Sitting on the floor of the Sister7 art gallery in Darwin, Sonda Turner Nampijmpa is happy to demonstrate her painting to the tourists streaming in the doors.
- A surge in domestic tourism is driving up Aboriginal art sales
- Galleries also say online sales have risen as Australians have looked inward during the pandemic
- Art dealers say international interest in artists of colour is helping to drive prices back up to the $1m mark
She carefully dots the track of a mother searching the Central Australian desert country for her baby, stolen by a bad spirit.
“They started all this painting way back in the 1970s, from the body paint to the canvas,” she said.
She said she was happy to work for this gallery, which specialised in working closely with Aboriginal women artists from all over the Northern Territory and Darwin.
“I explain what the paintings mean for the tourists,” she said.
“It’s good all the tourists coming in more because they always look at all the paintings. If they’re from Sydney or Melbourne, they ask, ‘Who painted that,’ or ‘Who painted that?'”
Rise of strong domestic and US markets
Last year, closed borders and travel bans caused by COVID-19 all but stopped foot traffic to the gallery.
Owner Cindy Watson relied on online sales to keep the business going.
But interstate visitors are back in Darwin in droves, spending enthusiastically on holidays they cannot have overseas.
“People are just coming in hordes and everyone’s really happy to be here in Darwin because it’s beautiful weather and they’ve had such an incredibly terrible year and everyone seems to be just really lapping it up,” Ms Watson said.
In Katherine, three hours’ drive south, tourists who have come to visit the spectacular Nitmiluk Gorge have booked out almost every hotel room and they are also seeking out Aboriginal art.
The town’s Aboriginal-owned Mimi Arts and Craft shop on the main street acts like a cooperative for local artists.
Manager Michael Miller said their carvings, paintings and weavings were selling fast.
“At the start of the month we had 30 didgeridoos and now I’ve only got six left, so they’re very popular with southerners who are buying them,” he said.
“The market has jumped in the last three years. There was a time prior to that where it slumped, but it has definitely jumped.
“And even with COVID, the international buyer was still buying. Our online sales went through the roof in that period.”
Melbourne art dealer D’Lan Davidson said the market for high-end Indigenous art dropped off dramatically in 2010 after the global financial crisis devalued the US dollar.
But he said demand had been steadily rising since, and recently the Black Lives Matter movement had increased both interest and prices.
“It’s because of the political shift that we’re seeing, led by America where the greatest African-American art is achieving astronomically comparably to white American art. And that sort of political shift is exactly what we’re seeing in Australia too,” he said.
He said when the start of the pandemic put a temporary dent in his international sales, Australian buyers filled the void.
“Because there’s been such widespread international demand, the local market has really realised that, and there is considerable interest,” he said.
“People being locked down with COVID are looking much more locally. Because we’re not allowed to go overseas and so there’s a real inward-looking pattern going on.
“And now that we’re seeing the economic rise again of America, that demand is steadily increasing.
“We sold a painting by Emily Kngwarreye (from Utopia in the Northern Territory) for $950,000, so the greatest works are now selling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Transparency and fairness for Indigenous artists
Mr Davidson said he paid 30 per cent of his net profits back to artists and their communities through a trust, the National Endowment for Indigenous Visual Arts.
But he said many dealers were reluctant to open their books, and so it was worried that many artists were not reaping the benefits they should be when art bought from remote areas was resold in the cities and overseas.
“I think its critically important that we should get that number and then work out a way that it can benefit the people that created it.”
Federal law mandates that when paintings are resold for more than $1,000 for the first time after the original purchase, resale royalties must be paid to artists — or their families if they have died.
Darwin gallery owner Paul Johnstone is a director of the national Indigenous Art Code, which is trying to help enforce that.
He wants the federal government to collect and publish data on the value of the industry because he said without that information it was difficult to determine whether Indigenous artists were being ripped off.
“We just can’t keep up with that demand,” he said.
“It would be fantastic if one of the governments, whether it’s local or federal, would do a systematic study of the industry so we can actually find out what it is worth to Australia and Indigenous people.
“It would show the amount of pressure the art code is under, and how it needs to be assisted to help deal with these complaints.”
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