Case Study: The impact of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair is far reaching for Indigenous culture

The 11th year of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair was held at the Darwin Convention Centre in August.  DAAF is internationally recognised as the most prestigious national, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art fair.

The 2017 Fair has seen a record number of 67 Indigenous owned and operated Art Centres from around Australia come together to showcase the work of over 2,000 artists.

Bringing the Fair to life is a logistical masterpiece by the organisers. A month before the Fair, packing begins as thousands of pieces of art work are carefully wrapped and placed on barges, buses, aeroplanes, trucks, and troop carriers caked in red dust.

For some Art Centre staff and artists, it is a two or three-day journey to Darwin over corrugated dirt roads, through river crossings, and over mountain ranges. Some Art Centres must hop from island to island on charter flights before flying or driving for thousands of kilometres to reach Darwin.

Bump in day for the Fair is a sight on its own as myriads of dusty troop carriers line up in the loading docks of the Darwin Convention Centre. The exhibition halls become alive with activity and splashes of colour, as the art work emerges from boxes, post tubes, tubs and crates.

The Fair showcases the work of talented emerging and established artists, and provides a space for visitors to meet the artists and learn from the variety of different cultural groups across Australia. There is a range of styles, mediums and products available including: paintings on canvas, bark paintings, works on paper including limited edition prints, sculpture, didgeridoos, fibre art, silk fabrics and cultural regalia. The diversity of Indigenous art at the Fair is truly remarkable.

Also, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair boasts a program of artist workshops, spectacular traditional dance performances, children’s activity stations, film, fashion and more.

The Fair provides a unique opportunity to purchase stunning art and experience the rich diversity of artwork that has been inspired by Australia’s most remote desert and coastal regions, to rural and urban communities.

Meeting the artists and discussing their backgrounds and work is one of unique aspects of the Fair.  You are able to gain a real insight into how the artists learnt their craft and the fascinating stories and history behind their beautiful art works which add an extra layer of meaning to the experience.

The first Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair was held in 2007 to provide a promotional platform for Art Centres at a national level, it provides an amazing and genuine opportunity for arts industry buyers, and art and design aficionados, to purchase art directly from Indigenous owned and incorporated Art Centres.

Over the 11 years of operating the Fair has generated more than $9.5 million in sales for the Art Centres, with 100% of sales going back to the Art Centres’ communities.  2017 saw over 11,000 visitors attend the event with nearly 5,000 people coming from interstate and over 500 international buyers.

When Aboriginal art began gaining popularity in the 1980s and 90s, so too did the exploitation of Indigenous artists. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous dealers still prey on the vulnerability of some artists with unfair practices including paying artists a small amount upfront for their artwork then reselling the work at inflated prices. For example, an artist might be paid $500 and the painting is resold directly for $5,000 with the artist not receiving any further payment.

While the problem is not completely eradicated, significant steps have been made since the height of exploitation in the eighties and nineties to ensure the ‘fair trade’ of Aboriginal art, with the emergence of more than 100 Art Centres and national events such as the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, which raise millions of dollars for Indigenous artists and their communities.

Today more than 100Art Centres are in operation across the country, with two-thirds represented at the Fair, ensuring Aboriginal artists are paid fairly for their work and Indigenous cultural traditions are preserved and protected.

Western Australian Art Centre ‘Waringarri Aboriginal Arts’ artist and Miriwoong man Ben Ward, explains Art Centres go beyond selling art and further education is required to ensure consumers understand the direct impact they can have by purchasing Indigenous art through Art Centres.

“Many people still believe Art Centres are just galleries, but they do so much more than that. Art Centres are here to support the Indigenous community, provide health services, employment services and become advocates for Aboriginal artists who may not know how much their art is worth,” he said.

Waringarri Aboriginal Arts became involved in Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair in 2007, and credits the event for taking the careers of several artists, including Ben Ward, to the next level.

“The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair introduced me to a lot of galleries, my work is now exhibiting in Mossenson Galleries in Perth and it has drawn a lot of popularity for my work. I only wish to sell my work to galleries and Art Centres that are having a direct impact on my community” Mr Ward said.

Art Centres have systems in place to ensure artists are paid ethically. It is an industry standard for artists to receive 60% of the sale price, with 40% returning to the Art Centres, to continue their important work in the community.

Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Chair, Franchesca Cubillo, said purchasing through events such as the Fair ensured the profits are fairly distributed between the artist and the Indigenous communities who own and operate Art Centres.

“We support the work of more than 2,000 artists at the Fair each year, and 100% of the sales return directly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Darwin Convention Centre is very proud to be the home to the Fair as we recognise the importance of the work DAAF is doing to support Indigenous artists.

To view the highlights of this year’s Fair visit: