish mauve exaggerations but, as anyone who has visited central Australia would attest, beautiful statements of fact, Albrecht was being harsh. Those tourists who visit central Australia do not expect to see large animals drinking at waterholes at sunset, as they may in Africa. They come to see Namatjira's colours.

Greg Dick, who runs the Aileron Roadhouse, north of Alice Springs, has nine original Namatjiras. He never met the artist but moved to central Australia in 1964 after seeing Namatjira reproductions in his mother's The Australian Women's Weekly. "They mesmerised me. I came here because of those paintings. I blame him. Mate, I'd never sell one, never will."

Outside his roadhouse window, Dick can see what Namatjira was on about. "Every five minutes the hills change colour. It's a reflection of the sun, they're purple. It's so near heaven out here. We live under it. Mate, the cloak of the Lord drags on our trees at night." Dick's right. There is something special about central Australia.

Albrecht was right, too. Namatjira liked money. He was the stubborn young Western Arrernte artist who fought to free himself of missionary control. He did not like the dinner bell or dished-out sixpence. He wanted his own money but it was a battle Namatjira only half-won.

As his fame grew, so did his income. His spending, particularly on motor vehicles for himself and his Arrernte relatives, was incontinent. Being classified under the Aboriginals Ordinance, Namatjira's cheques needed to be co-signed. He was so furiously forceful with his guardians that he usually got what he wanted.

By the early 50s, the Menzies government was under pressure to grant Aborigines full citizenship. In effect, however, the 1957 Welfare Ordinance meant that all Northern Territory Aborigines became wards, allowing the government to control their lives and prepare them for their new "white" lives under assimilation. Only a handful of NT Aborigines were declared exempt from the list because they were deemed to have already been assimilated: Albert and Rubina Namatjira were two of them.

Namatjira had full citizenship rights, meaning he could drink and vote. It was the start of the end. Trouble was brewing in his Morris Soak town camp in Alice Springs, a camp that exists to this day and has not improved in 50 years. Namatjira started supplying alcohol to his relatives. There was violence and he ended up before the courts. But by then Namatjira had had enough of being Australia's first black pin-up boy.

NAMATJIRA went bush to be initiated at 13, which the Lutherans tolerated as part of the give and take of dealing with first-contact people. But they were still Christians and regarded customary beliefs as heathen. Albrecht conceded the young Namatjira did not always get on with pastor Carl Strehlow, the head missionary of the day. The two argued when, at 19, Namatjira chose to marry Elkalita (later Rubina), which Strehlow frowned at because Rubina was of the Luritja people and a non-Christian. Namatjira won the day.

The mission had become a growing refuge after the region had been racked with sickness and death, eventually understood to have been caused by scurvy. It was looking for ways to self-sustain and there was a small market for Aboriginal artefacts branded with hot-iron designs.

Namatjira was given a poker-iron with a platinum needle, but he quickly abandoned the fancy contraption for fencing wire heated in the coals, burning simple designs into wooden animals or boomerangs. Namatjira had sheared, hunted, worked as a blacksmith and walked camel trains to Oodnadatta, but Albrecht says he tasted economic independence when he earned cash for his mulga carvings.

In the early 1930s, watercolourist Rex Battarbee toured central Australia and exhibited for the benefit of Aborigines at the Hermannsburg. Namatjira thought he could do as well as Battarbee but lacked the skills. When Battarbee came back in 1936, Namatjira told him he had been praying for his return because his painting efforts were not up to standard. Battarbee employed Namatjira as a cameleer on an expedition to the MacDonnell Ranges and taught him watercolour basics.

By 1938, under Battarbee's tutelage, he held his first exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery in Melbourne. Namatjira's hallmark paintings were of an unpeopled world, yet of places that were important to him and his people. They were also important to ordinary mum-and-dad art buyers who liked his easy -- and affordable -- renditions of Australia. They also liked the idea of supporting an Aborigine and their eyes may havebeen shut to deeper issues. They were happyto make him the centrepiece on the loungeroom wall.

Success came swiftly. The mission managed Namatjira's income but his tribal obligations to relatives saw him always showering them with trousers, boots and shirts. His guardians saw Namatjira's constant debt as abhorrent, but the painter never shook it. As a fledgling school of Aboriginal watercolourists built under Namatjira and Battarbee, Namatjira sold his paintings through the Aranda Arts Council, chaired by Battarbee. The council had formed to prevent exploitation of the new Aboriginal artists and to maintain quality control. Namatjira was inclined to earn a fast buck at times, selling to individuals outside of the council's control, which gave rise to heated clashes. Namatjira did not like other people's rules.

ALBRECHT acknowledged, in 1951, that Namatjira remained "essentially and intentionally an Aboriginal". He didn't dress up for white visitors and was proud of his Aboriginality. But he complained that Namatjira disrupted the mission by taking his mates to Alice and showing them "lavish hospitality". Albrecht also wrote: "In spite of his achievement, the tragedy of the Australian Aborigine hangs over him." He feared Namatjira was becoming a "wanderer between two worlds". Albrecht's pamphlet was picked up by the press, who said Namatjira had contracted "spenditis". He was not happy having his private affairs critiqued. It is not clear whether he knew Albrecht was the source of the criticism, but the Centralian Advocate reported him saying: "I have read all this in the southern papers. It is utter nonsense. If they do not leave me alone I shall be too unhappy to paint. Surely it is my own business as to what I do with the money I earn for myself."

The government managed his income but had been losing the battle since 1949. Case notes from officers stated: "Impossible to convince Namatjira of the necessity of economy. Intolerant of control and dislikes any arguments or discussions concerning his affairs."

The Welfare Department, concerned about Namatjira's spending, prevented him from buying a grazing lease and a house in Alice. Citizens, associations and opposition politicians bombarded the government with complaints, saying Namatjira was paying about pound stg. 400 in income tax and must be given the same freedoms as white citizens. White Australia may have started to get behind him, but it wasn't happening quickly enough for Namatjira. He had been issued clothing and presented to the young Queen Elizabeth in Canberra in 1954, after which he went on to Sydney, where he told a reporter that Aborigines were tired of living on reserves. "I am getting old, but I can remember when there were no reserves. We did not mind our tents then, but now we have seen the whites' houses." This could have been interpreted as proof of Namatjira's desire to assimilate but, likelier, an angry demand for equal rights.

Ted Egan, a former native patrol officer, later Northern Territory administrator and mate of Namatjira, said the land business had wounded him deeply. After all, says Egan, at the time of the Queen's visit he had become perhaps the most internationally recognised Australian. "He made it known to me -- always in his dignified way -- that he was doing as well as anyone else around town and therefore deserved the same rights," says Egan. "Then again, I remember once he was in hospital in Alice and they didn't put him the blackfella ward because he was Albert Namatjira. There was uproar around town about white patients having to bed next to this coon. It was adisgrace."

In 1956, Sydney's Truth ran the headline: "Raw deal for top Abo painter." The story said Namatjira could not sell his paintings without welfare approval and that government officers doled him his own money as they saw fit. It said he was living as a "myall" (wild Aborigine) in a dry gully in Alice and that he was in chronic debt.

The government responded that Namatjira could sell his paintings as he wished and could draw money from his trust account, though Welfare still advised him. Even so, he was pound stg. 1300 in debt. The government said Namatjira had bought and sold two homes in Alice and the move to the dry gully was his decision.

Namatjira's full citizenship meant he could vote, drink, marry whomever he wished and enter all public areas of town, but only two days after citizenship had been declared, Namatjira's eldest son, Enos, was stabbed -- not fatally -- at Morris Soak camp in a liquor-fuelled argument. Namatjira, prohibited from supplying alcohol to Aboriginal wards -- his friends -- had brought the liquor to the camp. During the next two years Namatjira would be in frequent and serious trouble. He was accused of supplying alcohol to the camp on the day a pregnant Pitjantjatjara woman, Fay Iowa, was beaten to death. He was charged with supplying alcohol to wards and eventually lost his appeal in the High Court. It is widely held that Namatjira did not recover from these episodes and he lost the will to paint, if notlive.

Police reported during this time that 178 Namatjira paintings were delivered to his agent in Alice. They carried his genuine signature but were not painted by him.

Namatjira was buried the day after he died. Coroner James Lemair believed Namatjira was killed by sorcery because of his relations with the Pitjantjatjara woman who had been killed and for whose death he had been blamed. Lemair felt an autopsy would reveal nothing to modern science.

ALBRECHT intervened in Namatjira's life for better and worse, but he was a compassionate man whose apprehensions proved founded. But in Namatjira he'd encountered a hardline individualist who demanded the right to make choices. Klingender says Namatjira never really left us. Two recent retrospectives have "introduced his work to whole new generation and seen a doubling of his values at auction", says Klingender, who also warns to watch for forged Namatjiras. "I'll always look at a Namatjira extremely closely," he says. The artist's block-style signature is easily copied, he adds.

Those Australians who loved Namatjira's work in the 40s and 50s have done their heirs a favour. Sotheby's has set new records for his art twice in the past three years. In 2006 it sold an early Namatjira for $96,000 and, last year, a painting of three ghost gums went for $66,000.

Namatjira would not be in the least bit surprised to find that his art, and life, still meant something so long after his passing. He would be surprised and disappointed at the living conditions of his descendants in central Australia.

One of Namatjira's Sydney friends found him, in the last 12 months of his life, living under a tree, without even a campsheet. The man went to Albrecht, pleading: "How can I help Albert?" The missionary could offer no answer. Albrecht told the mourners: "In spite of many honest attempts at making (Aborigines) happy and valuable members of our society, we have fundamentally failed."


"THERE are generations of Australians who know the interior through Albert Namatjira's watercolours, and what better guide could you have?" asks the National Gallery of Australia's Roger Butler.

This wasn't a widely shared view in art circles for many years after Namatjira's death 50 years ago, but the tide is turning. In 2002 an important retrospective, Seeing the Centre, refocused attention on the artist and next year the NGA -- thanks to the generosity of benefactors Gordon and Marilyn Darling -- will add 10 Namatjiras to its collection of more than 30 and put a changing selection on permanent display in new galleries.

With that concentration on his work, Namatjira will join a small group of Australian artists at the Canberra gallery who can be seen in this way: they include Arthur Boyd, Eugene von Guerard and Sidney Nolan.

"It's an indication of his importance," says Butler, the NGA's senior curator of Australian prints and drawings.

Writing about Seeing the Centre in 2002, The Weekend Australian's then national art critic, Benjamin Genocchio, praised Namatjira's "delicacy of brushwork, purity of light, crispness of foliage and intensity, sharpness and richness of the colours". They showed an artist of "unusual sensitivity".

So why was Namatjira's work often dismissed as chocolate-box art? Put simply, the watercolours "suffer tremendously in reproduction", Genocchio wrote. "Look at his paintings up close and there is an extraordinary tactility to the brushwork and a subtle alternating of light, colour and hue. Much of this is lost when photographed, then put on to glossy paper and transferred to tea towels, mugs, calendars or beer coasters."

In other words, his popularity with the public helped fuel the scorn of the establishment. Genocchio pointed out how striking it was to travel to central Australia and see how accurately Namatjira represented colours. "To view a ... painting such as, say, Ghost Gum Mt Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges is to step into a sun-kissed world radiating the true colour, content and silent, eerie atmosphere of the land."

Butler agrees: "He's a superb watercolourist. His control of the medium is absolutely fantastic." It is simplistic, however, to think of Namatjira only as a great watercolourist. "It's his sense of place (that is just as vital). His vision of the centre has become our vision of what the centre is."

Crucially Namatjira, the Aboriginal man whose art was expressed via the European tradition, was not the end of something but the beginning.

"Albert Namatjira played a significant role in the appreciation and development of the Australian indigenous art movement because he single-handedly caused a shift in white Australia's perception of Aboriginal art, and he did this in such a beautiful and sophisticated manner," says Franchesca Cubillo, the NGA's senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

"When Namatjira's paintings began to circulate among white Australians they were recognised, acknowledged and exhibited as art. For the first time Aboriginal people were perceived as having the intellectual and creative capacity to produce art."

Deborah Jones


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