Chris Simon is adamant he didn’t pay for the video to be filmed. The money he gave Dicky Marshall was only for fuel.
“I knew that would come up,” says Simon, owner of Yanda Aboriginal Art on the outskirts of Alice Springs. “The video was offered to me. Dicky Marshall gave it to me. I gave him fuel money – and if I paid him $100,000, it wouldn’t matter … that needed to be outed, what was happening in those art centres.”
And again: “I don’t give a rat’s arse about what happens to the art industry. They have ruined it themselves, all those left-wing queers running it … I have washed my hands of this shit. I’m going back to farming.”
The video is at the centre of the most damaging controversy the Indigenous art sector has experienced in years. Later published by The Australian, it shows white studio assistants working on canvases at the Tjala Arts centre in Amata, South Australia, part of the APY Art Centre Collective, which represents more than 500 artists across the vast APY lands and beyond, and of which Simon is a competitor.
Dicky Marshall, a Warlpiri man, knew its worth. He tell The Saturday Paper as soon as he made the video he was on the phone to Chris Simon. “I ring Chris and I told Chris, ‘I took the video.’ ” Marshall then drove about 500 kilometres, from Amata to Alice Springs, to bring his smartphone with the video to Simon. “Chris gave me $1000 to just take that video [to him].”
The video created turmoil in the close-knit Amata community. The senior Indigenous artist Marshall had secretly filmed was his sister-in-law, Yaritji Young, one of the five sisters of the acclaimed Ken Family Collaborative, winners of the 2016 Wynne Prize. Marshall says he didn’t intend to implicate his sister-in-law – he only intended to film the two white studio assistants. “I wasn’t taking a picture of Yaritji. I was taking a picture of those two ladies from the art centre.”
Last April, The Australian published stills from the video alongside an article with the headline “White hands on black art”. The footage became the linchpin for a series of stories that dominated the pages of The Australian for most of last year, striking at the APY Art Centre Collective and calling for the resignation of its general manager, Skye O’Meara.
Greg Bearup, who broke the story, told The Saturday Paper he was not aware Marshall had been paid by a rival art dealer after filming the video. “What happened at the time was that Richard [Dicky] tried to send it to me from Amata and there was not enough bandwidth from there, and so he drove into Alice Springs,” Bearup said. “Whatever arrangement he had with Chris I am not sure … it was Richard who gave me the video.”
Asked whether he believed the video was produced to damage the APY ACC, Bearup said he didn’t know. “I don’t know what his motivations were. I was just very happy to get the video because I was working on [the story] for months and until that point I had had flat denials that [white] people had been working on paintings.”
Until the video’s release, the APY ACC, which has its headquarters in Adelaide, had been driving a successful and ambitious business strategy, with its artists winning many prominent awards and achieving international recognition.
Its success came under scrutiny, however, as former APY ACC workers and several artists alleged the conduct in the video was not isolated and that white studio assistants, including O’Meara, regularly interfered with the paintings of Indigenous artists.
These allegations prompted the shelving of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. The Indigenous Art Code, an industry body established in 2010 to address unethical trading in Aboriginal art, terminated the membership of the APY ACC, the first time it had taken such action in its 14 years of existence.
In the wake of the controversy, many opinions were aired about the role of white assistants in Indigenous art centres. Notions of authenticity were hotly debated. The sanctity of Indigenous artists’ “Tjukurpa” (Law or Dreaming) was invoked and the possibility of its dilution by “white hands”. Others pointed out many artists worked with assistants and the criticism enforced a romanticised vision of Indigenous art. The Australian’s art critic, Christopher Allen, went so far as to declare the contemporary Indigenous art movement “a whole dodgy chookyard”.
The video is of legitimate public interest, but so too is the context of why and how it was taken, and what it says about the competing economic systems that have existed in the Indigenous art sector for years: government-backed, Indigenous-owned, remote community art centres, which are publicly audited and exist for the benefit of artists and nurture them at all stages of their art-making; and private dealers, whose businesses are not subject to public scrutiny and who in some cases get Indigenous artists to paint for them under terms that are not clear and can include payment in cash, cars, drugs or alcohol. (The Saturday Paper does not suggest Chris Simon engages in any of these practices.)
The pejorative term used against some of these private dealers is “carpetbaggers” – a description O’Meara routinely applies and that Simon abhors. “I’ve had a set-up for 20-odd years,” he says. “I hate that word ‘carpetbaggers’. I don’t resemble that comment and I’m fed up with it.”
O’Meara has waged a fierce and long-standing campaign against some of the private dealers working out of Alice Springs, including Simon. In 2019, she named Simon and several other private dealers in a letter she sent to the chairs of Telstra and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, complaining these dealers had been invited to the 2019 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, leaving artists feeling “deeply disappointed, hurt and disrespected”. The letter was signed by 61 artists from the APY ACC, including the first Indigenous artist to win the Archibald Prize, Vincent Namatjira.
O’Meara provided the letter to me. In response, Simon sent a text message questioning her motivation in coordinating the letter and whether it was aimed at damaging his reputation and benefiting the “business” she runs.
Amid these long-standing feuds, Marshall’s video was dynamite. Before the video was made public, the APY ACC had been pulling in millions of dollars in sales, through its galleries in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and its online portal.
Since the video was made public, the APY ACC has had its South Australian government funding cut and endured two investigations. The first, by the National Gallery of Australia, found there was no improper interference in the 28 paintings produced by the collective’s artists, which were set to be shown in the now indefinitely postponed Ngura Pulka exhibition. The second review, led by the South Australian government, made no findings but referred the APY ACC to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Officer of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), organisations with greater information-gathering and witness-protection powers.
The difficulty of untangling the facts of this case is clear in the SA review panel’s letter to the APY ACC, notifying the collective of its conclusions. The letter says there are “strong conflicting views on the allegations”. It also notes “the sector is a highly commercial and competitive environment and there have been instances in the past where referrals have been weaponised to inflict damage, reputational or otherwise, to parties”.
Both the ACCC and ORIC confirmed they were assessing the SA review panel’s referral. In an emailed statement to The Saturday Paper, the ORIC said it would consider “the availability of sufficient evidence to establish the facts of the case (hearsay and suspicion alone is insufficient); if litigation or prosecution would be consistent with the Legal Services Directions 2017 (Cth) and the Prosecution Policy of the Commonwealth; the impact of the alleged wrongdoing; and the likely cost of investigating compared with the likely effectiveness or outcome of possible intervention”.
Yaritji Young insists the two young white studio assistants seen helping her in the video were doing nothing wrong and were working in her presence under her direction. Her husband, Frank Young, told The Saturday Paper “people were jealous, trying to break my wife’s money story and her career”.
When I ask Dicky Marshall why he took the video, he tells me it was because his wife, Sandra Ken, was “always getting really low money” for her paintings at the art centre.
Yaritji Young is the most successful of the Ken sisters – her work has a starting price of about $20,000 and her annual income is many times that of Sandra Ken’s.
As the breadwinners of their communities, remote Indigenous artists can become pawns in a tug of war between art centres and independent operators, and women are especially vulnerable.
Via email, O’Meara says the video was “an aggressive strategy” and it “hurt a brilliant and respected artist and her art centre”.
“Remote artists like Yaritji Young are unfortunately accustomed to similar predatory behaviours, exploitation being an ongoing challenge for women and vulnerable artists,” she writes.
“The video’s devastating impact demonstrates how leadership has failed remote Indigenous artists, particularly the women of remote communities … Yaritji and many of the most celebrated women artists of the central desert have never experienced a safe industry. This video and its impact has surprised no one who knows our industry.”
Chris Simon offers a different view: “It doesn’t affect me. I own my business and I don’t give a rat’s arse about anyone … I really don’t know what the big deal is about a bit of video footage. Write what you fucking want. I don’t give a rat’s arse.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Art of war".
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