The APY Lands caught the attention of mainstream Australia when its artists, the Ken Family Collaborative, won the prestigious Wynne prize for landscape at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in 2016. A year later, another artist from the remote north-west South Australian region, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, also won the prize. Now, a new gallery space in a prime Sydney location will bring the work and stories of these artists to a broad new audience.

The launch of the APY Gallery, in the inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst, represents a major milestone for the seven art centres in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara, or, the APY Lands. The centres are run by a collective of Indigenous-owned enterprises, and facilitate and market the work of 500-plus emerging and established Indigenous artists. Many of whom will now be regularly exhibited in the Sydney.

Robert Fielding runs the Mimili Maku contemporary art studio in Mimili, the community Pumani belongs to. Fielding is a multi-award winning photographer and multimedia artist – he won the 2015 Telstra NATSIAA work on paper award – says art is a crucial part of everyday life in a place where job opportunities are scarce.

“There’s a lot of interest in art, and the art centre is a hub of engagement,” says Fielding, adding the centre covers painting, photography, new media and spear-making. “There are so many famous artists here and they’re teaching the younger generation the importance of stories; and creating art in a different perspective for the wider world to see our history, story, song and dance, sharing a snippet of who we are as individuals.”

Skye O'Meara is the manager of the APY Art Centre Collective, but in 2007 began working on Tjala Arts (two hours south of Uluru). Her goal is to create an Indigenous art “code of conduct” to protect the art centres, and they’re artists, from unscrupulous private dealers. It also supports the APY Land artists in professional studios, providing materials, art supplies and funding interstate travel to accompany their exhibitions.

O’Meara says the double Wynne prize recognition was the timely result of elders’ efforts to secure a reputation for artistic excellence – Pumani may have won last year, but 11 artists from the region were in the running. “They’ve always raised the bar really high in terms of their ambitions and those of younger artists,” she says.

The Darlinghurst gallery is the next clear step.

“A lot of the challenges we face on the APY Land include the tyranny of distance, it can be a professionally isolated space for directors and staff,” O’Meara says. “This gallery puts elders in a position where they can connect and build relationships they couldn’t otherwise have.”

The gallery will meet other challenges, such as training future staff and giving professional development opportunities, through a partnership with the neighbouring National Art School, which will also run photography, print-making and other workshops.

Local, established Indigenous curators, including the AGNSW’s Cara Pinchback and Museum of Contemporary Art’s Clothilde Bullen, will mentor up-and-comers.

Works for sale will revolve on a monthly basis, including paintings, wooden artefacts, photography, weaving, ceramics and works on paper with prices ranging from $150 to $7000; and monthly public programs will accompany the exhibitions, with visiting artists giving public demonstrations.

The APY Gallery has a broad range of support from government through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Prime Minister’s office, as well as individual philanthropists, many of whom will offer their homes to host the artists.

“To be living in the heart of Australia and see the beauty and vibrancy of the artwork produced in our region go to Sydney is an honour,” says Fielding. “We’re showcasing indigenous art from old to new, giving the opportunities to the new artists who are emerging, recognising their achievements, how important it is their stories and songs are put on paper or canvas.”

Pumani’a daughter Marina Brown Pumani is one such developing talent and her paintings will be part of the gallery’s first exhibition.

Buyers can also be certain their money will go into pockets of artists, who receive 80 per cent of the sale price.

“Carpet bagging will never take place with us,” says Fielding. “It’s an Aboriginal-run gallery. It’s about empowerment and on-the-job training, showcasing artists’ work with the hierarchy, the matriarchs and patriarchs, working together as one.”

APY Gallery
45 Burton Street, Darlinghurst

(02) 9368 1173

Mon to Sat 9am–5pm