Arthur Lubow writes about Aboriginal art and its origins as a collecting category for Smithsonian Magazine. Lubow points out that Aboriginal art generates $200 million a year (presumably Australian dollars but the story doesn’t say) in sales. And prices have risen dramatically in recent years:
A mural-size 1977 painting on canvas by the Papunya artist Clifford Possum established a record price for the genre when it sold in 2007 for $1.1 million.
Still, a special aura attaches to the first, small paintings, done on masonite boards usually less than 2 by 3 feet. Created before there was commercial interest, they benefit from the perception that they are more “authentic” than the stretched-canvas works that came later. It is hard to deny the energy and inventiveness of the early boards; artists used unfamiliar tools and materials to cover two-dimensional surfaces with designs they’d employed in ritualistic body painting or sand mosaics. They improvised, applying paint with a twig or the tip of a paintbrush’s wooden handle. “The early period—you’re never going to find anyplace where there’s so much experimentation,” says Fred Myers, a New York University anthropologist. “They had to figure everything out. There’s an energy that the early paintings have, because there’s so much excess to compress.” […]
Though the Aboriginal art movement launched in Papunya is just four decades old, it’s possible to discern four periods. In the first, which lasted barely a year, sacred practices and ritual objects were often depicted in a representational style. That was dangerous: certain rituals, songs and religious objects are strictly off limits to women and uninitiated boys. In August 1972, an angry dispute broke out at an exhibition in the aboriginal community of Yuendumu over explicit renderings in Papunya paintings. Some community members were offended by the realistic depictions of a wooden paddle swung in the air to produce a whirring sound in initiation ceremonies that are hidden from women and children. […]
In response to the furor, artists began to avoid forbidden images or conceal them under dotting, stippling and cross-hatches. So began the next period. A forerunner of that style, painted around August 1972, is Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, in which Warangkula’s elaborate veilings acquire a mesmerizing beauty that relates to the symbolic theme of raindrops bringing forth the vegetation stirring below the earth.
In the third period, the art found a commercial market with acclaimed, large-scale canvases in the 1980s. And the fourth period, roughly from the 1990s to the present, includes lower-quality commercial paintings—disparaged by some art dealers as “dots for dollars”—that slake the tourist demand for souvenirs. Some painters today lay down geometric, Aboriginal-style markings without any underlying secret to disguise. (There have even been cases of fake Aboriginal art produced by backpackers.)
Contemporary Aboriginal Art (Smithsonian)