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Independent panel probes authenticity of 28 First Nations paintings for major NGA exhibition

David Prestipino -

The National Gallery of Australia has confirmed it was reviewing attribution behind 28 First Nations paintings set to be featured in a highly-publicised exhibition in June.

The independent investigation of the provenance of the artworks comes before they are due to be hung next month for a major exhibition of artists from the remote Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands).

The Canberra-based institution has halted promotion of the upcoming Ngura Pulka - Epic Country exhibition while the review is under way.

Melbourne barrister Colin Golvan, who has extensive experience in copyright protection for First Nations art, and Sydney lawyer Shane Simpson, a copyright law expert will lead the probe and be advised by First Nations experts Yhonnie Scarce, a Kokatha and Nukunu artist, and Professor Maree Meredith, a Bidjara woman and the University of Canberra's Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership.

They will determine if the exhibition paintings can "properly be described as having been made under the creative control of the persons named as the artists", with any recommendations based on its findings to be made to NGA director Nick Mitzevich by May 31, two days before the exhibition's scheduled opening.

The NGA has promoted the exhibition as one of the biggest and most significant First Nations community-driven art projects ever developed.

The independent inquiry comes after The Australian published allegations that studio assistants had a role in the creation of First Nations artwork at APY Art Centre Collective's Adelaide centre, which may have interfered with or overruled the artists' visions.

Allegations of interference have been strenuously denied by the APYACC, one of Australia's leading First Nations arts organisations, after five artists claimed non-Indigenous staff members impacted artworks and recent video footage showed them painting on the canvas of prominent Australian painter Yaritji Young.

Under its terms of reference, the inquiry will consider the scope and extent of any third-party contributions and, in particular, the involvement of studio assistants and managers at APYACC to create the 28 paintings in the Ngura Pulka exhibition.

Dr Mitzevich said the aim of the review was to clarify whether APY artists attributed as the creators of the paintings exercised effective creative control over the creation of the paintings, and "so can properly be described as the artists responsible for those works consistent with the National Gallery's provenance policy".

"At this point, our focus is ensuring the welfare and safety of artists and seeking independent and expert assistance to assess the provenance of the 28 works on loan to the National Gallery for Ngura Pulka," he said in a statement.

In 2021-22 the APYACC made sales of $3.8m and said $3m of this was returned to artists and arts centres on the APY Lands.

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