They said they had maintained a “dignified silence during a long and painful time when our integrity, our livelihoods, our families, and our art have been under sustained attack” and that the NGA report “puts things right”.
Artist George Cooley beside his work The Western Side of Mount Woodroffe painted for NGA’s Ngura Pulka exhibition.Credit: Ben Searcy
The report referred to a piece of 50-second, edited footage purportedly showing a non-Indigenous studio assistant from the member Tjala Arts Centre directly painting on a canvas by Yaritji Young, one of the exhibition’s featured solo artists.
It noted that “particular care needs to be taken in properly assessing the video” as Young was a proud woman with senior cultural status, who suffered from physical disabilities and “appreciates the assistance she receives”.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Young said she was filmed without her consent and her reputation damaged. “People have said that workers know my Tjukurpa [Indigenous cultural laws and stories] and paint on my canvas in the wrong way. The workers are ngurpa [culturally naïve]. They don’t know my Tjukurpa. They work for me. I am their boss. No one paints on my canvas the wrong way.”
NGA director Nick Mitzevich said he would be working with artists to reschedule the show but not before senior gallery figures including himself will meet with Anangu artists on Country.
He said the public could have confidence the report’s authors had methodically reviewed testimony they had received from many third parties and had systematically examined the evidence regarding provenance of the 28 paintings.
“The artists unequivocally say they are the authors of their work, and they made that work with great confidence and feel proud of those works and that is important to us,” he said.
The review, however, is unlikely to settle broader questions around attribution, as its scope was limited to assessing the provenance of works created for the exhibition. It did not examine the broader output and management of the South Australia-based APY Lands Arts Centre Collective, which has labelled allegations of unethical practices as false and an “unjustified attack”.
Nor did it canvass the wider issue of cultural authority and if work made with input from non-Indigenous assistants could be reasonably judged as authentic representations of Indigenous cultural practice and knowledge.
The report made clear that it was never appropriate for a person other than the artist, black or white, to interfere with the surface of another person’s painting in such a way as to add to or alter the image, without the artist’s express consent. To do so, may well amount to a breach of the artist’s moral rights under the Copyright Act 1968.
But it was the artist who was the primary arbiter over provenance including whether they exercised effective creative control and whether they were the authors of their own work. The use of studio workers, of itself, did not affect attribution.
Its administrator Skye O’Meara and other studio workers working in Adelaide had been interviewed several times and were “adamant that they have played no role in the making of any of the paintings which would call into question the provenance of any of them”, the report said. “We have tested this evidence and have determined to accept it.”
O’Meara said the report had debunked claims of compromised integrity.
“I look forward to having each and every one of the subsequent unfounded allegations made against the collective tested in the same rigorous way the NGA review has scrutinised the initial claims,” she said.
Professor of Indigenous art history at the Australian National University Brenda Croft said the report’s findings were disappointing given some First Nations experts had long voiced concerns. She warned the controversy threatens the standing of Indigenous artists across the country. Key stakeholders across the arts sector had preferred to remain quiet, she said, worried any adverse findings would impact the value of works in public and private collections.