Artists and elders from the central Australian painting community Utopia have expressed disappointment and hurt that works from a new exhibition by British artist Damien Hirst appear to take significant inspiration from contemporary Indigenous art.
Utopia, just outside of Alice Springs, has garnered international attention thanks to the works of the late Indigenous artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye and her contemporaries. The art produced there is characterised by bright dot paintings that depict aerial views of desert landscapes and contain deep cultural meaning. Considered one of Australia’s most successful contemporary artists, Kngwarreye’s paintings have been exhibited internationally and sell for millions of dollars.
"The [Damien Hirst painting we're] talking about has been passed down by Emily's father, the same with Polly," Utopia elder and painter Barbara Weird told the ABC. "It's a very important story…If he did copy that, he had no right. It looked too much like Utopia art."
Associated with the Young British Artist movement of the 1990s, Damien Hirst is the richest living artist in the United Kingdom. He actually might be better known for making money than art, sometimes selling collections of work through auction houses rather than galleries and boasting a rabid celebrity fanbase. His gallery opening for the paintings in question was attended by the likes of Miranda Kerr and Kanye West. This isn't the first time he has been accused of plagiarism or cultural appropriation.
Hirst’s spokesperson told the ABC that the artist was previously unaware of Kngwarreye’s work and was actually inspired by “Pointillist techniques and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters such as Bonnard and Seurat….Damien was unaware of the work or artist in question but he has huge respect for the importance of the value of art in all cultures.”
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