9 June 2023

NGA postpones Indigenous art blockbuster as probes continue

| Ian Bushnell
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Ngura Pulka

One of the artists and art works from the Ngura Pulka promotion. Photo: NGA.

The National Gallery of Australia has postponed its winter blockbuster Ngura Pulka – Epic Country exhibition to give the independent review panel investigating claims of white involvement in some of the artworks more time to complete its work.

The NGA said its decision was also influenced by the South Australian and Northern Territory governments conducting their own review, with the support of the Federal Government.

“The National Gallery will work with the artists and Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) community leaders in relation to the exhibition and will await the outcome of both reviews,” it said.

“The National Gallery is committed to continuing to work with APY Lands artists and supporting their ground-breaking work.”

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Due to open on 3 June, the exhibition was billed as one of the largest and most significant First Nations community-driven art projects ever developed, conceived, created, directed and determined by the Anangu people from the APY lands in the South Australian desert.

But media claims that white studio assistants painted on Indigenous artworks slated to be part of the exhibition, including a video showing a studio manager painting on the canvas of leading Indigenous artist Yaritji Young, rocked the art world and forced the gallery to launch an urgent investigation in April.

Later that month the NGA announced the terms of reference and the reviewers – Colin Golvan, KC, one of the most senior members of the Intellectual Property Bar in Melbourne, with extensive experience in copyright protection for Indigenous arts; and Shane Simpson, founder of Simpsons Solicitors, a recognised expert in arts, entertainment, cultural property and copyright laws.

Professor Maree Meredith, a Bidjara woman and University of Canberra’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership, and Kokatha and Nukunu artist Yhonnie Scarce are advising them.

The NGA said at the time that the panel would determine whether the paintings could properly be described as having been made under the creative control of the persons named as the artists and make recommendations to NGA director Nick Mitzevich based on the findings.

The review is not assessing the broader ethics and workings of the First Nations art market; the significance of the Tjukurpa (cultural stories) of the 28 paintings; whether individuals who contributed to the 28 paintings were entitled to do so under relevant First Nations cultural laws; or the authorship of other APY paintings not proposed for display by the National Gallery.

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Dr Mitzevich said the review would clarify whether the APY artists attributed as the creators of the paintings in the exhibition exercised effective creative control, and could properly be described as the artists responsible for those works consistent with the National Gallery’s provenance policy.

“These are big cultural, artistic, and economic issues, and we are happy to be part of the conversation. But the National Gallery is not an arbitral body,” he said.

“At this point, our focus is ensuring the welfare and safety of artists and seeking independent and expert assistance to assess the provenance of the 28 works on loan to the National Gallery for Ngura Pulka.”

Concern about the claims spread to the SA, NT and Commonwealth governments and in May it was announced South Australia would lead a review into the origins of the artworks.

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Hmm yes, an expensive inquiry into the racial purity of the artworks does seem important. Can’t dilute that all-important essentialism. Leni Reifenstahl would be proud.

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