Know your source: Buying Aboriginal art ethically

Published in Art Edit, Issue 2, Apr-Jun 2014

The next time you fall in love with a piece of Aboriginal art, before you reach for your credit card take the time to ask whether the artist who made the work was treated fairly. We walk you through what you need to know about buying Aboriginal art ethically.

When Aboriginal art began to boom in the late 1980s and 1990s, the smell of money attracted all sorts of players. Sadly not all the work bought and hung on art lovers’ walls during this time resulted in a fair price being paid to the artist. Other unethical practices also came to light, such as the removal of artists from their communities, which was done with the aim of quickly securing a large volume of artwork for sale and not always with the full consent of artists and their families.

The situation raised complex ethical issues about buying and owning Aboriginal art. How can you trace the work’s source? And how do you know if the artist has been dealt with respectfully in the commercial exchanges around the sale of their artwork?
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Barayuwa Mununggurr

Published in Art Collector, Issue 68, Apr-Jun 2014

"Barayuwa Mununggurr" by Jane O'Sullivan in Art Collector

Working primarily with barks, larrakitj (ceremonial poles) and yidaki (didgeridoos), Barayuwa Mununggurr paints his mother’s Munyuku clan design. At its heart is a story about the hunting of an ancestral whale in Blue Mud Bay. When the dead whale washed up on the sand its rotting flesh was carved into strips with stone knives and then tossed back into the sea, forming a dangerous reef. The whale’s bones became rocks in the ocean.

Mununggurr’s work appears to capture the point when the strips of whale flesh become the living rhythms of the reef, and also speaks to the way that landforms have accrued significant spiritual and cosmological meaning in Yolngu culture. Bones too are thought of as the essence of a being and in 2013 Mununggurr began to hide the elements of a whale skeleton in his work. Five whale skeletons formed the underlying structure of his entry in last year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. The work was highly commended by the judges and was later acquired by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. His work has also been acquired by the National Gallery of Australia.
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