Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi: International Style - Art Collector

Issue 17 July-September 2001

Few commercial gallerists have been as influential in promoting the international reputation of Aboriginal art as this Melbourne businesswoman, reports Michael Hutak.

There are many who can – and do – take credit for the extraordinary rise in popularity of Aboriginal art in the late 20th century, but few have been as instrumental in securing its international profile as Melbourne gallerist, Gabrielle Pizzi. For nearly two decades, at state galleries stretching from Mumbai to St Petersburg, to peak surveys like the Venice Biennale, to major art fairs in Madrid, Cologne, or Hong Kong, Pizzi stands alone among commercial dealers in her longstanding efforts to take Aboriginal art to the world. But how does a white, private school educated girl, who grew up with no contact with Aboriginal Australia come to be one of the nation’s leading international dealers in Indigenous art? A raised consciousness and an eye for trend appears to be the short answer. Pizzi is all about win-win. “It all goes way back to 1980, when I came home to Melbourne after living in Italy for the previous decade,” the dealer told Australian Art Collector, as she prepared for yet another international show, this time in Turin in June 2001. “In Europe I’d had the opportunity to look at an enormous amount of art, and I’d been looking at a lot of African art, and art which they call in France l’art premier – indigenous art. When I came home and looked at what was happening in Aboriginal Australia I immediately became excited at the prospect of opening an gallery to show this work that was, in many cases, so astonishing.”

I was astonished firstly by the visual beauty and secondly that the work in many cases looked very contemporary. Pizzi began to “collect heavily”, mainly sculpture, and mainly from Hogarth Galleries in Sydney. Apart from “a couple of shows at Georges department store, and at Realities in Toorak, programs of Aboriginal art were thin on the ground in Melbourne at that time,” she remembers. Then in 1981 Pizzi saw the landmark touring exhibition, Aboriginal Australia, at the National Gallery of Victoria. The show was the first major survey of Aboriginal art to include not only bark paintings, Western Desert acrylics and sculpture from Cape York, Melville and Bathurst Islands;1 but also basketwork, string bags, and works by late artists such as Albert Namatjira, and 19th century Aboriginal artists William Barak and Tommy McRae.

“It was there that I first saw the works from Papunya. The movement had started unbeknown to me while I was in Italy and it was nothing short of a revelation to see those works for the first time. When I was growing up we were taught that Aboriginal people were a dying race, they were nomadic, the culture was of absolutely no interest, of no worth – so it was so extraordinary to see this exhibition. Remember, at that time, Aboriginal art was really rather denigrated, we’d not long emerged from the era of Aboriginal motifs on ashtrays and tea towels. “I was astonished firstly by the visual beauty and secondly that the work in many cases looked very contemporary. I just saw them as having an incredible energy, and I also saw it as being an extraordinary opportunity for Aboriginal people to teach us about their culture and their aspirations as a people. “But most importantly, I saw the works in that show in the context of international art – how strong it was in comparison, and what a future it had too. I knew it had to be presented at the highest level possible which is why I wanted to take it to places like Cologne, to the major art fairs, to museums in Russia, and so on.

“It just became my mission to present this work to as many people as I could.“ In 1982, Pizzi travelled to Alice Springs to visit the artist communities like Papunya first hand, where she met co-ordinator Daphne Williams, a momentous visit for both the would-be gallerist and the nascent Papuya Tula Artists co-operative. And so, in 1983, with Pizzi’s first show in conjunction with Papunya Tula at Roar Studios in Fitzroy, began a business relationship that 18 years later remains as fruitful as ever. Enthusiastically received, the Roar show emboldened Pizzi to mount a series of shows in independent spaces such as Victorian Artists’ Society Galleries. Then in 1985, she was appointed director of the government-backed Aboriginal Artist’s Gallery, which proved the perfect launching pad to establish her own business. Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi opened on Flinders Lane in 1987 and its director has been mounting a dynamic program of 10 exhibitions a year of traditional, desert and urban Aboriginal art from the same location ever since. Hetti Perkins, in her catalogue essay for her comprehensive Olympic year exhibition Papunya Tula Genesis and Genius, noted Pizzi’s exclusive representation of Papulya Tula artists in the 1980s as key to the company’s “consolidation of a national audience for the artists”.

Pizzi has been crucial in the development of the reputations of many of the leading figures of Aboriginal art such as Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Narputta Nangala Jugadai, as well as the artists from Maningrida, James Iyuna and Jimmy Bungurru. John Mawurndjul, the respected Kuninjku bark painter from West Arnhem Land, had his first solo exhibition in 1993 at Pizzi’s gallery. In 1990, the great Utopia painter Emily Kngwarreye held her second ever solo exhibition at Pizzi’s. By 1993, and her fourth solo show at the gallery, her reputation was assured.

Today, Pizzi represents Papunya Tula and many artists from other leading art-producing communities such as Balgo Hills, Haasts Bluff, Papunya, Turkey Creek, Utopia, Ngukurr, the Tiwi Islands and Maningrida in Arnhem Land; as well as urban artists as diverse as photographer and installation artist, Brook Andrew, painter HJ Wedge, photographer Destiny Deacon, and young emerging artists like Rosella Namok, a painter from Lockart River in Cape York. By 1990, with the gallery firmly established as one of Australia’s leading sources of contemporary Aboriginal art, Pizzi was ready to take on the international market. She followed the first of four visits to the ARCO art fair in Madrid with a satellite show to coincide with the Venice Biennale, then, a year later, mounted Aboriginal Paintings from the Desert, which toured the former Soviet Union. “Perestroika had taken hold, the Russians were showing a great interest in the outside world and it was a time of great change,” Pizzi explains. “Sotheby’s had just gone in to have auctions of contemporary Russian art in Russia, and it just seemed an interesting thing to do – to take Aboriginal art to Russia. It turned out to be an amazing time to work with Russian museums, and it was wonderful the way they just embraced the exhibition under often difficult circumstances – I remember we transported the exhibition from Moscow to St Petersburg in the back of a funeral van!”

In 1993 Pizzi was accepted into the world’s most prestigious commercial art fair, Art Cologne, however she “went back in 1994 with more or less the same artists and my application was rejected, because, they said, I was considered by the jury to be exhibiting ‘inauthentic’ art. This was quite surprising because there had just been that major show Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. Anyway they said we were showing folk art and folk art was not allowed. It was PHOTO: KIRSTIN GOLLINGS “It just became my mission to present this work to as many people as I could.” “The world’s but a stage …” very big in the German press and eventually they were forced to allow me to exhibit, but more importantly, the idea that contemporary Aboriginal art was folk art was rejected.” In 1997 Pizzi returned to Venice, this time showing sculpture as part of the official program for the Biennale. She has since returned to do the same – only with photography and video – for the 1999 Venice program. “Gabrielle has been a great ambassador for Aboriginal art,” says Papunya Tula assistant manager, Paul Sweeney, “with her network of collectors and contacts, she’s made a real contribution to the expanding awareness of our art. She’s done a tremendous amount to open up the international market not just for us but for all the communities she works with.”

An approved valuer of Australian Aboriginal art and a member of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, Pizzi says she doesn’t have backers : “I run it on my own. It’s got to make a profit to keep the doors open and you work hard for your artists and you work hard for your self.” The bulk of her clients still reside in Australia but she does have significant collectors in Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and England. “And the proportion is growing and getting pretty close to 50:50,” she says. Despite her strong network of contacts, Pizzi believes it would be “superfluous” to open a gallery in Europe, preferring to strategically stage manage high profile exhibitions overseas from Australia. Her professional relationship with the art communities is the cornerstone of her business practice, one which she believes protects her from the collateral damage of controversies over I think we all need to look at whatever is coming out of Aboriginal Australia and that the whole isn’t complete until we hear all the voices. authenticity and unethical practices which have dogged the booming Aboriginal art market in the late 1990s. “I only deal with the Aboriginal co-operatives,” she asserts. “They are the greatest assurance of provenance of a work because they operate in proximity to the artist and, generally speaking, the carpet baggers work in a different way, they approach artists individually. “I just think it’s better for everybody, I know with them that the artist has been well paid, that we can get the provenance and the correct documentation – that’s the way it should function. You know the proceeds are getting back into the community, to develop the talents of their up and coming artists. And it’s so important to have young people coming through.” Pizzi says her support for emerging artists is crucial to the cultural health of the nation. “I think we all need to look at whatever is coming out of Aboriginal Australia and that the whole isn’t complete until we hear all the voices. Artists like Harry Wedge, like Destiny Deacon, are producing some of the most powerful work in the country. They’re so honest in what they say, they’re so raw and there’s so much truth that may be unpalatable, but they offer an incredible education in getting the rest of us to come to terms with dealing with the past, the present and the future.”

Of her private investment in her artists, Pizzi remains ever the private collector. “I do have a collection,” she admits without elaborating. “In retrospect, I’m very very pleased that I have collected so many of the artists whose work I’ve shown over the years. I gain great pleasure from it …” We return to the topic of her Turin show in June, held at the prestigious Palazza Bricherasio. “It’s a major museum show,” she says, “a large exhibition of major paintings by major desert artists works from Balgo, Papunya, Utopia, Haast’s Bluff and Yuenumu.” Business as usual, on the world stage.

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