It wasn’t such a long time ago that colonizers or tourists were buying art from indigenous artists with food, alcohol, or a handful of cash, and then reselling that art for thousands of dollars. Though the Indigenous Art Code was developed in 2007, its implementation remains voluntary, as it is a code rather than a set of legally binding laws. At the very least, the code provides guidelines for doing business with an indigenous artist, making transactions with Australian Aboriginals fair and ethical.
The code specifies that transactions with indigenous artists require that the artist, who may not necessarily speak English or the language of the buyer, understand the terms and conditions of the sale, and that the buyer respect indigenous cultural practices and cultures. Likewise, the artists are not to be paid with drugs or alcohol.
The best place to purchase art from indigenous artists is a community center, says Philip Watkins, head of Desart, an association of central Australian Aboriginal art and craft centers. Community centers make good use of the code, acting as a “broker” between the artist and the art industry—kind of like an art gallery. This helps ensure that the artist is compensated fairly and not taken advantage of.
However, the code and working through community centers does not eradicate would-be swindlers entirely. “There are sweatshops still happening. A dealer will fly into Alice Springs [in the Northern Territory, Australia] and will get a hotel room. Artists will be put in there and the dealer will provide the canvas and the paints and they give the artists a short period of time to paint 30 or 40 canvases,” Watkins says.
Art is “purchased for less than it’s worth. Generally Aboriginal people in our region are in the very lowest socioeconomic levels, so the art industry is very important in terms of subsistence,” Watkins adds.
So rather than go to an artist personally—unless you have a good personal relationship with them—the very best way to purchase indigenous art ethically is to do it through third-party means, like community and art centers. Indigenous art is a popular item for travelers and tourists, says Terese Cooke, a gallery manager at Ayers Rock Resort, which partners with indigenous artists to sell their works.
If you are looking to buy indigenous art on your own, do your research on it first. Talk to organizations that partner with indigenous communities or Native American artists to find the right way to buy and support the artists.