Features Australia

Welcome to Boola Bardip

Buddy, can you spare me a lazy twenty million?

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

Are you a visionary leader capable of delivering a $180 million arts and culture precinct in Alice Springs?

If so, have I got a job for you! The Northern Territory government wants you to ‘liaise with stakeholders to facilitate partnership opportunities and investment models’. You will of course have to know a bit about art and stuff and also be able to use ‘First Peoples’ Principles’ to ‘facilitate meaningful partnerships with Traditional Owners’. The good news is that if you can do this then you are in the running to become ‘Senior Director, National Aboriginal Art Gallery’ in Alice Springs and get a salary of a quarter of a million dollars a year.

If you aren’t from West Australia, the phrase Boola Bardip might not trip lightly from your tongue. It is the name of the new $400 million museum opened last week in Perth and means ‘many stories’ in the Whadjuk Noongar language. Naturally most of the stories in the museum are designed to deepen our understanding of ‘the oldest continuing culture on earth’. At the same time, despite the economic challenges facing South Australia, funding for Adelaide’s second Aboriginal art and cultural centre was recently boosted to $200 million.

In these hard times, over three quarters of a billion dollars is being spent in South and West Australia and the Northern Territory to celebrate the richness of the art and culture of the First Nations people. This extraordinary expenditure is all the more remarkable as the use of Western art materials and products to express Aboriginal culture only really started 50 years ago.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t support the development of indigenous art. The story of the achievements of the Pintupi Nine for instance remains one of the most extraordinary tales in the history of art anywhere and should be better known to all Australians. But if three quarters of a billion dollars has been spent in the western half of Australia to support Aboriginal art then it is reasonable to assume that, in recent years, various Australian governments have spent at least a billion dollars in support of the Aboriginal art industry and the question then arises as to whether or not non- indigenous artists are receiving an equal share of the public purse and if not why not?

Here I have to declare an interest. I live in the Blue Mountains 100 kilometres to the west of the Sydney CBD. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and has over the past two centuries attracted many of Australia’s greatest landscape artists and the major galleries in our capital cities have excellent paintings inspired by the region. But, in the mountains themselves, we have nothing. All the paintings by the likes of Conrad Martens, Elioth Gruner, Arthur Streeton and Eugene Von Guerard relating to the region are elsewhere. Consequently I decided it was time to establish a major regional gallery dedicated to the work of the landscape artists who over the past two centuries have given us a visual record of the European exploration and development of the Blue Mountains.

I was so impressed by the brilliance of my conception that I thought that putting the idea to the various levels of government would result in an immediate queue outside my door of local government councillors, federal and state politicians and their bureaucrats with chequebooks open.

But the response was a prompt and unanimous ‘No. Go away’. In fairness to my local federal MP, Susan Templeman, she did discuss in some detail the challenges such an idea presented but not one councillor or politician said ‘Let’s explore this idea further’. So I’m left wondering how it is that the nation can afford to spend billions on the display of indigenous art most of which has been created in the past 40 years, but cannot even explore the possibility of establishing a regional gallery to celebrate the work of brilliant artists who, over the past two centuries, were inspired by the grandeur and beauty of this region. It would cost no more than 20 million and would be a major tourist attraction.

It is tempting to argue that the reason the idea was dismissed so promptly was because all the available art money has been spent on celebrating and encouraging the achievements of indigenous artists. But the real explanation goes deeper.

The Western Desert Papunya Art Movement began in the 1970s on a remote settlement west of Alice Springs and demand for Aboriginal paintings soon spread around the globe faster than corona virus. Money poured into remote settlements and soon ‘art’ was being produced throughout remote indigenous communities. Some of it was very good but a lot of it wasn’t. That didn’t matter as, for once, here was a good news story to tell about Aboriginal people. The only time that the remote settlements ever got into the news was in stories about domestic violence, glue sniffing, alcoholism or neglect and abuse of children. Now the media was full of stories about paintings created by elderly Aboriginal men and women whose work brought to the Western world a visual representation of traditional dreaming stories and beliefs.

The problem is that the success of the early artists attracted imitators who lacked the aesthetic sensibility which made painters such as Clifford Possum or Yukultji Napangati so successful. What we have on sale now in the tourist shops and less reputable art galleries, is often gimcrack kitsch and a lot of it was, until recently, made in China.

To this day, at every level of government, Aboriginal art is celebrated as a genuine expression of traditional indigenous culture and is accorded a respect and importance denied to work created by artists who do not claim Aboriginal heritage. This is why governments at every level are now spending billions on purchasing and displaying Aboriginal art and why my attempts to whip up interest in a gallery celebrating the work of artists who have painted in the Blue Mountains region are not going to be supported by officials at any level of government.

If you have a spare ten or twenty million dollars for a very worthy cause, drop me a line.

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