Japingka Aboriginal Art Gallery

a traditional & contemporary approach to marketing


I have long admired the aesthetic qualities of Australian Aboriginal Artworks. So much so that it is hard for me to walk past a gallery. In the interest of full disclosure – I am not pretending to know anything about Australian Aboriginal Art or any art for that matter, however, like many people i just like what I like.

One Saturday afternoon, I was wandering down High Street in the West-End of Fremantle [actually I was hoping to take some photographs], and was drawn into Japingka Gallery. I have been there a few times, the gallery has been in Fremantle for around 30 years and they have a large collection and are constantly updating their window display. I believe, that Japingka Gallery is one of the biggest in Australia. As I wandered around, one artwork in particular, ‘Seven Sisters Dreaming’, caught my eye and I became enthralled as Jody Fitzhardinge from the gallery told me the narrative of artwork; as she did, the artwork, as beautiful as it is, took on a broader, deeper, and more beautiful meaning. The story, she said, provides a glimpse into the sacred culture of this remote tribe of people, it depicts the story of the seven ancestral Napaljarri sisters who to prevent capture turn themselves into fire and ascend to the heavens, they are represented by a group of seven stars that are visible in our night sky [see below].

 Jody mentioned that many of the artworks have ancient origins and their stories are spiritual although the Seven Sisters Dreaming is of the night sky many are a bird’s eye view representations of the country in which the people live. She brought other art to life, had a story of each artist and the place the artwork was set, and it was clear that she had studied art and committed to passing on her knowledge.
Aboriginal Art, from a marketing perspective, is one of the most recognised symbols of Australia – it is certainly part of ‘Brand Australia’ certainly ‘iconic’. Ian Plunkett, a director of the gallery, stated that around 87% of visitors to Australia desire an indigenous component to their holiday. Many visitors to Australia realise that they cannot ‘go bush’ for a traditional authentic experience and settle for a visit to the Japingka Gallery – perhaps, to quench their thirst for an indigenous Australian experience. The staff of the gallery should know – whilst I was in the gallery I spoke with a young couple from Belgium and an older couple, who seemed knowledgeable about the art, from England, they were on their 5th visit to Australia. David Wroth, a director of the gallery, estimated that over 40% the paintings they sell find a home overseas. Visitors also come from the eastern states of Australia to the gallery; whilst I was there a lady and her daughter from Canberra began their search online and then came to inspect and purchase a painting. David stated that before the internet it was a ‘little lonely in the west-end of Fremantle’, he stated that e-commerce enables and facilitates the buyer decision process. ‘Sometimes they start their search online, something catches their eye, they learn about the artist, the artist’s intentions, where the artist is from and the history of the people, which is never immediately obvious to westerners, and then to as part of the decision process, generally, come in to inspect the art’. Other call in something attracts their attention, they search online to find out more and then return to the gallery. This is interesting as I have often considered, in my untutored way, that Aboriginal art is both ancient and contemporary; therefore, it is interesting to note that the marketing is both traditional and digital [what marketers call tradigital and omni-channel] and how there are many touchpoints.
Ian stated, that there are always exceptions to how people purchase artworks, some people wander in and make a purchase, others buy online – even quite valuable artworks have been purchased purely online – ‘not something I would do’ but some people may be extremely time-poor and you have to remember that there is now a lot of art traded online.

Today e-commerce is redefining how art is marketed. Ian and David introduce me to a leading online platform for buying and selling art – Saatchi Art. This mobile friendly site is extremely interesting – not just as a place to purchase art but as a marketing affiliate for emerging artists. One promotion on the site ‘Be original – Buy original’ is an example of great storytelling. Another is an app that utilises augmented reality technology to enable the potential purchaser to view the ‘virtual artwork’ in their home, this app includes the ability to capture and share.

I ask if purchasing art online is risky. David states ‘we believe in ethical behaviour and would refund the purchase price if an artwork was not to expectations [within 21 days] … we are founding member of the Federal Government’s Indigenous Art Code of Conduct. It is not just about making a sale, what is also important is to ensure that the provenance of the art is respected and that the artists profit form their efforts – we know most of the artists and it is like a ‘birthday surprise’ when they post new works to us.

Although modest about their achievements, it is evident that Ian, David, and Jody have a long association with the promotion of Aboriginal Art and the welfare of the artists. A search on the internet revealed that David once visited and nurtured the talents of Aboriginal prisoners incarcerated in Fremantle Prison. This symbiotic relationship between the gallery and the artists is an example of the marketing concept at work – organisations that best satisfy the needs of their customers are best placed to satisfy their own needs.

Ian stated that much of today’s interest should be attributed to the hard work of many people, however, former Prime Minister, the late Gough Whitlam deserves special recognition as he promoted the cultural and aesthetic value and woke many people up from a deep sleep. When opening a conference on aboriginal art at the Australian National University, in 1973 Whitlam gave a magnificent speech, here is an excerpt from the speech:

“I do not think we should regard Aboriginal arts as a museum piece, but rather as a vigorous, expression of the vitality of the Aboriginal way, changing as it will from the effects of outside influences and from its own internal vitality. … Artists are not only those who see and feel most intensely the agonies, the sorrows and the hopes of their own people: They are those who can bring to others the willingness and capacity to comprehend and share these emotions.”
[Speech by the Prime Minister Mr E. G. Whitlam at the opening of a national seminar on Aboriginal arts at the Australian national University, 21st May 1973.  Available: http://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-2932]
David stated that Gough Whitlam also opened an exhibition of the work of Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike in Paris in 1987; which generated a great deal of interest. Interestingly, Japingka Gallery has a long association with this well known artist and the gallery is named as a tribute to Jimmy Pike. Ian, stated that when Aboriginal art was first shown in Europe, he worked in London for a number of years, it was seen as having the epistemic qualities and sense of spirituality that art consumers desired.
Often vistors purchase the artworks as a ‘self-gift’ – a tangible reminder of a special trip to special place. As the following consumers of Australian Aboriginal Art have stated:
“I have a beautiful Aboriginal artwork by Gabriella Possum, the daughter of the famous Clifford Possum. I love it as it reminds me of our trip to Alice Springs, the heart of Australia. The colors are earthy yet vibrant, strong but also feminine. But I know it’s more significant than that; representing places and time and people.”

“My aboriginal artworks reminds me of a special time in the Warburton Ranges – The artwork ‘the roads to warburton’ was painted a local young woman – it is not valuable to anyone else but me. The artwork depicts all the colour of the ranges. Before I went there I thought the desert would be one colour – but it is not. Strangely, I lost the painting and then recovered it which was really fortunate – this adds to the story – I now treasure it.”

For some it could be part of their personal brand – a means to position themselves as more interesting or as a world traveller or interested in Aboriginal art – Jody states that ‘what is really interesting is that often when someone has an Aboriginal artwork, in their home or office, they feel compelled to share the story with guests and as they tell the story they become immersed in the culture and develop a greater appreciation of the culture. Ian suggested that they’ buy-in to the culture’. So – art can bring people closer together.

With their passion evident it is not surprising that David, Ian, and Jody have taken Aboriginal Art to the world and have undertaken many exhibitions overseas. They have a higher purpose – to communicate an appreciation for the culture and believe that there should be an Aboriginal Artwork in ever Australian home. The see the relationship as about sustainability and their goal is to provide remote communities with a stable source of income, work that is respected by the local and wider community, and is in harmony and preserves their culture.

Considering Australian Aboriginal art as a product

When we examine the marketing of Australian Aboriginal artworks as a product, we can clearly see all 6 product components are present. You may recall that the product components are goods, services, ideas, experiences, people and places. In sum: the artwork itself is material [goods], it provides an aesthetic service to the owner, it is embedded with ideas, it provides an experience, it represents the artist [people], and portrays a place.

For many, Australian Aboriginal artworks would be classified as an ideas dominant product [not discounting the importance of the other product components]. To effectively communicate and diffuse the symbolic and aesthetic ‘ideas’ embeded within Australian Aboriginal artwork requires a synergistic, symbiotic, strategic, and sustainable marketing relationship between the artists and the gallery. The artists are cultural producers and the gallery is more than a ‘marketing intermediary’, they are a ‘marketing influencer’. The galleries are influencing consumer tastes and helping to create a consumer culture that values and adopts the ideas embedded within Australian Aboriginal art Successful marketing of this product requires an expanded interpretation of profit, one that is richer than a financial profit of a balance sheet.


You may find the following interesting

Venkatesh, A. & Meamber, L. A. (2006). Arts and aesthetics: Marketing and cultural production. Marketing Theory 6(1), 11–39. The authors discuss artists, in general, as cultural interpreters and producers

Belk, R. & Groves, R. (1999). Marketing and the Multiple Meanings of Australian Aboriginal Art. Journal of Macromarketing 19(1), 20-33. The authors discuss how meanings and interpretations vary with distance from the place of production.

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