How to Collect Ethical Indigenous Art

Installation view: Alcaston Gallery at Sydney Contemporary 2022 | Photo: Simon Strong

We speak with Beverly Knight, an art connoisseur and founder of the Alcaston Gallery, who has dedicated her life to promoting Indigenous art and bridging cultural gaps throughout her exhibitions…

While ethics and provenance are clearly of key importance, how crucial is it for the collector to understand the story-telling and cultural significance behind each piece?

To buy art because it is an exceptional visually significant work without knowing the artist’s intentions or “story” is fine! Many art lovers begin to research First Nations history after their first purchase. Many artists prefer to keep their knowledge personal and private whilst others use their work to describe their inner thoughts or political history. Art is in the eye of the beholder as general rule. The title of a work can alert you to a significant place were the artist spiritually was born and bound in, but it can also be ‘untitled’ due to the artist preferring the viewer to just look and wonder.

Ginger Riley Munduwalawala (c. 1936 – 2002) The Limmen Bight River – My Mother’s Country 1993 Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 190 x 191cm | © The Estate of Ginger Riley and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

Many First Nations artists’ work is undoubtedly influenced by their history, culture, and Country – for some artists, it is a means of passing down cultural knowledge to younger generations; however, it is not the onus of the collector or art buyer to gain total understanding of another person’s culture – nor should the buyer be driven by this notion. The artist might not reveal their true ‘culture’ onto the canvas; but rather, a representation of their cultural influences.

How important is it to purchase ethically, and what sort of impact is buying a work from a not-for-profit arts centre making on the artist and their community? 

Purchasing art through ethically known galleries representing art centre artists can ensure fair dealings for artists and enable them to make a living. Provenance is traced and archives are kept. Not for profit organisations including art centres receive funding from government bodies and provide a safe creative environment for artists to create work and share ideas with fellow artists and members of the community. 

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (c. 1924 – 2015) Dibirdibi Country 2012, Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 151 x 196cm | © The Estate of Sally Gabori and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

Apart from the ethical side of buying, what other elements should a buyer consider? 

I always look for trailblazing artists – artists that are unique in how they view their world. I seem to have an uncanny ability for discovering emerging artists who paint from ‘the mind’s eye’.

Don’t be afraid of colour. Colour can also be a way of authenticating some First Nations art! It is in their mind; the desert, the east coast of Australia, and the far north all give glimpses of the mind’s eye in colour.

Be diverse – everyone loves paintings, but artists are doing wonderful work in sculpture, weaving, and ceramics. 

Be savvy – art investments made now and sold at auction say in 20 years, whilst not guaranteed, can reap remarkable asset gains. 

And lastly, buy what you love!

Banner Image: Beverly Knight

August 2023