It’s been a tough three years for many of Australia’s Aboriginal arts centres. As the pandemic unfolded, and with the Northern Territory – where many are located – implementing strict border closures, things were looking grim for regional and remote art makers who are largely dependent on tourism.
But thanks to a swift pivot online, what could have been a crisis became something of a boom.
“We couldn’t travel interstate and all tourism stopped – but we were amazed by how quickly art galleries and art fairs moved to online,” says Ruth McMillan, art coordinator of Tangentyere Artists in Alice Springs. “For us, the online art fair has been fantastic. It meant that income didn’t stop for the artists.”
One of them was the Tarnanthi Art Fair; the Art Gallery of South Australia’s annual event debuted as an online-only fair in 2021, after a hybrid 2020. Tangentyere Artists’ inclusion in 2020 opened a window to the world, at a time when Australian Indigenous art was becoming increasingly coveted among collectors and consumers. “We sold works in Asia and America, and other centres sold to Europe,” McMillan says. “We sold work to the Philippines and UAE. We sold a lot of work to expats overseas, and to embassies. It was an unexpected surprise.”
Every dollar from Tarnanthi’s sales goes directly to the art makers or arts centres, with buyers assured that all artworks are made and sold ethically. At last year’s event, which was held across three days in October, Tarnanthi sold a record $1.4m of work, from about 50 arts centres and independent artists – about 16% higher than at previous in-person events.
Buoyed up by that success, the 2022 Tarnanthi (pronounced tar-nan-dee) art fair, which opens today, will be entirely online again: an accessible showcase of paintings, ceramics, sculpture, woven objects, jewellery, textiles, clothes and homewares from Aboriginal arts centres and artists in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Victoria and Queensland.
The fair will also present a series of talks, online workshops with artists, and language tutorials in Kaurna, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara – some of which will be available to view online afterwards.
“For us, it’s quite a remarkable model,” said McMillan. “Online there are no real costs for us, and all the money comes back to the arts centre.”
Indigenous art centres often sit at the heart of a remote community. They provide studio space, art materials and technical support for the artists; some also provide breakfast and lunch, and space for a chat. The money coming back into the centres might be shared among artists or the broader community, or used to subsidise support programs for nutrition, literacy and numeracy, after-school and holiday care, or training and employment. And all of them help the artists sell their work ethically through galleries and art fairs, and ensure First Nations artists are paid for their work.
“Tangentyere” translates to coming or working together: while many arts centres cater to just one or two language groups, “we have people from a dozen or more different places and language groups working together daily,” McMillan explains. “People have come from all over the central desert, and have to negotiate a shared space.”
The centre is known for its “true story” figurative paintings, which document both old ways and contemporary town camp life. Every day at Tangentyere is different. A morning bus picks up the artists from the town camps, which circle Alice Springs, and the artists eat a quick breakfast before getting started. Work wraps up by 3pm, after lunch, because many are “nannas” with multiple family responsibilities.
The particular vulnerabilities of regional and remote Aboriginal communities to Covid-19 were writ large at Tangentyere. Some of its artists require dialysis treatment. The centre’s oldest artist turned 80 this year. The youngest is 18.
Even though the NT borders were closed until December 2021, the Tangentyere artists and staff still adhered to safety protocols. Social distancing was introduced, with artists using the studio on a roster and working 1.5m apart. The gallery was closed to the public, except for on Saturdays when the artists weren’t there. Staff also made up art packs – including paints or weaving materials – for artists to work from home. “Most people were happy with the border closures, happy not to travel,” McMillan says. “It even became a subject of the art.”
Tarnanthi Art Fair has been running since 2015. Its artistic director, Nici Cumpston, says the online fair will probably continue beyond 2022, although an in-person event is planned too.
“Nothing could be better than the personal experience of seeing the art on the country it’s from, but I think people are used to buying just about everything online now,” she says. In some ways, the pandemic has also been good for the artists, she adds. “Having most of the art centres closed to the public meant it was a relatively quiet time for the artists and they were able to really concentrate on their work.”
Without tourists coming through for them to interact with, the artists “had more time on their hands, and a lot of them started to push boundaries and think up new ideas,” Cumpston says. “I’ve seen a real shift in the works of art being created but that’s not so surprising, perhaps – artists always make the most of a situation.”
How to buy art from the Tarnanthi Art Fair online
Between 5pm on Friday 14 October and 9pm on Monday 17 October, the Tarnanthi Art Fair will be available at this website. You’ll find all the programmed art centres in one place, which is helpful for those who may not know what is out there.
The other important aspect for buyers is confidence that each artwork is made and sold ethically, according to the Indigenous art code. No costs are incurred by the art centres to participate, every dollar from all sales goes directly to the artists/art centres, and you are buying directly from the artists as opposed to the secondary market such as auctions, where the artists may only receive a 5% resale royalty.
The art centres are listed A-Z. Take your time learning about where in Australia the art was made, who made it and read the story behind the work. The prices are clearly labelled, ranging from $40 tea towels to small paintings on canvas (around $150-$400) through to significant works, with pricing about $1,200-$3,000 to $10,000-$15,000.
You don’t have to bid; just go ahead and buy. You can search by type – for instance painting, weaving, jewellery, T-shirts or carvings – or search by budget or artist name or art centre. The work will be sent to you directly from the art centre (international shipping is extra).
Tarnanthi Art Fair will be open at this website from 5pm Friday 14 October until 9pm Monday 17 October