Indigenous artists Gabriel Maralngurra and Shaun Namanyelk, from the remote Northern Territory community of Gunbalanya, say moving most of their Injalak Arts business online has been vital to keep it afloat during the pandemic.
- Aboriginal art sales dropped 30 per cent during COVID-19
- Art centres want help to get better internet connections to support online sales
- The Commonwealth has told NBN to find remote connectivity solutions for art centres
COVID-19 cut off Injalak’s 150 painters, screen printers, basket weavers and sculptors from selling to tourists in the Western Arnhem Land community, their Darwin shop, and at national and international art fairs and shows.
So they’ve beefed up their presence on social media by broadcasting live concerts from the community on Facebook to help promote their culture and products.
“We are doing this because we want to get people outside to buy more stuff online, because we have been worried about COVID, about anyone coming to the community, because it’s safe here,” Namanyelk said.
Maralngurra added: “We like to share our stories to the wider world, and also when we know that people are buying and wearing our designs we are very proud, we want them to understand and learn more about Indigenous culture.”
Injalak Arts culture officer Alex Ressel said while the business had noted a drop in sales at shop fronts, it hadn’t been hit as badly as the artists first feared.
“We’re not making as much money as we were when there were visitors, but we’ve had a really big jump in online sales,” he said.
But unlike city businesses, which have also had to quickly innovate into the digital space, Injalak and many other remote art centres have been stymied by poor access to internet and phone services.
“There’s no fibre optic here. Internet is really slow. Telstra just cancelled our internet without warning by accident and they’re not going to redo it for a few days, so it’s really tough to see work online from the bush,” Mr Ressel said.
Remote digital divide widens
Djambawa Marawili is the chairman of Australia’s biggest group of 47 indigenous-owned art centres, the Arnhem Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Corporation.
Mr Marawili worried the widening remote digital divide was not just losing artists potential sales, but also hampering their ability to influence policies made about their communities.
“We do want to catch up with the big cities around the world. Because the artists who live in very small communities, their voice isn’t heard in a political way, like for funding or advocacy, when we are looking for budgets to run small businesses in our little homelands, and that is really not fair,” he said.
The Corporation’s chief executive Cristina Davidson said Jobkeeper and an extra Commonwealth COVID-19 subsidy of $7 million, on top of the $21 million it gives annually in total to 80 art centres around Australia, had been vital.
“Some of the bigger artists support 15 people, in places were there are few other jobs,” she said.
Ms Davidson said to make sure art centres remain sustainable they needed better digital connectivity.
“If the country wants to enjoy the extraordinary renaissances of Aboriginal art that we have had, making that viable and supporting the continued indigenous leadership and the indigenous cultural strength behind it, is so vital, in ways that are way beyond sales,” she said.
Feds push NBN to assess issue
Federal Arts and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said his Government was looking at what more assistance it could give.
“I’ve had the National Broadband Network look at this issue and give me an assessment of the connectivity that is being provided to the indigenous art centres,” he said.
“We need to have a further look at connectivity; it’s important that we look at these opportunities and see how quickly we can put them in place.”
The NBN’s remote development officer Gavin Williams said satellite internet was available now for all communities, at between $59 and $150 a month.
But he said the NBN is looking at how it could provide better internet to art centres at more affordable rates.
“I can certainly see development of our product to make sure we learn and understand the requirements of the art sector and tune our products accordingly,” he said.
Despite the challenges, sales figures collated from Indigenous art centres all over Australia by the Central Australian association Desart have shown their innovation online has cushioned the COVID-19 blow somewhat.
“Our research showed that from March to June 2020 there was a 30 per cent drop in average sales, and 60 per cent fall in the average number of art works produced,” Desart’s CEO Phillip Watkins said.
“So it’s extraordinary how art centres have pivoted very quickly in response to COVID.
“And we were very pleasantly surprised this year when a number of indigenous art fairs like the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and Desert Mob in Alice Springs went online by the overall sales that came through those particular events.”
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