Gallery Gondwana: Art in the Red Centre - Art Collector

Issue 21 July-September 2002

Gallery Gondwana shines brightly in what was once considered Australia’s cultural desert, artfully highlighting our changing attitudes. Story by Courtney Kidd.

When Roslyn Premont opened Gallery Gondwana 12 years ago, her vision to source and sell the best contemporary Aboriginal art from the heart of Australia seemed ambitious, to some even insurmountable. Alice Springs, though rich in cultural resources, was harsh and dry, and like a giant roadhouse passed through on the way to somewhere else. Today tourism thrives in the small town. Head down the main street, past the myriad shops selling trinkets emblazoned with Aboriginal motifs, and you’ll fall upon the windows of Gallery Gondwana. Walk inside and you feel it’s a privilege to be there. A breath-taking display of indigenous art from the Central and Western Desert, Kimberley, Balgo and Top End communities is revealed, among the best in the country.

Within western parlance there are two kinds of art dealers – those who discover artists just starting out and those who deal with established artists and their estates. Premont leans to the former, though she insists her gallery grew organically from a recognition that indigenous artists needed effective management, rather than sourcing from any overseas models. Naming the gallery Gondwana was itself a statement, highlighting the region of Alice Springs, far from the art centres of Europe and America. Further, because of geographical proximity to the areas of art production, on site studios, and contact with art cooperatives, Premont is able to skillfully monitor art supply and demand, maintain the integrity of its passage, and guarantee its provenance. Managing this double-edged sword is what sorts the nine-to-five shopkeepers from the gallerists who shape the market, where sales in Australia alone exceed $100 million annually.

Premont is in a truly unique position. She and her seven staff are pioneers in a frontier town, dealing with social issues, artist demands, and clients who have come for a desert experience, while at the same time orchestrating artist representation in significant exhibitions, and collections.

“Never mind pushing through a commission for a waiting client,” says Premont with cool composure, “the artist may have to travel into the desert to attend ‘sorry business’ and sadly, but all too frequently often brought about because of alcohol. You just can’t hurry any of these processes.”

Gabriella Roy, the director of the first-rate Aboriginal & Pacific Arts Gallery in Sydney – who has worked with Premont and is also familiar with the pitfalls of the trade – says that she has nothing but admiration for her: “What impressed me then and now is her absolute commitment, and love of Aboriginal art. (She has) a vitality, a quickness, a capacity to continue learning and an unflagging ability to deal with the public.”

It is awe-inspiring to witness Gallery Gondwana in action but it didn’t just happen overnight.

Premont first became involved in Aboriginal art 20 years ago, after working with the Australian Embassy in Paris where she was fielding questions about indigenous Australia.

Later she began taking Aboriginal elders from all parts of Australia to meet Kanak people in New Caledonia with whom she had worked for six years before moving to Paris. Interpreting, liaising and being inspired by such artists as Wandjuk Marika and Thancoupie, made her determined to work in the field. A stint with the government sponsored Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney’s Kent Street then ensued. In 1987 Premont was asked to manage its Alice Springs venture. In 1990 she opened Gallery Gondwana. At the time there were only a handful of outlets selling art. She saw that by going commercial she could manage a small core of artists, nurturing and promoting individual talent.

Melbourne gallerist Vivien Anderson works closely with Gondwana in representing such artists as Dorothy Napangardi to southern audiences and says: “Premont’s high regard for the individual as opposed to the collective has given her extraordinary focus when managing an artist, not to mention a platform provided through the unique studios adjacent to the gallery. Napangardi is a clear recipient of this freedom, continuing to innovate at such an accelerated rate that it surprises and delights herself.”

Today Napangardi’s work sits with first-rate artists from Gondwana such as Walala Tjapaltjarri, Polly Napangardi Watson and ‘Dr’ George Tjapaltjarri. Napangardi’s work has taken curious twists. In the mid-1990s she was granted paternal permission to paint her family’s traditional country of Mina Mina; then in 1997 when she visited Sydney and its art galleries for the first time her style of painting dramatically transformed. Grids of undulating lines triggered a dynamic tension that worked its way across her canvases and traditional iconography came to be depicted in abstract mark making.

Napangardi recently won the 18th National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Art Award (with prize money of $40,000) and her star is still rising. Her mesmeric canvases are well represented in local and international collections, including that of James Erskine and Robert Bleakley while her major survey show opens later this year at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Of course, as the gallery and its artists increase in profile so too do the carpetbaggers wanting to poach and the artists tempted to copy styles. Anderson says: “I can imagine there are times when Ros feels the walls of Alice are moving in on her, particularly with people zero-ing in on successful artists who work from the Gondwana studios, but Ros handles any potential poaching with her usual diplomacy. Quite frankly I think she just floors them with her composure.”

Premont’s efforts to broaden the appreciation and understanding of what she regards as “a very under-supported region” are extraordinary. Inevitably, Premont has observed important shifts in the selling and marketing of Aboriginal art during this time. This includes the implementation of the label of authenticity to offer trademark protection for indigenous souvenirs and fine art, unprecedented growth in the market from an estimated value of $2.5 million in 1980 to $20 million a decade later, and from the mid-1990s on, the emergence of a secondary market. Where once Aboriginal art was promoted as a group show from a particular region and with an ethnographic approach, there is now emphasis on promoting individual artists, placing them in the context of the contemporary art movement.

Premont notes that: “These days many artists choose to work alone in a studio or at home rather than in Aboriginal community centres and are thus developing their own individual signature as opposed to a more recognisable community style. Some of the first artists to be marketed individually were Clifford Possum
Tjapaltjarri and Michael Nelson Tjakamarra and of course then came Emily Kame Kngwarreye who, more than any other individual artist, changed the way the world viewed Aboriginal Art.”

These days, says Premont, collectors are very passionate and in fact much more informed and discerning. Gallery Gondwana now attracts buyers from all over the world – such as Margaret Levy and Bob Kaplan from Seattle, USA; the Kelton Foundation (also from the US) who have worked hard to change people’s perceptions about the region, locals such as Kerry Stokes in Perth, and Colin and Liz Laverty in Sydney.

Having realised her early vision Premont is now leading the gallery into another phase, and says: “A gallery is more than just wall space. We nurture relationships and are developing an exchange program. Gondwana Gallery invites artists from the Pacific to come and stay in Alice Springs. We provide accommodation, studio space and document their journey while here. We then travel to their country a couple of months later to curate pieces for an exhibition in the gallery. Selected pieces from the exchange will be purchased for an eventual touring show of ‘art from the Gondwana region’.”

Premont is also expanding to incorporate non-indigenous jewellery and object design as a way of furthering the relationships of interpretation to indigenous art, and broadening availability of quality product into the region.

Artists to watch out for in this year’s program include the Fijian painter Rusiate, senior potter Taraivini Wati and later in the year a major show of Papuan objects curated by Susan Cochrane.

It goes without saying that Premont has invested a lot of herself in her artists and gallery. Significantly, what she has shown is that within the volatile marriage of art and commerce there is still room to do things right. And as consumers we can take comfort in the knowledge that “the world’s last great art movement”* is being chaperoned at the source with an impressive degree of care.

*As described by art critic Robert Hughes.

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