“From a Northern-European perspective, Australia is a deeply fascinating country and remote continent on the other side of the world. After working in the European art world for several years I was fortunate to broaden my scope by moving to Sydney. Even more fortunate, I started working at Piermarq where I’m learning extensively about the dynamics of the Australian art market and Australian indigenous and non-indigenous art.
Australian art market
In the past few months I became aware that the Australian art market is quite distinct, just as the continent itself. Where renowned international masters such as Renoir, Picasso and Matisse are collected all over the globe, there doesn’t appear to be a notable market for international modern artists in Australia – some exceptions there of course. On the other hand, I wasn’t that familiar with the work of for instance Tom Roberts, Charles Blackman or John Olsen.
International perspectives on Aboriginal Art
However, I was familiar with some of the great names of Aboriginal Art, such as Tommy Watson, Naata Nungurrayi, and George Hairbrush Tjungurrayi. Not only due to Tommy Watson’s representation in Paris at the Musée du Quai Branly or George’s inclusion in the collection of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands; also thanks to the fact that I’ve had the privilege to represent these and other renowned Aboriginal artists with an international art dealer at some of the world’s most prestigious art fairs. For instance The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) Maastricht – in the Netherlands, close to the German and Belgian border – which is annually attended by directors of international public institutions to purchase masterpieces for their museum collections, but also by well-known politicians and even the rich and famous such as Madonna, Damien Hirst and Kanye West, who all go shopping in Maastricht for their private collections. TEFAF’s 2014 edition displayed a 5m-masterpiece by Tommy Watson, exposed to some 85,000 international visitors. Also at esteemed art fairs in Miami and Palm Beach (Florida), where monumental works by Mrs. Bennett, Esther Giles Nampitjinpa and George Tjungurrayi were sold to important collectors and Forbes 500-listed individuals.
Meeting Tommy Watson and George Tjungurrayi
Recently I had the opportunity to accompany the directors of Piermarq on a desert trip to Alice Springs, Hermannsburg and Yuendumu, which have been some of the most exceptional and educational days in my life. Spending time with George Tjungurrayi and Tommy Watson has been a unique and unforgettable experience. Not only to see how well the artists – and their complete entourage – are looked after, but also to witness them creating their masterpieces.
Collecting Aboriginal art for its aesthetic quality
Over the past few months I became aware how Aboriginal art is intertwined within political and heavily polarised debates. Therefore it was interesting and useful to personally experience the situation with the artists and persons involved on site, as to form an objective opinion. Besides meeting the artists, I met with their private dealer and the coordinator of one of the art centres. Without going into the issue too deep – that could end up in an extensive thesis in its own right – I consider the situation as one with a difference in respectively quality versus quantity. Authentic masterpieces by Aboriginal artists should be valued for their quality, not whether they were painted for a commercial dealer or at a government funded art centre. Shouldn’t artists be allowed to decide for who they work, just like in the rest of the art world? It seems as if European and American collectors, less influenced by social and political issues in Australia, are better able to criticise Aboriginal art purely for their beauty and quality.
What draws international collectors to Aboriginal art?
To my knowledge, besides being fascinated by the spectacular history of this ancient culture, they fall in love with the aesthetic quality and appeal. Reminiscent of modern abstraction it’s not hard to relate to these beautiful artworks. The imagery goes back tens of thousands of years, relating to petroglyphs in remote desert areas dating at least 30,000 years, hence Aboriginal artworks are great conversation pieces. Paradoxically Aboriginal art relates directly to the oldest living culture in the world, but is 100% contemporary. However this doesn’t mean it’s only collected by contemporary art lovers. Many European collectors have integrated Aboriginal paintings within collections of classical paintings and antiques. Imagine a large painting by Naata Nungurrayi next to a 17th-century Old Master painting with a traditional ebony wooden frame; or the painting by Esther Giles Nampitjinpa combined with artworks ranging from the 15th-20th centuries at the Venice Biennale exhibition in Museo Fortuny in 2011. Also, I’ve had the privilege to admire the private collection of Dr. Simon Levie, former director of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum (who opened the Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam in 1999), who has some impressive Aboriginal masterpieces, accompanying a monumental 17th-century cabinet and Romantic 19th century Dutch paintings. In each example the Aboriginal artworks displayed astonishingly beautiful, but more importantly they are all valued for their aesthetic quality.
Art Palm Beach, Florida
It’s deserved and extremely exciting that Piermarq has been invited to attend Art Palm Beach in Florida in January 2016 with an exhibition that is purely focussing on blue-chip Aboriginal artists – some of whom I’ve actually met. I can’t wait to have a conversation with the international audience on these contemporary masters.”
Sophie Rietveld, MA
Piermarq Gallery Manager