A recent controversy in the art centres of Europe brought up the discussion about the classification of the artistic work made by the native people of Australia. Should aboriginal art be considered art or folk art?

According to art theory books, if an artistic work is created with the main finality of express communitarian facts or spiritual feelings it isn’t pure art, but just a form of expression. And this, from the technical point of view of the western world, means folkloric.

Classifications like that are based on academic rules. Certainly it is not on the mind of a person with creative ideas and feeling the need to register it in a painting, sculpture or song to tell a story to express themselves. Someone that in many cases have never been in a theatre, studio or art gallery, and is simply trying to tell others something with the touch of a finger or a stick on a bark, in a rock or in the sand.

Obviously it’s not just a sentimental or intellectual matter. The simple classification of a work as folk or contemporary art will decide how these works will be exhibited, catalogued and sold.

The market, represented by private and public galleries and auction houses, become more important than the origin, history and style of a peculiar form of human creation. In the end it’s not just about art form and culture, but bureaucracy and prices.

The discussion include critics, collectors, dealers, gallery directors and the more important part in the controversy: the artists, or the “folk artists”, the ones who seem to be worried with only one thing: art.

Aboriginal communities don’t see much difference between an art work on the desert sand or on the wall of a cave. But now they do understand that it carries a material value as well, if it is made in a portable – and therefore negotiable – support, like a framed canvas or on a well cut piece of wood.

There are incentives in the form of industrialised painting material and commissions. Artists or not, with inspiration or not, whatever they make will have some value because they are aboriginal and their work will be titled as “original”. Even if far from the genuine urge of personal expression.

Like many others aspects of a particular culture it will be assimilated, as suitable as possible. What was supposed to be priceless, will come at a price.

A price that no money will repair.



Located in the Northern Territory near the border of Western Australia, Wadeye was founded as a mission in the early 1930s. The white settlers named the place Port Keats.

There is a population of about 1.000, including natives of many tribes and people of European background, most of them missionaries.

Officially, the administration of the reserve is under the responsibility of the aboriginal people. The white people run some of the business, like the supermarket, the bush tucker and the art gallery.

The main difference between the art and the other trades is that the art merchants take the goods out, while the other business make they profit bringing goods to the reserve. 

The art and craft business of Wadeye works in a similar way than in many others aboriginal communities of Australia. 

The natives are encouraged to create artistic works by activities and a paid commission that varies according to the commerciality of their creation.   

The structure include two art galleries carrying the name of the reserve, a local one and another in a commercial centre, Darwin, in this case.  

Because of the remote distance, the gallery in the reserve works more like a depot. There the art work is mounted, priced and packed to be taken by air to Darwin, the front of the business, with easy access by tourists and art buyers from all parts of the world.   

Paints on canvas, barks, sculptures, didgeridoos and objects made by the locals in the reserves are displayed as genuine Aboriginal Art.

As a business, all that works. But as art, it’s not that simple.

In most cases the subjects are obvious: local landscape, animals etc with the finality to serve a determined commercial purpose, far from the soul. 

If we understand art as a necessity that a person have to create something with their own experiences and style, could we call original a work that was made by request, incentive or oriented by others?

In Wadeye history, like in many others, we find great art. In the rich field of the spontaneous aboriginal art we see the physical and spiritual experiences of a people through original methods, forms and subjects. 

The portrait of a soul is one of the hardest abilities to be achieved in any form of art. And there is not business structure that can teach or make such a thing.



© Jorge Bechara
STU Magazine, June 2002



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