April 2022

Arts & Letters

Art heist: The landmark conviction of an Aboriginal art centre’s manager

By Quentin Sprague

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Dibirdibi country (2008), synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 197.8cm 303.7cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, NGV Supporters of Indigenous Art, 2010. The Estate of Sally Gabori / Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

The jailing of Mornington Island Art’s chief executive for dishonest dealing has shone a light on ethics and colonialism in the Indigenous art world

In February, a story I had been following on and off for almost a decade finally drew to an uneasy almost-conclusion. Brett Evans, the one-time manager of Mornington Island Art – a small Aboriginal art centre on the namesake island in the Gulf of Carpentaria – was sentenced in Mt Isa District Court to four years and six months’ jail. He was also ordered to pay $421,378.20 in reparation to the art centre and a small group of artists, including to the estate of Mornington Island’s most celebrated painter, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, known more widely as Sally Gabori. Evans had exploited his position between local artists and the ever-hungry Aboriginal art market, and pocketed the proceeds of 176 paintings. Of those, 169 were Gabori’s.

Evans’s conviction doesn’t mark the first art-related prosecution successfully pursued by the federal government’s Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), but the nature and scale of his crime, as well as the severity of the resulting sentence, set it apart. As the art centre’s manager, and also as chief executive of the overarching Mirndiyan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation, Evans was tasked with numerous intersecting jobs. These included employing and overseeing local and interstate staff, and organising a busy annual exhibition schedule. But as with any art centre manager, one of his key responsibilities was the money. It was Evans who negotiated with art buyers and commercial galleries, and then received sales income, minus any gallery commissions (usually between 40 and 50 per cent), before divvying it up between the artist and the art centre. Even though he was ostensibly overseen by a board consisting of a majority of local Lardil and Kaiadilt community members, it seems that the multiple occasions on which Evans simply directed this money to himself went unnoticed.

For ORIC spokesperson Lisa Hugg, the case outlines the kind of gross power imbalance that can play out at the community level. “People in those roles have to have massive integrity,” Hugg told me following Evans’s sentencing. “They have to really respect the trust put in them by local people.” In this case, that trust was broken. Buoyed in large part by Gabori’s rapid ascent from unknown to highly collectible artist, which began when she first started painting in 2005, the art centre went from strength to strength. During the boom years (roughly 2011 to Gabori’s death in 2015), Evans’s hand was firmly in the till. “You should have seen the family when they found out,” Gabori’s son-in-law Bobby Thompson told me by phone from Mornington Island. A Gangalidda man in his seventies, Thompson serves as the executor of Gabori’s estate. It’s now his job to distribute the proceeds from her art, and he has experienced the family’s frustrations firsthand. “They were really, really angry,” he said. “[Evans] used his knowledge about English and things like that to really pull the wool over the old people’s eyes.”

So how is such malfeasance possible? More to the point, in a well-oiled art system that links storied institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery Of Modern Art to a network of commercial dealer galleries, and beyond that to government-funded art centres such as Mornington Island Art, how can it go undetected for so long?

I had no inkling of Evans’s crimes when I published my essay “The Extraordinary Mrs Gabori” in these pages in March 2015, but I was deeply interested in the money: how it had been made, and what benefits had resulted. My intent was to sidestep the easy narrative about Gabori’s stellar career – the idea that she was some kind of savant-like genius who had been waiting her whole life to paint masterpieces for an adoring (and largely white) art public – and to look at her in light of a broader phenomenon. This can be characterised as the post-Emily era of Australian Aboriginal art, by which I mean Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the late doyen of desert painting whose own brief, stellar career provides a kind of origin story for the particular complexities surrounding the public reception of artists such as Gabori. Some might doubt the connection between the two. Kngwarreye was, after all, from the Utopia region of the Northern Territory, and Gabori originally from a tiny speck of an island called Bentinck (an outlying part of the Wellesley group, to which the larger Mornington Island also belongs), but I assure you the link is clear: it’s the market.

My original reporting in 2014 led me to Simon Turner, a gallerist turned art consultant who had worked in Utopia in the immediate aftermath of Kngwarreye’s short career. He’d seen the market demand that had risen hydra-like around Utopia painting, and had brought that knowledge to a series of painting workshops he delivered at Mornington Island Art in 2005. The art centre had been overlooked by the broader remote art boom, and the workshops intended to help local artists capture market interest. With the senior women painters of Utopia fresh in his mind, Turner had actively sought out the women at Mornington Island’s old person’s home. Gabori was among them, and when she put brush to canvas, those present – including Brett Evans – were immediately enthused by what she produced. That first painting, a small canvas in primary colours, was propped on a shelf of Evans’s nearly bare office when I interviewed him during a visit to the community in 2014. It was raw and childlike and not entirely successful. I would later see it in Gabori’s posthumous retrospective, which opened at QAGOMA in 2016 and toured to the NGV later the same year: a comparatively tiny precursor to the flood of oversized works that followed.

When I first heard that Evans had been charged, back in 2020, I asked myself what, if anything, I missed during that visit. He struck me then as gruff and uninterested, but I put that down to him clearly not being of the art world or, rather, being of the art world by happenstance. He was a Mornington Island long-timer, a bald man in his fifties weathered by years spent in the northern sun (much of it, he told me, taken up by fishing). He was married to a Lardil woman and had worked previously as a schoolteacher and an outstation coordinator. I asked about the money that had washed through the art centre in the wake of Gabori’s success, and he explained the not insignificant problems that had arisen as a result: the family feuds it sparked, and the funds wasted (in his mind at least) on quickly ruined boats and LandCruisers. Why, I wondered, spend so much time and energy creating a market that was so clearly flawed, but I already knew the answer. I had worked as an art centre manager in the Tiwi Islands and the East Kimberley, and well knew the lure of the art; the way that unexpected beauty could make people temporarily blind to the well-documented excesses and darkness of the Aboriginal art industry. I also knew a handful of the established city-based Aboriginal art dealers and found it faintly amusing that it was Evans – a man who reminded me of a scowling Rex Hunt – who was responsible for stocking their high-end galleries with the latest thing.

Although I now know I shouldn’t have, I gave Evans the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t alone. Dallas Gold, who runs the well-regarded RAFT Artspace, originally in Darwin and now in Alice Springs, worked with Evans on a number of early solo exhibitions of Gabori’s work. Gold recently spoke to me of a “slapdash” professional relationship. Prior to an exhibition, multiple rolls of unstretched canvases would arrive at RAFT in the post, each of them containing as many as 30 works. These would often be damaged in transit, while more than once paintings had been rolled while still wet and arrived ruined. Gold would send back such paintings, as well as those he thought were not of exhibition quality (he told me that he assumed these were, in his words, “re-circulated”, by which he meant sent on to other galleries, or sold directly from the art centre), but he managed to secure enough for his exhibitions to be successful. “I didn’t think he was dodgy,” Gold said of Evans. “But there’s enough that happens in communities that I’m unsurprised. It’s just that it’s not generally the art centre manager who’s to blame.”

By 2011, Evans had begun to favour an existing relationship with Melbourne-based Alcaston Gallery, a long-running Aboriginal art gallery overseen by director Beverly Knight. Alcaston showed Gabori’s work with an abandon I’ve not seen either before or since, notching up one exhibition after another in quick succession. When I interviewed her in 2014, Knight expressed reservations about Evans, but was generally positive. “He didn’t really care about art,” she said in reference to their early working relationship, “but when he’s had to make a decision, he’s made really good decisions.” For Knight, Evans’s choice to hew closely to Alcaston’s vision when it came to representing Gabori was clearly one example.

Knight recently explained to me that her view of Evans changed with the 2014 publication of Gabori: The Corrigan collection of paintings by Sally Gabori, a book on the collection of Patrick Corrigan AM, the Sydney-based freight magnate turned art collector. She recognised the majority of works immediately. “Many of them I had personally archived at the art centre as not to be sold,” she said. “I called it her experimental period.”

Whether or not the paintings were good or bad strikes me as deeply relative; Corrigan’s mistake, it seems, is that he’d purchased work unsanctioned by Gabori’s main representative. Knight was angry enough to publicly demand a boycott of the book, and also recalls confronting Evans. He left his position soon after, and when Mirndiyan Gununa went into special administration in 2016, ORIC commenced its investigation. Evans’s crimes came to light as a result.

Gabori’s so-called experimental works are part of what has long fascinated me about her art. By all reports she was stunningly prolific: even though she was over 80 years of age when she began painting, she was rumoured to have produced as many as four or five large scale works in a day. Look at one and you can see how: they are brusque and thickly painted with big brushes. Colour is mixed directly on the canvas, if at all. The method was hit and miss – although I’ve heard different accounts as to the numbers, it’s clear that a good portion of her paintings were deemed by third parties to be not of exhibition quality (consulting the actual artist on this, it seems, was rarely, if ever, part of the process). As I wrote in my 2015 essay, some of this excess was eventually stored in a shipping container at the art centre, while some was simply taken to the local tip and burned. Gabori’s own thoughts on this aspect of her practice would have been valuable, but even though she was alive when I visited Mornington Island in 2014, I wasn’t hopeful I’d get them. She was one of the last four or five speakers of her language, Kayardild, and had very limited English. She was also in declining health by the time I met her briefly at the old person’s home; even though her paintings were being widely shown, she had recently ceased making them.

Now that he’s been sentenced, Evans is officially established as the villain of the Gabori saga. But something else has become clear. The story shows how difficult it is to cleanly discern the ethics of the Aboriginal art world. It’s not an unregulated industry by any means, but much of it still operates within a series of grey zones. There are individual actors who are truly bad, but to take a hard look at the industry is to understand just how difficult it is, in a colonial country like Australia, to make more nuanced ethical distinctions. I often return to a conversation I once had with an elderly artist in the East Kimberley. He explained the Aboriginal art world in light of the local pastoral industry in which he’d once worked for rations. The art centre manager, he told me, was akin to the white boss of the stock camps, while the artists were akin to the “workers” (his word) and the far-off city galleries to the station owners. It is an imprecise analogy; it doesn’t account for the fact that the Aboriginal art system, despite its flaws, is ideally there to direct money and recognition back to community-based artists, but I’ve often found it useful. Sure, many of the art centres across Central Australia and the Top End, not to mention the artists themselves, kick firmly against exactly these kinds of colonially inscribed relations, but such relations are nonetheless there. Anyone who’s worked in an art centre such as Mornington Island Art, as I have, would be lying if they said they hadn’t felt them. From this view, the Aboriginal art movement’s prominence in Australia cannot simply be taken as proof of some kind of hard-won postcolonial enlightenment; rather, it shows how deeply colonialism’s extractive urge still runs.

The news of Evans’s sentencing is both good and bad for the broader Aboriginal art industry. On the one hand, it provides a cautionary tale to those who might breach community trust, as well as to the Aboriginal boards tasked with overseeing them. But on the other hand, it risks putting collectors off: few would be comfortable with the idea that their money may not reach artists. Either way, Gabori’s reputation will likely survive. In July, a survey of her work will open at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. When we spoke recently, Beverly Knight was particularly enthused by this upcoming event. She remains deeply invested in Gabori’s posthumous career: not only does she continue to represent Gabori’s work through Alcaston Gallery, she oversees the estate through an independent art consultancy she also operates. It’s likely for this reason that Knight ended our conversation on a distinct note of hyperbole: “I think Gabori could go down as one of the greatest artists Australia has ever produced.”

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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