ADELAIDE – As Hazel Kutkue contended in PNG Attitude yesterday (‘Our art is glorious but not taken seriously’), Indigenous art is frequently undervalued, be it in Papua New Guinea or elsewhere.
Until the 1970s, Australia’s Indigenous artists were valued only if they could paint in the style of European art.
Albert Namatjira was an outstanding example of this tendency. A brilliant artist, he emerged in the 1930s painting the watercolour landscapes that are still admired and sought after.
His fame was such that he and his wife became the first Indigenous Australians to be granted Australian citizenship.
The art world is notoriously fickle and prone to fads which burn for a while before being overtaken by something new.
It remains a mystery as to why the work of some artists is deemed exceptionally meritorious and valuable while the work of others is dismissed as uninspired, unimportant or otherwise lacking merit.
For a considerable period, the work of the French impressionists in the late 19th century was regarded as lacking any real merit.
Eventually its true significance and worth were accepted and now paintings by Monet or Van Gogh sell for many millions of dollars.
In a somewhat similar way, Indigenous art done in the traditional dot painting style was largely ignored, and even disparaged, for a very long time.
It was not until 1971 that Australia’s Indigenous artists were encouraged to translate the traditional ‘dot art’ to canvas, in what was later identified as the most exciting contemporary art form of the 20th Century.
So it is that times and attitudes change. Now the best examples of this very ancient painting style (dated at more than 60,000 years) are commanding impressive prices in both domestic and international art markets.
By 2007 this ‘dot art’ was so valued that a Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri painting from his Warlugulong ‘map’ series sold for $2.4 million.
I can attest to this through first-hand experience.
A few years ago, my wife and I bought a beautiful painting by a then obscure Indigenous artist, Selma Coulthard.
We liked the painting because we recognised that it was a 'mind map' of the artist's country in the West McDonnell Ranges, a place for which we have considerable affection.
I am pleased to say that Selma Coulthard’s work has been recognised as being of considerable artistic merit and commands very good prices in the art market.
The now wide recognition of the value and importance of Aboriginal art was only achieved through the persistent promotion of Aboriginal art and artists by what was originally just a handful of enthusiasts.
I feel sure this will be the only way in which contemporary PNG art and artists will ultimately get the attention that they deserve.
So Hazel Kutkue is right to be encouraging artists to put their work online and elsewhere in the public eye.
Eventually, the best work will begin to attract attention, probably overseas before it does in PNG.
Once that happens and an embryonic market comes into existence, then PNG's best artists may begin to be able to sell their work and, perhaps, even make a living from it.