Ocula Conversation

A conversation with Karen And Dr. Dirk Zadra

Directors, Marshall Arts, Adelaide
Laura Thomson Auckland 17 December 2013

Established in 2001, Marshall Arts specialises in Australian contemporary art from remote Indigenous art centres. The gallery also programs exhibitions of invited artists from diverse cultural backgrounds whose practice engages with ideas of country/nation, culture and identity, across all media. Ocula caught up with the directors, Karen and Dr. Dirk Zadra to find out about their philosophies behind the gallery and what is on the cards in 2014. 

You acquired Marshall Arts from the gallery founders, Graeme and Rosalyn Marshall in 2012. Can you tell us about the history of the gallery and how you came to be involved?

Karen: Graeme and Rosalyn Marshall founded the gallery in 2001 to give Aboriginal artists from remote community-owned art centres a voice. Graeme fell in love with the art and culture in back in 1973 when he was a young accountant working on several of the art centre accounts in the Alice Springs region, like Papunya Tula Artists.

Dirk: For us as the new owners, the commitment to community-owned and operated art centres remains one of our core founding principles.

Karen: In 2008, while I was the Director of Murray Bridge Regional Gallery just outside of Adelaide, Graeme approached me and asked if I wanted to become the Manager of Marshall Arts. I said yes straightaway because I grew up in the outback, north east of Alice Springs, and my academic research interests were always in Indigenous art and culture.

Dirk: I guess it’s fair to say that reconnecting with Indigenous art was one of the main reasons for us returning to Australia from Europe.

Karen: That’s right. Sadly, Graeme died in 2010. Rosalyn continued as director of the gallery until the end of 2012, at which point she decided to retire. We knew that the offer to buy the gallery was an exceptional opportunity as it’s one of the most respected Indigenous art galleries in Australia. We took over in January 2013, and are gradually introducing new artists and programming into our traditional mix.

Do you specialise in art from a particular area or are you working with artists from all over Australia?

K: In our exhibition program, Marshall Arts is very artist-centric and concept-driven; regardless of geographical considerations. For example, we’re the only gallery representing Pungkai and Beaver Lennon from Ceduna in South Australia, and David Gulpilil, the famous Aboriginal actor who’s currently based in Darwin. If you look closely at David Gulpilil’s works, you’ll quickly find that they are as sublime as his acting.

D: Looking back, the past five years has seen a particular focus on art centres from the APY and NPY Lands around the tri-state border region of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. These communities have seen spectacular growth, with artists like Tjungkara Ken, Barbara Moore Hector Tjupuru Burton, and Maringka Baker being leading artists from the area, and they’re all exceptional colourists.

K: In 2013 after taking over, we’ve started working with Top End communities like Bula’bula Arts (Central Arnhem Land). Philip Gudthaykudthay, 84, is an artist that immediately comes to mind. He’s one of the founding artists of Bula’bula Arts and has exhibited internationally over a 30-year career. Gudthaykudthay is represented in public collections in the UK, USA, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. His work is very distinctive and incredibly beautiful.

We’ve also started to show urban-based Indigenous artists like photographer James Tylor (who is Aboriginal/Maori/English), and non-Indigenous artists like sculptor Greg Johns. These artists examine the connection between identity and place, which is the primary theme of much of the remote Aboriginal art we show.

You represent artists from a number of indigenous owned art centres. Can you tell us a bit about how these centres function and how they differ from the more typical artist and dealer relationship?

K: We believe that Indigenous art centres that are 100% community owned and operated are significant for remote Aboriginal people, economically and sociologically. Each art centre has an Indigenous board that independently takes responsibility and makes decisions. They employ managers for the day-to-day running of the art centre. This not only includes things like liaising with partner galleries, like us, or operations and budgets; but art centre managers also see to the welfare of artists, particularly the elderly. Good managers are vital, as it’s a complex and demanding role, and we only work with the best.

How often do you visit the art centres?

K: Regrettably, not often enough. The distances involved are vast and require at least a day’s travel each way, so it’s not easy to get away that often. The art centre managers are our primary contact. The Internet keeps us in close contact, and we speak regularly by phone – as we do with our clients around Australia and internationally.

You mentioned Marshall Arts being very ‘artist-centric’. Please elaborate.

K: I think it’s twofold. One aspect is that the subject of our artists’ works is multi-layered, bringing together ancient belief systems as well as contemporary histories and politics. It requires some interpretation to take the viewer beyond the aesthetic experience to the power within each work. Understanding each artist helps us to bring the collector closer to the artist and their practice.

The other aspect is that we give every artist the freedom to express themselves truthfully, as they, the artists, see fit – not as we see fit, or as the market sees fit. This also means, for example, giving a platform to those artists who wish to voice the trauma they and their families have suffered at the hands of colonization.

D: I believe that managing the demands of markets, real or perceived, is our job, not the artist’s. By doing our job, we help the artist retain a sense of freedom that is essential to fostering creativity. It allows our artists to maintain the momentum and strength of their artistic development over time – which, in turn, ultimately benefits our clients, i.e. the art lovers and collectors.

Following a senate enquiry into the indigenous visual arts and craft sector, The Indigenous Art Code was established in 2010 as a voluntary code of conduct for indigenous art dealers. How do you view the success of this with respect to ethical practice in the Aboriginal art market?

D: That’s probably for Karen to answer, as Marshall Arts was involved in the development of the Code from the outset.

K: Yes, we were; and we welcomed the introduction of the Code as a means for curbing unethical behaviour in the industry. After three years in operation, the results, however, have been mixed. Why? Mainly because it’s a voluntary code and there is no vetting procedure of dealer signatories. Ok, the Code has been reasonably successful in raising buyer awareness of some of the issues, but its powers are limited when it comes to serious transgressions. There’s talk of making the Code mandatory, but without the resources to police it, I’m convinced that such a path will fail.

D: Basically, it still comes down to the buyer doing due diligence on provenance and the dealer/gallerist.

Aboriginal art has developed a strong international following. How much of your business is international?

K: I’m pleased to say that our international market is definitely growing. We’re seeing more enquiries from Europe and the US than five years ago, and Asia more recently. Our international clients are moving away from categorising Indigenous art as “ethnographic”. They are acknowledging it as what it is: fine art. Only last week, I was on the phone to one of our major collectors from the US East coast, who is adding more and more Indigenous art to his private collection. He said that he was astounded by its power and beauty. I thought that it was so exciting to see that happen, that our artists can set people off on a quest of discovery.

What is it about Aboriginal art that makes it so unique?

K: Firstly, as the world’s oldest living culture (approx. 40,000 years), Aboriginal art is the closest living link we all have to beginnings of humanity. Up until 225 years ago when European settlement started in Australia, the Aboriginal people lived as they had for millennia. They were forced to adapt to an imposed industrialised Western lifestyle in a comparatively short period of time. As a result, their art is simultaneously ancient and utterly contemporary. Temporally, it embodies the concept of “everywhen” and “now”. Even Aboriginal art that looks international contemporary in style, has its roots in ancient times.

D: For Karen and me, it’s a privilege to delve into their world. And it’s a mind-expanding experience to come into contact with a sophisticated knowledge base that is as old as humankind itself.

K: And yet still has currency. Aboriginal art is anything but primitive.

What do you see for the future of Aboriginal art?

K: We have no doubt that international contemporary art collectors and institutions will develop significant collections of Aboriginal art. In our dealings with our international clients, we experience this increased interest month after month.

D: As a medium, paintings will continue to be important but some exciting aesthetic explorations are occurring already. One example is our artist Pungkai. While Aboriginal art has always been a form of abstract landscape with its own visual language, Pungkai’s use of minimal abstraction to differentiate political and social commentary from the painting of traditional culture, is in my mind a sign of the future.

K: I agree, it’s very exciting indeed. Another interesting development is that as an artform, we’re beginning to see the younger generations in remote areas incorporating new media and time-based work, plus more content that explores cultural and aesthetic hybridity. This is being fuelled by more reliable access to the internet and affordable mobile devices.

D: Whichever way we look at it, I guess that if you profess to be interested in humanity, the human condition and the big questions of life and death, you cannot ignore Aboriginal art.

What has Marshall Arts got planned for 2014?

K: 2014 promises to be a cracking year at Marshall Arts. Highlights from the art centres include Tjala Arts, Bula’bula Arts, Beaver Lennon. We’re excited to be working with independent Indigenous sculptor Lorraine Connelly-Northey. Lorraine was in the 2012 Asia Pacific Triennial and is currently part of Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria. She’s exhibiting with us in March with Pamela Kouwenhoven (sculpture/mixed media) and Eva Fernandez (photomedia). We’ll certainly share our artists’ outstanding work with you on Ocula.

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