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Local’s tips for buying Aboriginal art

Here's how to find the best places to buy a piece of Aboriginal art.

By Sue Gough Henly

Contemporary Aboriginal art offers an exciting journey of discovery into one of the world's oldest surviving cultures. Yet because it is so different from Western art it can be difficult to know how to identify and buy authentic pieces. Here are some insider tips from knowledgeable locals.

Australia's amazing Aboriginal art

Get to know the meaning behind the art

Traditional indigenous art practitioners do not see themselves as artists but storytellers. Since they have no written languages, their creations are all about sharing their spiritual association with their specific landscape or "country" as well as communicating their obligations to this "country" through their Dreaming stories and songlines. There are not one but many different indigenous cultures, each with its own language and belief system, spread across every part of Australia. (The term "Aboriginal" refers to mainland Australia, while "indigenous" refers to the mainland as well as the Torres Strait Islands, which are also part of Australia.)

As a result, there is a great diversity of artistic styles and media, from the well known dot paintings of the Western Desert to the Western Kimberley's ghostlike Wandjina creation ancestors with huge mouthless faces. These creations can be in many different media. Traditionally, there was rock art, sand and body paintings, ochre bark paintings, wood carvings and fibre weaving (portable art that's still available today). Over the past 40 years, Western acrylics and canvas have been introduced as well as lino prints and fabric printing. While the media may be contemporary, the spiritual storytelling remains the same.  

Develop an idea of which style of Aboriginal art you like

Visit the indigenous collections at Australia's major museums to educate yourself about the different styles of art. Key collections can be found at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, The Araluen Art Collection in Alice Springs, the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin. There are also three major indigenous art events each year that celebrate the best new indigenous art: the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin from August through October; The Desert Mob event held at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs in September; and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in July. Remember to consider a wide range of artistic endeavours including acrylic paintings, weavings, bark paintings, poles, and screen-printed paintings and fabrics.

Make sure it's authentic

As with any art form, indigenous art has authentic works and imitations. It gets more complicated when you learn that the majority of indigenous works are not signed. You can, however, be assured that works are authentic if you buy from members of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia, the Australian Commercial Galleries Association or the Indigenous Art Code. Those are the blue chip industry bodies that provide authentication and pay artists fair commissions. High profile auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie's and Lawson-Menzies are also sources of reputable Indigenous art.

Browse at commercial galleries

A number of exceptional commercial galleries across the country have knowledgeable staff that can give professional advice on what to purchase given your interests and budget. In Sydney there is the Kate Owen Gallery, Aboriginal-owned Boomalli, and Cooeeart. In Melbourne check out Alcaston Gallery, the Aboriginal-owned Koorie Heritage TrustThe Emily MuseumVivien Anderson Gallery and Lauraine Diggins Fine Art. In Alice Springs visit Mbantua GalleryTjanpi Desert Weavers and the Many Hands Gallery. In Darwin explore Mason Gallery and Outstation Gallery. In Hobart Art Mob is the go-to gallery. In Perth check out Japingka Aboriginal Art.  Brisbane has the Fireworks GallerySuzanne O’Connell Gallery and Mitchell Fine Art Gallery. Aboriginal-owned Tandanya is the gallery to visit in Adelaide. In Cairns check out the Canopy Art Centre and in Port Douglas go to the Australian & Oceanic Art Gallery. A number of professional dealers also market and sell indigenous artwork online. These include former Sotheby’s expert D'Lan Davidson and long-time art centre dealer Martin Wardrop at Aboriginal Art Online.

Travel to remote Aboriginal art centres

There are dozens of community-based Aboriginal art centres, many in remote areas, all over Australia. These centres organise the delivery of supplies to artists and market their art nationally and internationally, often online. Two key umbrella organisations are Desart, which represents 30 Aboriginal art and craft centres in Central Australia, and the Association of Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artists of Australia (ANKAAA), which is the peak advocacy and support agency for Aboriginal artists working individually or through 48 remote art centres spread across one million square kilometres (390,000 square miles) in Arnhem Land, Darwin/Katherine, the Kimberley and the Tiwi Islands. Key art centres include WarmunWaringarri and Mowanjum in the Kimberley, Buku-Larrnggay at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, Balgo in Western Australia, Maruku near Uluru and Tiwi Designs on Bathurst Island. The first art centre in Australia using modern acrylics and canvas was Papunya Tula in the Western Desert. You can buy work at its gallery in Alice Springs. If you would like to visit remote art centres, Palya offers art tours by small plane.