The South Australian government has recently appointed a three-person panel to review the APY Art Center Collective (APY ACC)’s governance, management and practices, in response to allegations of interference from non-Indigenous artists.
An investigation published in the Australian earlier this year alleged that white art assistants painted on the canvas of a First Nations artist at an Aboriginal art center in remote South Australia, part of the APY Art Center Collective. The investigation called into question the artworks’ authenticity ahead of Ngura Pulka – Epic Country, a major exhibition featuring 28 paintings from the APY ACC that was scheduled to open last month at the National Gallery of Australia.
The allegations from the newspaper investigation prompted the museum to launch a review of the paintings in April, postpone the exhibition, a tri-government investigation led by the South Australian government, and the APY ACC to lose its membership in the Indigenous Art Code, the organization that regulates the First Nations arts sector.
“As individuals, the impact, as a group of Aboriginal artists and leadership, has been really hard,” Scales told ABC Radio National. “In a year where we’re talking about a First Nations Voice, no-one’s actually going and speaking to them individually.”
Scales said she knew the artist shown in the short video published in the Australian, and that the 60-second clip did not reflect her 15-year career, her leadership in the organization, or her integrity. Scales said that artist will explain her process in the review by the South Australian government, and previously explained it in the review done by the National Gallery of Australia.
Scales, a Pitjantjatjara woman who serves as APY ACC’s cultural liaison and spokesperson, said the allegations had been “felt really heavily in our communities.” She is also chair of the First Nations Advisory Group at the National Gallery of Australia, and has recused herself from the museum’s review.
“These allegations have been flying around like confetti around the APY Art Centre Collective and without much detail and much rigor in it, and we’ve had a very robust conversation anyway, internally, as well as with the NGA review,” Scales told ABC News Australia. “Studio assistance is an entitlement that every artist has, and every contemporary professional artist has.”
The terms of reference for the South Australian government’s review state the three-person panel will determine whether “efforts have been made by APYACC staff to conceal interventions in the artwork of Indigenous artists” and “allegations that APYACC is not supporting a culturally safe, respectful and or appropriate workplace for its artists.”
The panel also intends to review the accuracy and authenticity of documents that APY ACC previously submitted to the federal and state government for grant funding.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the APY ACC board has also issued a statement in response to calls for the organization’s art administrator, Skye O’Meara, to stand down during the investigation by the tri-government panel.
“As it stands, the practice, legitimacy, and authenticity of over 500 artists, their works, and stories has been under unjustified, sustained attack,” the board said, emphasizing its support for O’Meara remained the same.
Scales told the Sydney Morning Herald the collective represented early career to established artists across its seven art centers, and that decisions about the future of the art administrator were “our call, not their call.” “[South Australian arts] Minister Michaels says it’s easier if Skye stands down but fairer to who? Fairer to the elders? Fairer to the artists? How is that easier for us as a small team?”
“Skye O’Meara’s been a part of our team since the start of it, and myself and my elders actually resent these calls because it’s actually an attack on their leadership,” she told ABC News Australia.
“Our company has been successful because of my elders. When we started the APY Art Centre Collective six years ago, those elders were really strong in saying what they wanted.”
The APY ACC has also criticized the terms of reference from the tri-government review in regard to what they infer about the integrity and credibility of its artists.
“Most artists are genuinely portraying their artwork,” Artist and APY ACC board member George Cooley told ABC News Australia. “They feel guilty they’ve been blamed for something they’re not involved in.”
Léuli Eshrāghi, an Indigenous curator who has studied and worked in arts institutions across Australia, called the controversy a “fabricated drama in the main newspapers in Australia” to attack Indigenous people. Eshrāghi cited the country’s media concentration in the hands of Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch, and his opposition to the landmark referendum backed by the Australian government, known as Voice to Parliament, that would give Indigenous people constitutional recognition and greater say on legislation and policy affecting them.
“Every artist, when you reach a certain level, you have assistants,” the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Indigenous curator told ARTnews in an interview earlier this month. “I think it’s ridiculous to fetishize a senior Indigenous artist, that they couldn’t possibly have people helping them. It’s very paternalistic, as well.”