17 April 2023

NGA launches investigation into Aboriginal art claims as exhibition opening looms

| Ian Bushnell
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national gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia: the Ngura Pulka exhibition opens on 3 June. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Only weeks before the National Gallery of Australia opens its Aboriginal art blockbuster, Ngura Pulka – Epic Country, media reports claiming white involvement in the works has forced it to launch an urgent independent investigation.

The NGA has billed the winter exhibition, due to open on 3 June, as one of the largest and most significant First Nations community-driven art projects to have ever been developed, saying it is conceived, created, directed and determined by the Anangu people from the APY lands in the South Australian desert.

However, an investigation by The Australian alleges that white studio assistants painted on Indigenous artworks slated to be part of the exhibition, and includes a video showing a studio manager painting on the canvas of leading Indigenous artist Yaritji Young, who will be featured in the NGA exhibition.

The NGA said in a statement that it was concerned at media reports questioning the authorship of the works and was commissioning an independent review of their provenance and creation and the extent of the ‘hand of assistance’.

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A spokesperson for the NGA’s exhibition partner the APY Art Centre Collective welcomed the review, saying in the NGA statement it would fully and openly participate.

“It is important to all of our artists that there is no question as to the integrity of our process of the creation of our art,” the spokesperson said.

The NGA said Gallery Council member and APY Land Adelaide Studio Committee member of the APYACC, Sally Scales, would recuse herself from the Council’s participation or consideration of the review to avoid any conflicts of interest.

It said the APY Lands artists were supporting the review.

The NGA did not say who would conduct the review, include terms of reference or what timeframe it would have, given the exhibition is so close at hand.

It also would not elaborate on the ‘hand of assistance’ or whether any outside involvement was acceptable.

The National Gallery exercised provenance and authorship research to the highest standards, it said.

“The role of the National Gallery is to support artists, and Ngura Pulka is an important exhibition to provide artists from this dynamic art movement coming out of the desert with an opportunity to showcase their works on a national stage,” the NGA said.

The claims have prompted calls for the APYACC management to resign over the allegations.

The white interference allegations have rocked the NGA, which was celebrating the Federal Government’s funding announcement for the Gallery of $119.1 million and $23.1 million ongoing, and preparing for its winter showcase.

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The NGA had been at the forefront of a campaign for a better funding deal after what the government said had been a decade of neglect by the previous Coalition government.

The gallery had said it could not afford basic maintenance issues such as leaking roofs and windows and was being forced to contemplate drastic measures including forced redundancies, closing two days a week, and possibly reintroducing entry fees.

The cancellation of its major winter exhibition would be disastrous.

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