In the middle of the city, just a block away from bustling Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, is a new gallery exhibiting the work of emerging artists who live thousands of kilometres away in the South Australian desert.
“This model is the first of its kind,” says Skye O’Meara, general manager of the APY Art Centre Collective, APY Gallery’s founding organisation. “Aboriginal artists own the gallery space.”
Known as APY Lands, Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara is located in far north-west South Australia, a six-hour drive on unsealed roads from Alice Springs, the closest town. “[It’s] a really remote place,” says O’Meara.
Very few employment opportunities exist outside the 10 arts centres that make up the APY Art Centre Collective, an organisation founded six years ago by APY Elders. “The Elders had a vision of creating their own gallery space that would be the best model of industry ethics,” says O’Meara. “One that would ensure a commission structure that would see unprecedented money come back to the community.”
The APY Gallery opened its doors on Oxford Street in March 2018. “The best thing about this gallery is what it means for young artists in Aboriginal communities every day of the week,” says O’Maera. “Being an artist or working with the arts centre is the only source of non-government income.”
80 per cent of gallery’s revenue goes back to the APY artists and the arts centres. Visiting artists can also participate in a professional development program at the nearby National Arts School.
APY artists have emerged in recent years as a prominent force in the Australian art world. In 2016, the Ken Family Collaborative’s Seven sisters won the annual Art Gallery of NSW’s Wynne Prize. In 2017, another APY artist, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, took home the $50,000 prize. This year, 19 out of the 47 artists shortlisted for the Wynne were from APY Lands.
“Every house within the APY lands has a couple of artists living within it,” says O’Meara. “The art-making is brave and dynamic, and people are happy to try diverse styles and different ways to tell traditional stories.”
Underpinning this renaissance is the Elders’ deep commitment to passing on culture. “They see this activity as essential to overcoming disadvantage,” she says. “In each of the arts centres every day you’ll see old people teaching stories to young people and that intergenerational exchange is really inspiring to be witness to, but it’s also a real driver for what’s happening in the arts centres.”
An important role of the gallery is to develop partnerships between individuals and businesses interested in Indigenous art that want to support the communities. “The Elders really see the art centres as being the only vehicle that can impact the disadvantage and social challenges that they’re living with,” says O’Meara.
The gallery presents a range of works from APY artists, including traditional dot paintings, works on paper and photographic works, woven grass sculpture, and carved wooden artefacts ranging in price from $200 to $10,000. “APY Lands is known for diverse aesthetic styles and sensibilities,” says O’Meara. “APY artists use a lot of colour – they’re generally very dynamic paintings.”
The reception from the public has been positive. “People are thrilled with the APY Gallery because they know 80 per cent of revenue goes back to community, to the artist and their family and the arts centre they work for,” she says.
The gallery’s Darlinghurst neighbours have been similarly welcoming. The artists and arts centre staff are often found at local venues like Phamish Vietnamese Cafe, Darlo Bar, and Bar Reggio. Other businesses have been particularly supportive. “We’ve been on the receiving end of generosity of BrandX,” says O’Meara. “Pearson Florist have also been wonderful.”