Aboriginal culture dates back 80,000 years. Now it's going global

Updated 3rd August 2015
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Aboriginal culture dates back 80,000 years. Now it's going global
Written by By Susie East
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Inspired by the vast remoteness of the Australian outback, and dating back thousands of years, the sacred tradition of Aboriginal art is finding new audiences -- through the very modern medium of social media.
Internationally renowned Aboriginal artist Sarrita King explains how an art form deeply linked to specific ancient lands and traditions is resonating with modern buyers -- many of whom are thousands of miles away.
"I think indigenous art is so raw," she says. "It speaks to the explorer that appreciates history and the image of our mother country. I think everyone's got that in them. When their life is hectic living in a big city ... people can find peace in our artwork," King explains.
Aboriginal art often expresses "Dreamings" passed down to an artist by their ancestors -- meaningful stories or images about life in the bush. Now with the explosion of social media these age old traditions are finding fresh audiences -- which is a positive change according to King, whose work sells for between $200 and $30,000.
"When you sit with some of these elders, they paint and then once their canvas is finished they're happy for it to go," she says. "It flows on. And then for them it's about the next canvas. So I'm all about the story getting out there."
Scott Linklater, manager of Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery in Kununnura, Northern Australia, has seen the benefits of getting the story out there. "It's been astronomical the level of engagement we've had," he says.
"We had a sale in March and I think we sold 13 paintings directly through Facebook. So it went from being a great place for sharing our work to being a bona fide sales method."
Linklater, who opened shop in 2001, added: "It may be one of the oldest art forms in the world, but it's one of the youngest genres of the art market.
"Between 2000 and 2008 there was unprecedented growth in Aboriginal art -- we got in at the right time. Then in 2008 the global financial crisis hit the market really hard.
"A very important part of weathering the financial crisis was having prices that started at less than $150 to up to about $150,000.
"If you're prepared to hold on to the art for five to 10 years, it represents great value."
King's agent, Keith Murphy, says the overseas market is crucial: "There's no doubt about it, I think international buyers are the biggest buyers of Aboriginal art.
"I would say France is the biggest European country by far because they have such a long history of indigenous cave paintings in and around France. They have this real fascination with indigenous cultures ... a real association and respect.
"Americans [also] just have an appetite for anything that's new, interesting, and they sense when there's an excitement around something."
Shipping to overseas buyers presents particular challenges for some Aboriginal artworks. While shipping acrylic paintings is as simple as rolling them into a tube, some works are painted using natural ochres, which would crack if rolled up. To ensure safe delivery, these have to be shipped in wooden boxes.
But for many in the industry, it's about more than simply selling paintings. Linklater says he wants to engage positively with the Aboriginal community.
"Government assistance for remote communities is woefully inadequate so it's vitally important that indigenous people have the ability to earn income in other ways," he says.
"There are a number of very successful artists that have made enormous amounts of money but you wouldn't know it because they have invested it all back into their community."
And the international popularity of Aboriginal art is also bringing much needed respect to the community.
"We went through a very dark time in Australia," Murphy explains.
"So I believe we're making people aware of the plight of indigenous people even now, and what they've gone through for the last 200 years. This art's gone all over the world and brought recognition."
King agrees, adding: "Our art will be the last voice of thousands of years of survival."