Soul of the outback

Interest in Aboriginal art has taken off over the past 10 years, piquing the interest of collectors around the world.

Samuel Namunjdja walks into the gallery barefoot, bearing two paintings on bark; abstract works in ochre of lines and dots representing stories from Aboriginal mythology. He is one of the gallery's rising stars. Namunjdja's paintings hang in galleries and private collections on four continents. Recently, he travelled to Bahrain where some of his works were on display at La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art.

It was his first trip to the Gulf and I ask him his impressions. "No trees," he replies, breaking into a wide smile. Namunjdja lives with his extended family deep in Arnhem Land, a territory of northern Australia returned to its Aboriginal owners in the 1970s. The closest city, Darwin, is 600km away and inaccessible by road during the wet season. The nearest shop takes an hour to reach by car, but Namunjdja says he rarely needs to buy provisions. Mostly, he lives off the land, hunting turtle, kangaroo and magpie goose.

Namunjdja usually shows up at Maningrida Arts and Culture without warning to drop off new pieces and pick up his cheques. Sometimes he visits every few weeks; during ceremonial periods, he stays away for months at a time. Maningrida is home to about 3,000 people but has yet to be classified as a town. The community's centre, nestling between the eastern bank of the Liverpool River and the coast of the Arafura Sea, consists of a series of brick and corrugated-iron buildings on nameless streets. There's no bank, no restaurant, no cinema and no taxi or bus service. Yet the gallery, Maningrida Arts and Culture, is of national renown and crammed with the most extraordinary collection of Aboriginal artefacts: three-metre logs painted and hollowed out as coffins, woven baskets for catching fish, and didgeridoos adorned with ochre designs. An air-conditioned storeroom off the main gallery contains rows of steel drawers, where the precious bark paintings are laid out.

Every few months, curators and private collectors fly into Maningrida on chartered planes to examine the collection. Remote galleries deep in the Australian outback are a major source of Aboriginal art and help to bridge the broad cultural divide that exists between artists and consumers. The Noughties were an explosive decade for indigenous Australian art. According to the Sydney-based dealership Art Equity, the auction turnover leapt from A$181,000 in 1991 to A$23.8 million (Dh593,000-Dh78m) in 2007. The sale history of Warlugulong, a painting that depicts an ancient bushfire, by the late Clifford Possum, illustrates the extraordinary trajectory. After hanging in the cafeteria of a bank for 20 years, Warlugulong fetched A$39,200 at auction in 1996. Eleven years later, Sotheby's in Melbourne sold it for A$2.48m, more than doubling the previous auction record for a work of Aboriginal art.

But the past couple of years have seen prices slump. In November, an auction of Aboriginal art at Sotheby's in Melbourne was disappointing: 177 lots were expected to fetch between A$2.4m and A$3.6m, but yielded only A$2.06m. The Sotheby's director of Aboriginal art, Tim Klingender, says that interest is not waning, and the results reflect a global downturn in the art market. It didn't help that at the time of the sale, the Australian dollar was soaring at 91 cents to the greenback.

Klingender says that of the top 10 lots, six sold offshore and four were purchased by Australian collectors. This figure is consistent with other findings. According to Art Equity, about half of all Aboriginal art, from boomerangs and didgeridoos churned out for the tourist trade, to canvases by top artists, is exported overseas. The strongest markets are in Europe, especially, France, which is home to a significant public collection of Aboriginal art at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Major private collections include Thomas Vroom's in Amsterdam. And in the US, there's the Kluge-Ruhe collection, at the University of Virginia, and John and Barbara Wilkerson's collection in New York.

Most of them cover a broad spectrum of genres, styles and media and represent the aesthetics of Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. Traditional works draw on the Aboriginal Dreamtime, made up of thousands of myths on the origin of the natural world; why the koala has no tail and how Uluru, an 860-metre-high rock, rose out of the central desert. Stories vary dramatically from region to region, as does their representation in art. Says Klingender: "It's like comparing Spanish painting to Russian iconography."

When I arrive in Maningrida, the community is in deep mourning. A 22-year-old man has just been mauled to death by a pack of dogs while out late at night. Domestic dogs have long been a menace in Maningrida. Some households keep as many as 10, and I see packs of them snarling at pedestrians and chasing cars that encroach their territory. The name Maningrida is an anglicised version of Manayingkarirra, an Ndjebbana Aboriginal word meaning "the place where dreaming changed shape". The community was established in 1949 as a trading post, and the Aborigines of Arnhem Land were offered incentives to leave their outstations and settle there.

Today, most of Maningrida's residents live on welfare. The local school has one of the worst attendance rates in the country, with fewer than 29 per cent of students showing up to class on an average day. Yet in the art world, Maningrida is a place of serious interest. Stephen Gilchrist, curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Victoria, says that the region is renowned for a form of cross-hatching known as rarrk. In indigenous art, rarrk is often used to fill in animal silhouettes, but in Maningrida, entire works are decorated in the lattice-like pattern. John Mawurndjul, who is Namunjdja's brother-in-law, is the region's star artist, holding the record for producing the most expensive Australian bark painting ever sold. His work bears a distinct resemblance to Namunjdja's.

Gilchrist says: "It's as if they are egging each other on in the fineness of their cross hatching; it's becoming more and more finessed." Namunjdja has a shock of wiry, salt and pepper hair and is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. I ask him how he spends the proceeds of his art. He shrugs his shoulders and says: "I give it to family." We're sitting on the floor of the gallery storeroom, looking at one of his bark paintings. It's in a palette of red, white and black and symbolises a gungurra, a wind that blows in a small spiral. When I ask him about the story behind the representation, Namunjdja changes the subject. Finally, the gallery director, Deborah Reich, intervenes. "I'm sorry," she says, "but that's sacred men's business."

Among Namunjdja's people, the Kuninjku, there is no notion of human talent; work is attributed to the influence of ancestral beings. Unlike western artists, Aboriginal artists working within traditional confines are not free to paint what they please. Men focus on different stories from women, and older artists possess far greater liberties than younger artists, not fully initiated in the ways of the clan.

For Namunjdja's family, art education is intimately linked to spiritual learning. Namunjdja learnt to paint from his father, Peter Marralwanga, a well-known artist, and significant figure in the outstation movement of the 1980s, encouraging Aborigines to leave the population centres and resettle in their ancestral homelands. Marralwanga taught his sons how to make pigments from ochre, and how to strip bark from a eucalyptus tree and dry it flat. Much of Namunjdja's young life was spent watching his father paint, and now he's teaching his own son, Carlos, a shy, handsome boy still in his teens, who follows him around the gallery.

Reich says that while protégés are still learning, they must paint just like their teachers. Only once they're older can they begin to forge their own styles. Reich earned a fine arts degree in Paris and went on to manage an art gallery there. She says it was for a love of Aboriginal art that she packed up her life in her native France and settled in northern Australia four years ago. (Her predecessor at Maningrida Arts and Culture, Apolline Kohen, was also French.)

She is proud of Maningrida Arts and Culture's total acquisition policy, whereby all artists are paid upfront for their work, regardless of whether it's saleable. "An artist whose eyes are failing might come with a painting with wobbly lines, and we'd still buy it." Reich says that even the top artists of Maningrida don't see themselves as careerists in the western sense of the term. "The artists take great pride in their work," she says. "Samuel will come into the gallery with paintings and he'll say to me, 'These are good ones'- But for the Aboriginal artists, their work is a way of representing themselves and sharing their culture with the Balanda," Reich says, using the local Aboriginal term for white people. (It has its etymology in Hollander, the first Europeans to come into contact with the Aborigines of Arnhem Land.)

Still, Reich says many of the artists need to feel a connection with someone before they can even begin to discuss their work. "You really need to earn their trust and their respect. They have been so hurt by the Balanda, it takes a long time for them to open up."