The community art centers helping Australia’s Indigenous artists flourish

Yarrenyty Arltere Artists card image 2
CNN  — 

Marlene Rubjunta’s love affair with soft sculpture – the art of shaping soft materials like cloth and rubber – was slow to ignite. When the Australian Indigenous artist first walked into a community arts center in her Northern Territory hometown almost a decade ago, she had to overcome her lack of familiarity with the medium.

“When I first went (to the art center) I couldn’t stand sewing. I was terrible at it, like a kindergarten kid. But then I learnt about it, started concentrating and using a lot of colors.

“And now look at what I can do,” Rubjunta said with a shy smile, pointing to the sculpture that she spent weeks fashioning and refers to as her “bush queen.”

The artwork is currently on show at the cavernous Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney’s iconic Circular Quay as part of the 21st Biennale of Sydney. It stands alongside the work of other Indigenous artists from Rubjunta’s community art center, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists.

The whimsical soft sculptures, which are made from blankets and adorned with bright thread and feathers, depict elements of traditional Aboriginal life including hunting, food and wildlife. The group’s art has won two prizes at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and is represented in major collections around Australia.

Art has played a vital role in in the Larapinta Valley Town Camp in Alice Springs since Yarrenyty Arltere Artists was founded in 2000. Alice Springs has long faced a well-documented battle with violent and alcohol-related crime, as well as problems with youth crime and substance abuse. The community art center was established as a way of tackling social issues, according to its manager, Sophie Wallace.

“Kids as young as five were sniffing petrol,” she said in a phone interview. “At the time the community said, ‘We have to do something about this.’

Members of Yarrenyty Arltere Artists with their soft sculptures in Larapinta Valley Town Camp in Australia's Northern Territory.

“The center started as a place where people could deal with the grief and trauma they were suffering. Being in the Biennale is a reflection of how far they’ve come and how incredible their work is.”

Wallace has served as the center’s manager since 2008, when philanthropic funding helped it became a fully-fledged social enterprise. The center holds classes in painting, sculpture, soft sculpture and ceramics, as well as teaching business skills such as copyright law and intellectual property.

The arts center was part of a multi-pronged approach by the federal government that has helped improve living conditions for the neighborhood’s Aboriginal Australians, Wallace said, pointing to falling rates of alcoholism.

“The center remains absolutely crucial for the community: not just as a place to make money but as a place to meet, unwind and work through problems. It’s a hub, so other services are available and it’s open to all family members too, not just the artists,” said Wallace.

Art as a livelihood

Art sales are the main source of income in many of Australia’s remote communities. According to Western Australia’s Chamber of Arts and Culture, the country now has more than 80 community art centers, most of which are Aboriginal-owned.

The underpayment and exploitation of artists was such an issue that, in 2007, it was addressed in a Senate inquiry into the Aboriginal arts sector, leading to the establishment of a non-governmental Indigenous Art Code. The guidelines state that artists, who may not speak English, should understand the terms and conditions of their sales.

A soft sculpture by indigenous artist Dulcie Sharpe, whose work is currently on display at the 21st Biennale of Sydney.

The code also expressly prohibits dealers from paying artists with drugs, alcohol or even second-hand cars – common practices before the inquiry, according to Gabrielle Sullivan, the CEO of Indigenous Art Code Limited, the company behind the scheme.

“You name it, people were being paid with it,” she said in a phone interview. “It was a massive problem 10 years ago but that has changed somewhat with the instigation of (the code). But it still happens.

“The most horrific stories I heard prior to the inquiry involved Indigenous artists being plucked out of remote desert communities and taken to sheds in towns like Alice Springs, or sometimes even much further afield, such as to Melbourne or Sydney (where) they were told to paint. There are still rogue operators, but that is not the majority.”

Artists and dealers are both invited to sign up to the code, though it remains voluntary. Assessing the market value of Aboriginal artworks poses a further challenge to those trying to ensure fair deals.

“There are no accurate figures on what the (Indigenous art) market is even worth at the moment,” Sullivan said. “People kind of throw figures around but there’s been no comprehensive research.”

More than dots

The inclusion of sculptures from Yarrenyty Arltere Artists at the Sydney Biennale reflects a growing interest in Indigenous art, according to the curator of MCA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions, Clothilde Bullen.

“In the past five to ten years, a greater understanding has developed among the general Australian public about what Aboriginal art is – that it’s not just about dot paintings,” she said in a phone interview, referring to a style commonly associated with Indigenous artists.

“It includes every single medium you could possibly think of, and I think now there is more of a willingness to engage with it, because you don’t need to share a language to be able to understand it,” said Bullen, who has worked with rural arts organizations for more than 20 years and is a Wardandi Aboriginal woman of English and French heritage.

The Yarrenyty Arltere Artists community arts center was founded in 2000 as a way of tackling social issues such as violent crime and substance abuse.

International interest has also grown in recent times. A 2015 government report found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are proportionally more likely to be nominated for a major Australian art award or participate in an international arts event. Of the Australian artists participating in major international arts events, 5% were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders (despite making up less than 3% of the country’s population and only 2.1% of Australians in arts occupations).

The Tate Modern in London recently acquired Indigenous artworks and, in 2015, Sotheby’s became the first international auction house outside Australia to hold regular sales of Aboriginal art.

“(Indigenous art) is starting to gain a different sense of attraction overseas,” said MCA’s Bullen. “Previously it was looked at as ethnographic art, but now it’s really seen as contemporary art.”

Biennale of Sydney’s artistic director, Mami Kataoka, selected the soft sculptures on display at MCA after visiting Alice Springs in April 2017.

“I visited the center because I wanted to see how sculpture-making was a very important part of their life,” she told CNN Style at the Biennale. “And it’s just beautiful and gorgeous,”

Art sales are the main source of income in many of Australia's remote communities.

The blankets used by Yarrenyty Arltere Artists are sourced from second-hand stores in Melbourne. They are then dyed using local plants and rusted metals, before being boiled for up to a week, which gives them their patterns.

“Over the years the embroidery has gotten more intricate and the colors more vibrant,” said Wallace.

The group’s soft sculptures don’t yet command the same prices as the better-known dot paintings, with the most valuable fetching around 10,000 AUD. However, Wallace said that prices are “climbing” and that the artists are unable to keep up with demand. And while Yarrenyty Arltere Artists has a full exhibition schedule at galleries across the country until 2019, it continues to serve a local role.

“The art center is a place for everyone,” Rubjunta said. “That’s why we made it – because we needed a place that belonged to us.”

The 21st Biennale of Sydney, ‘SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement,’ is currently on until 11 June 2018.