From Utopia to the Rhine
The collective term “Aboriginal art” is misleading. Behind it are hundreds of language groups that span Australia from the tropical north to the temperate south and, of course, a wide variety of art practices. The particular style differs depending on which region the artwork comes from and which language is spoken there. Most contemporary productions can therefore be identified from the community in which they were created.
The most expensive artwork sold at auction was by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, My Country (1994), 90 x 84 cm, courtesy SmithDavidson Gallery
In Europe, only one institution so far dedicates itself to Indigenous Australian art: Fondation Opale in Lens, Switzerland, inaugurated in 2018. But that’s not stopping major museums, including Tate Modern, from devoting more resources to their Aboriginal art collections. And such moves are boosting global sales. The most expensive artwork ever sold at auction was by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. His painting “Warlugulong” (1977) was bought by the National Gallery of Australia in 2007 for AUD 2.4 million (USD 2.1 million).
A large collection of Australian Aboriginal art
Finally, in 2019, Gagosian Gallery recognized the trend. In its exhibition “Desert Painters of Australia,” it showed canvases full of dots, labyrinthine lines, and intense colors reminiscent of topographical maps. And the Leslie Smith gallery (named after its American owner), founded in The Hague in 1969 and active today under the name SmithDavidson Gallery, with offices in Amsterdam, Mexico City, and Miami, can also draw on a large collection of Australian Aboriginal art, in addition to works by Gerhard Richter, Fernando Botero, Miroslav Tichy, and Banksy.
Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Marrawa (2019), 137 x 152.5 cm, courtesy SmithDavidson Gallery
The Leslie Smith Gallery specialized in nineteenth-century Dutch painting. But when Smith’s son David took over in 1990, he focused on modern and contemporary twentieth-century art. His wife Gabriëlle Davidson joined forces with him in 2007. That same year, they moved to Amsterdam and changed the name to SmithDavidson Gallery. After a trip to Australia, the couple began collecting Aboriginal art in 2006.
And you can recognize them right away by their still unfamiliar-sounding names, such as the painter Makinti Napanangka, or Kudditji Kngwarreye, who was born in 1928 in Utopia, a community in Australia’s Eastern Desert. He is one of the elders of the Anmatyerre language group and an important custodian of so-called Dreamings, totemistic artworks that can be owned by a tribal group or an individual.
Text: Alexandra Wach