The insider’s guide to buying aboriginal art in the Northern Territory.
Black cockatoos carved from Tiwi Island trees, Red Centre cliffs etched in bright blue paint, bush baskets woven with Katherine-region grass – for indigenous art lovers, the creative offerings in the NT are tantalising, but where to start?
The Territory’s diversity lies at the heart of this happy conundrum. From tip to tail, its landscape moves from leafy and water-filled tropics to canyon and monolith-dotted desert. Forty aboriginal cultures reside within this mixed geographical zone, which as a whole boasts Australia’s highest proportional percentage of indigenous people, at 30 per cent of the population.
“If not a majority, then a large part of the country’s total aboriginal art production happens in the Northern Territory,” says the owner of Darwin’s Outstation Gallery, Matt Ward. “You feel connected to the art when you’re in the NT – it seems to make more sense to people.”
Master the NT art-buying scene with these five pointers.
1. Find out what you like
“Above all, art is an aesthetic experience, so start by looking broadly at NT art movements to work out what appeals to you,” advises Claire Summers, executive director of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.
Two of the best places for gazing at large collections are the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin and the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs.
2. Drop into an art centre
Community aboriginal art centres support artists, provide them with workspaces and showcase their creations at in-house galleries.
“For travellers, visiting these centres, meeting artists and seeing them work can be an amazing experience. Every centre has a unique history and culture that informs its style,” says Jasper Coleman, program officer at Desart, the peak body for more than 40 art centres in the central desert region.
He adds that purchasing art directly from centres is the “gold standard” way to shop as it ensures artists are paid fairly for their work.
3. Get behind ethical art
If buying outside of centres, check that you’re making an ethical purchase by noting whether the gallery or seller is a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code.
According to Coleman and Ward, fakes circulate in the market, as does work produced in less-than-ideal conditions – a problem that’s slightly more pronounced in central Australia.
Sticking to sellers who abide by the Code supports high-integrity trade that defends indigenous artists’ right to negotiate terms for their work and guarantees buyers that the work originates from where a seller says it does.
4. Attend an art fair
Aboriginal art fairs – annual events attended by multiple art centres – provide an abundance of choice, plus the opportunity to speak with artists, participate in workshops and listen to artist talks.
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair runs in early August, and Alice Springs hosts the lively and less formal Desert Mob art fair in September.
“Art fairs are full of colour, energy and personal interactions,” says Claire Summers, who notes that 30 NT art centres and a total of 200 artists attended the most recent Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.
“Their friendly atmosphere breaks down the formality of buying art and builds a connection between buyers and artworks.”
5. Check out a commercial gallery
Various commercial galleries deal directly with art centres. Shopping through these outlets allows you to access curated collections that carry an industry expert’s stamp of approval.
Says Ward: “If you’re wanting more than a trinket or souvenir and instead are seeking a really good artwork that will stand the test of time, then commercial galleries display work that’s already been filtered – art that’s hung on our walls for a reason.”
Four galleries that work directly with art centres are Darwin’s Outstation Gallery, Nomad Art and Paul Johnstone Gallery, as well as Alice Springs’ Raft Artspace.
Four NT art movements to suit your style
If you love…
Landscapes: Check out the Hermannsburg School, a movement that started in the 1930s with the celebrated aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira’s depictions of bush-scapes around the MacDonnell Ranges, near Alice Springs. These paintings combine striking colour with classical form.
Abstracts: Utopia artists from central Australia are known for their contemporary abstract style and bold colour palettes, two examples of which are the renowned ‘leaf’ and ‘circle’ pattern work of Gloria Petyarre.
Fabrics: For colourful illustrated prints loaded with personality, see creations from Top End fabric producer Tiwi Design in the Tiwi Islands, Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya and Merrepen Arts in the Daly River region.
Forward-thinking art: Yirrkala artists from north-east Arnhem Land focus on finding new ways to express old stories, such as painting on glass and working with recycled tin. Fittingly, the region’s art centre has a stellar online shop, too.