THE PLACE OF ART: Livelihoods in Remote Communities

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 26.08.08

The Aboriginal Art Directory is delighted to introduce the first feature article by independent arts consultant Tim Acker. In this edition, Tim writes about the wider and more complex conversation between artists and consumers in affecting Aboriginal livelihoods in remote Australia. He also talks about the important role of Aboriginal art as a mediator between remote/black and urban/white society in contemporary Australia. Based in Western Australia, Tim is an independent arts consultant working with Aboriginal artists and their art centres to build better livelihoods from their arts practice and their enterprises. Tim has worked with art centres and artists throughout Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia since 1999 in a range of roles, from managing an art centre to industry development to project work on initiatives such as The Canning Stock Route Project.


Understanding, enjoying and appreciating any art is an intensely personal experience.  Each of us brings our own set of experiences, values and tastes - as individual as our own personalities.  But among the aesthetic and artistic assessments we make when viewing Aboriginal art is surely a fascination with the cultural differences that the art embodies.  "People buy Aboriginal art for various reasons.  For most, there's a cultural interest, not just a beautiful object, but a beautiful object with a strong cultural dimension", says Martin Wardrop, Director of Aboriginal Art Online, Australia's leading online gallery and President of, a representative body for Aboriginal art galleries.

PhotoPart of this fascination with Aboriginal art is with the manner of its creation; a world-class art movement generated in remote communities, fuelled by intellectual, emotional and spiritual domains wildly, wonderfully different to mainstream worldviews. This is perhaps one of the most potent experiences of Aboriginal art: while the cultural and creative talent provides an unparalleled aesthetic experience, implicit in the art, in the viewing, consumption and place of that art is its ability to contribute to remote area wellbeing and livelihoods.

Aboriginal art is a wider, more complex and more profound conversation between artist and consumer, about an equal participation, a mediation of the enormous power differential between remote/black and urban/white. By agreeing on the value and importance of art, a consumer joins in that conversation about livelihoods. "Art empowers a lot of artists. It enables artists to experience things they wouldn't otherwise", says Mark Walker, Director of Randell Lane Gallery, a leading Aboriginal art gallery in Perth. "We run the gallery as a way of educating clients. The best way to do that is to connect artists to clients."

Community life
The remote Aboriginal communities of Australia's north and centre are tough and confronting places. The clash of two vastly different social and cultural systems is lived out daily, in what are two different Australia's: in one Australia, average life expectancy is nearly 80 years, while in the other it is under 60.  In one Australia, average household income is over $500 per week, while in the other Australia it is under $270 per week.  As a male, in one Australia, there is an 87% chance of making it to age 65, in the other, a 24% chance of the same. In one Australia, there is around a 0.5% chance of going to jail, in the other country it is 15 times that. There are many artists, both young and old, whose lives and whose children's lives are determined by these forces.

PhotoYet, in these same communities, dazzling artworks of culture and connection are created. Cultural knowledge is restated using contemporary and historical mediums.  Artists are often older people, the custodians of knowledge, law and lore, using art as the means to connect these histories to their children and grandchildren and to wider Australia.  Aboriginal art simultaneously repays those artist and their communities with rare opportunities to engage with a national marketplace and a global art economy, through a small business structure that succeeds because of its cultural difference, not despite it.

These opportunities have a major impact on the livelihoods of individuals and their communities. In an environment with few choices, art enables access to independent incomes, small business systems and self employment. This in turn, builds community and individual leadership, cultivating role models and renews cultural practices.

In addition, the importance of inter-generational learning is acknowledged; through this transmission of knowledge, cultural vitality is maintained, a balance to rapid, unmediated external changes. "The regular artists come every day, painting every day, renewing their culture every day. They are passionately proud of what they do and if it wasn't for their art the rest of the world would have no idea they were even here," says Cecilia Alfonso, Manager of Warlukurlangu Artists in Yuendumu.  "The artists respond to the opportunity of showcasing their culture, of sharing values and telling what is important through them. The act of painting carries on their culture," she says.

Community Livelihoods
PhotoFor the advantages of commerce and trade in Aboriginal art are to have genuine beneficiaries in remote communities, a formal structure needs to be in place to broker the different concepts, languages and worldviews of Aboriginal artists and the marketplace. Many communities have created art centres as their response to this situation. Art centres are Aboriginal owned, managed and governed enterprises, whose primary role is to facilitate the production and sale of paintings. They are usually run on a cooperative, non-profit basis.

"People want an income from their art.  We're building up artists to enable them to have that regular income", says Vicki Bosisto, Manager of Australia's newest art centre, Tjarlirli Art. "The conditions for high quality art? A safe, comfortable space where artists can work with their families and friends. An emphasis on well being and not money... that's a hard one in communities, where the money is certainly needed. Where materials are prepared in the right way and artists have choice. Where work can be stored and handled correctly and where stories can be told in a way that is culturally appropriate. Painting trips into country are important way of connecting and revitalizing artists and consequently their art work as are collaborative pieces".

Art centres are of, and from their communities, responding to the priorities of their members, so they are as diverse as their communities, as distinct as their artists, as varied as the languages across remote Australia. However, all art centres share a philosophy focussed on community wellbeing and livelihoods.

PhotoArt centres value the complex and often intangible interaction between people, country, culture and the dynamic social interactions at work. "Good painting starts with talent, but after talent, the other ingredients are pre-production, quality materials etc, a happy environment, consistent feedback and professional support, developing techniques and skills and marketing," says Alfonso.

Sometimes the most valuable work of an art centre has nothing to with art - but in supporting a bush trip or helping an artist register their car or fund the local band, the art centre is investing in the broader wellbeing of that community, as much as in the care of an individual. It is a public and private statement about how the art centre sees itself, how it values the community and how that community sees the art centre as vital to its own choices and health. 

"Art centres are pivotal in preserving the cultural integrity of our Indigenous legacy. Art centres provide a voice which would otherwise not be heard, they provide a safe place for a generation of people who would be lost and vulnerable in any other circumstance. They provide continuity in connecting culture with country," says Graeme Marshall, from Marshall Arts, a leading Adelaide-based Aboriginal art gallery.

The economics of choice
There are few economic choices in remote areas, but art is one of them. The income individually is important - the only source of non-welfare, independently earned income for many (freeing up extremely limited household income, in an extremely expensive environment, to, for example, buy a fridge, which may be the first real opportunity for that household to store and access healthier food) and the self esteem and leadership that grows from the resulting self-employment.

PhotoThe communal livelihood impact is equally important. With negligible enterprise options in most remote communities (any employment is generally linked to traditional, trades-related models, models demonstrably unsuitable and inappropriate to the reality for many remote area people), an art centre that operates accountably and equitably, building genuine Aboriginal management and knowledge, creates potent options for people.

While art cannot solve everything, and art and artists alone cannot drive the economic and wider equalising of remote area lives, Aboriginal art from these settings contributes to realistic individual and communal livelihoods.

So next time you buy a piece of Aboriginal art, appreciate it for its aesthetic magic and value it for the richness of what it embodies - a statement of creativity, of cultural integrity and of enterprise.

- Tim Acker.

Photos: Courtesy Murtumili Artists and Tjarlirli Arts Aboriginal Art Centres. (1) L to R: Mulyatingki Marney, Lilly Long and Hayley Atkins recording the story for Lilly's painting. Photography by Morika Biljabu Copyright: Martumili Artists. (2) Children from Kunawarritji Community with their works after a Martumili Artists painting workshop. Photography by Morika Biljabu Copyright: Martumili Artists. (3) Marlene Young (left) and Deborah Young (right) holding up Tjarlirli Arts' first collaborative canvas in Tjukurla Community. Copyright: Tjarlirli Arts. (4) Martumili Artists working on a collaborative painting, L: Nora Nungabar and R: Kumpaya Girgaba at work. Photography by Morika Biljabu Copyright: Martumili Artists. (5) Marlene Young Elsa Young and Daphne Larry working on Collaborative Painting at Tjarlirli Rockhole. Copyright: Tjarlirli Arts. (6) Annie Farmer working on Tjarlirli Arts' first collaborative canvas.  Copyright: Tjarlirli Arts.

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Last modified: August 26, 2008 4:36 AM