Activist doubts Aboriginal art probe will stop meddling

·2-min read

A government investigation into alleged interference at an Aboriginal art centre won't stop intrusions in future, according to artist and activist Richard Bell.

When non-Indigenous staffers work at art centres, they must be hands off because they have no place telling Aboriginal people what to paint, Bell told AAP.

"That's colonialism, it's disgusting, that attitude... they should be taught no, this is not okay," he said.

South Australia's APY Art Centre Collective faces allegations first published in The Australian newspaper that non-Indigenous workers interfered with works by Aboriginal artists.

The collective has denied the accusations, saying they are false and defamatory, while the federal, South Australian and Northern Territory governments are backing an investigation. The SA government says there is no timeframe or framework for the probe.

The allegations have been "really damaging" says Bell, who is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities.

Bell sees himself as making primarily contemporary art rather than Aboriginal art - which frees him from demands for authenticity, he says.

He's saddened but not surprised by the accusations - Bell famously won the Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award in 2003 for a painting that stated "Aboriginal art - it's a white thing".

It came with a theory about the commodification of Indigenous art by the white art market - and nothing has changed in the two decades since that was written, Bell said.

His travelling installation Embassy, inspired by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, went on show at the Tate Modern in London on Saturday - the heart of the beast of colonial empire, as he puts it.

Artists in the APY Lands could not be further from the Tate Modern, in terms of both geography and cultural heritage.

Artists from the region are making works that are completely different to western art and don't need to be told what or how to paint, Bell said.

Quentin Sprague is a writer and art critic who has lived on the Tiwi Islands and in the Kimberley, where he worked for Aboriginal arts organisations.

He agrees with Bell that governments stepping in to arbitrate fair practice in the studios of Aboriginal art centres gives rise to its own problems.

"While there are clear issues about agency and creative control that need to be resolved, the danger is there's going to be a sort of legislative definition of what constitutes fair creative practice," he told AAP.

He and Bell also concur that a standard of authenticity is being applied to Aboriginal art in a way that would never occur for western artists, with nothing less than the health of the industry at stake.

The allegations concerning the APY Art Centre Collective have come as it was preparing for a major exhibition of works from the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands at the National Gallery of Australia.

The gallery's probe into the authenticity of artworks in that show is due at the end of May.