Indigenous economies have been hit by coronavirus, but online art sales offer a ray of hope | Indigenous art

Quarantining remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has protected many vulnerable First Nations people from Covid-19. But it has been to the necessary detriment of local economies.

This is especially so when primary income sources are the national and international markets for Indigenous art. The floor has dropped out of sales to tourists visiting remote communities while important Indigenous art shows, such as Fremantle’s Revealed, have cancelled.

There are signs, however, some have invested significantly in Indigenous art via the internet during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Online sales and promotional space for Australian visual artists, Bluethumb, says its Indigenous art sales increased by 110% in the June quarter while Australians were in isolation. Bluethumb’s Indigenous representation has grown steadily in recent years; it now partners with 30 Indigenous art centres (up from eight in 2017).

When remote First Nations communities went into lockdown, most community art centres that partner with Bluethumb closed due to the absence of tourists and an incapacity to move the art listed on the website.

Bluethumb’s Freddy Grant says: “To help counter this, we offered art centres the opportunity to send consignments of artworks to our houses as we were and still are working from home.”

Grant and co-founders, Ed and George Hartley, have sold and posted pieces to buyers most days.

He says: “People are no longer buying things like fast fashion and instead are buying locally and buying investment pieces to improve their homes. It’s no surprise in these conditions interest in Indigenous art has skyrocketed. We’ve also dedicated a large portion of our marketing efforts to help our art centres sell as much as possible.”

Half of Bluethumb’s Indigenous art sales in the last quarter happened in June amid “growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement”, Grant says.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves. Australians are now more interested in Indigenous rights, history and culture than ever and are supporting Indigenous creatives because of this.”

Bluethumb’s online sales of the work of Indigenous artist Karen Lee (who is not aligned with an art centre) rose 400% in June compared with May.

Indigenous artist Karen Lee at her studio in Glenmore Park, NSW, Australia
Indigenous artist Karen Lee at her studio. Bluethumb’s online sales of her work rose 400% in June. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“A good percentage of my increase in sales is due to the raised awareness of the importance of culture and … an increased interest in the storytelling of Indigenous art. The recent promotions of Bluethumb have given me great exposure and I am noticing that collectors are showing more interest in the meaning of the art, its symbolism and stories.”

Artists and art centres in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are often the mainstay of local economies. A single artist may support large extended families of 20 or 30 people.

Ironically, perhaps, artists who may not themselves use or have regular access to the internet may be producing work that is only sold online right now.

In a recent interview in his Walpiri language, Patrick “Jupiter” Smith of Warlayirti Artists (a centre whose online sales have been strong in lockdown) said: “I can’t say I know much about the internet … How might this work then? Well our art centre will post our artworks to the internet. [Our artworks] might end up all the way to the east, perhaps as far as America, to some big city.”

Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre at Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, sold about $5m of art last financial year, including the last Covid-impacted quarter. Sales fell dramatically from March to June, however, and the centre coordinator, Will Stubbs, expects the next full year to be bad.

But, he says, an otherwise bad sales quarter was somewhat redeemed when his colleague Dean Wickens launched Buku onto the internet.

“I have been ignoring the assertion that you can sell fine art online since it was first proffered in 1999. Turns out I was wrong. Eventually,” Stubbs says.

“We have seen our Instagram followers rise by 3,000 in that three months and our [internet] sales are around $25K per month now. Before we put that effort into making our website useful, sales were low to zero … Where we are missing is the flood of adventurous motivated people who find their way to this remote cultural centre every dry season. Generally, these people often mark their once-in-a-lifetime visits with a special piece bought on country. That is the deficit in our sales and we assume it can’t be completely replaced by online purchasers.”

Stephanie Pakin, the Indigenous engagement manager of Indigenous Art Code (which promotes transparency and integrity in First Nations art sales, says Covid-19 has heavily impacted a range of selling points – including art fairs, exhibitions, galleries and centres – for Aboriginal and Torres Strait art.

“During this time of change, we have noticed some of these parties being able to move into virtual experiences and online spaces to promote and sell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks and products. While the increase in some online sales is good, the overall impact on income for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists is likely to be affected during this time of closure and postponement of the usual selling and engagement opportunities,” she says.

“Ongoing movements like Black Lives Matter can sometimes cause a reflection of or highlight the relationships that nations may or may not have with Indigenous people. One way that members of the public may feel as though they can connect or respond to such movements is to engage with and support the livelihoods of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists through the purchase of artworks and products.”

Her organisation’s work is ever more important with increasing transactions between Indigenous creators and those who sell their work, as, she says, it strives to “promote ethical and transparent arrangements, including respect for Indigenous cultural and intellectual property”.

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