Australian Investigation Finds No ‘Improper Interference’ by White Studio Staff in Paintings by Indigenous Collective

The National Gallery of Australia’s independent investigation into allegations of “improper interference” by non-Indigenous staff with the APY Art Centre Collective has cleared the group of wrongdoing.

The 45-page report released by lawyers Colin Golvan and Shane Simpson said the all of the 29 artists interviewed “unequivocally told us that the works under review in each case were made by them and expressly denied that there had been any improper interference in the making of their work.”

The review panel also interviewed 10 current and former studio workers, as well as senior members of industry organizations, art centers, and representative organizations, including Desart, Ernabella Arts, Ku Arts, and the Indigenous Art Code.

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The NGA’s review was prompted by a report fromthe Australian in early April alleging that white studio staff had been painting on the works attributed to residents of Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY), sparsely populated lands in remote South Australia home to more than 20 Aboriginal communities. The newspaper’s findings were the result of interviews with former gallery staff and Aboriginal artists about whether the work of white art assistants interfered with the artistic process.

The newspaper’s report was published before the scheduled opening of a major exhibition featuring 28 paintings from APY artists at the NGA. As a result of the museum’s review and an investigation led by the South Australian government, the show, titled “Ngura Pulka – Epic Country,” was postponed indefinitely.

The NGA initially said it expected to receive the findings of the independent review by May 31. On June 1, Golvan and Simpson provided an interim report to the museum’s council stating “most of the paintings have not been subject to any credible direct evidence impugning their provenance” and that the paintings satisfied the NGA’s provenance standards of the National Gallery.

In their new report, Golvan and Simpson—experts in copyright protection for Indigenous arts as well as property and copyright laws in the areas of arts, entertainment and culture—wrote that they “are of the opinion that the 28 Paintings comply with the Provenance Standards of the National Gallery.”

The report emphasized the importance and authority of the artist’s word, and stated that each of the artists interviewed did not hesitate or qualify to state how the 28 paintings were made. The artists “expressly denied that there had been any improper interference in the making of their work.”

In regard to the actions of white studio workers, the report’s authors said they had no issue with the non-Indigenous staff priming canvases or generic processes such as “putting down uniform background washes.”

“Indeed, it is to be expected and such assistance is generally unlikely to raise either authorship issues or issues of creative control,” said the report. “Sometimes advice will be provided on appropriate colours for a particular painting – and we see this as a proper role for an assistant to play in the making of works for public display and sale, so long as the artist approves the colour choice being suggested.”

The report also directly addressed assumptions about the level of interference by white studio workers despite the level of experience, distinction in individual styles, and the highly protective feelings about Tjukurrpa held by many of the APY artists.

“Assuming their styles could be imitated or controlled even in part by studio workers, this imitation or control would need to cross a large body of very different, complex and large work and be undetectable to curators, as well as private gallery managers and informed collectors alike (and conducted in secrecy),” the report said. “It assumes a level of quietly practised skill by studio workers which would be extraordinary and to date unknown. It also assumes that artists of standing, and with important cultural duties, would allow this imitation or control to occur and to accept widespread interference with their Tjukurrpa.”

The cultural imagery of Tjukurrpa, found in the paintings by APY artists, is the creation period of ancestral beings that also formed the religion, law, and moral systems that govern Anangu society.

When asked about the findings over the review, the APYACC told ABC News Australia in a statement that “‘White hands on black art’ is a false story and it always was.”

“We the artists who have signed this statement have 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.”

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