- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

PARIS

After fetching record prices in Australia, Aboriginal art is carving out a place on the art market in France, spurred by the opening last year of Paris’ Quai Branly museum of tribal arts.

The artwork dates back to the 1970s, when teacher Geoffrey Bardon first supplied Aboriginal elders with acrylic paints to help sedentary children learn beliefs once acquired by traveling on foot.

The tales of the “Dreamtime,” or creation, told on modern-day canvases previously were set down in sand or on bark.

The dots, circles and lines of contemporary canvases depicting ancient beliefs have become particularly sought after by lovers of contemporary and abstract art.

More than half a dozen displays of Australian indigenous art are being held in the Paris area this month, perhaps the most significant during the recent Parcours des Monde, which gathered 50 galleries and dealers in primitive arts in the heart of the city.

With Paris firmly established as the world’s top city for primitive arts, both contemporary Aboriginal art and ancient artifacts such as sacred story-line “churingas” and storyboards were on view.

“Six or seven years ago, nobody here could care less about Aboriginal art,” says gallery owner Stephane Jacob, who specializes in contemporary Australian indigenous works.

After a few shows in the mid-1980s and since, Aboriginal artists finally walked into the limelight last year after being commissioned to paint parts of the new Quai Branly museum.

Several galleries have begun showing Aboriginal works, including Yapa Gallery, which opened last year and promotes Aboriginal song and dance as well as art. In June, Gaia auctioneers held a first-time sale, which they said was the biggest ever in Europe.

Though prices were well below the $2.1 million paid in July at a Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne, Australia, for a huge dot painting by the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, a work by Judy Watson Napangardi — “Wititji-Hairstring Dreaming” — fetched more than $31,000.

“People are beginning to collect,” says Gaia’s Nathalie Mangeot. “Many of the buyers are people who love Australia, but there are a few real collectors now in Europe.”

“It is too early to talk about speculation, but prices will go up,” Miss Mangeot says.

One French buyer, schoolteacher Christian Leroy — who has collected works from many parts of Australia — says canvases are available on the market for prices starting at $841.

However, Miss Jacob says concerns over sourcing and exploitation of Aboriginal artists have grown with the development of the market.

An Australian Senate inquiry carried out over 11 months said in June that unscrupulous dealers were swindling Aboriginal artists, often paying them a fraction of a work’s real value.

On a trip this year to Alice Springs in the Australian Outback, an Agence France-Presse team saw Aboriginal artists at work in a warehouse ringed by a padlocked chain-link fence.

Miss Jacob says she works exclusively with recognized Aboriginal art centers; Sotheby’s says some works were turned down; and Gaia has an expert who buys only from people he knows.

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