It’s the art world’s biennial gathering of the clans, with the groovy, the
old-fashioned and the downright commercially craven coming from galleries and
garrets near and far to trade their wares under one enormous roof over four
visually saturated days. It’s the Melbourne Art Fair and it kicked off last night at the Royal
Exhibition Building with the opening bash – pretentiously called the Vernissage –
the best opportunity for networking and swapping libellous gossip on the visual
arts calendar.

The Sydney-based art blogger The Art Life claims to have attended
the $125-a-head party and mercilessly takes the p-ss in this piece, which includes a violent reference to Crikey’s
arts correspondent.

While the 3,000 guests faffed about either blowing air kisses or staring
daggers at each other, a controversy was quietly brewing on the upper deck of
the cavernous venue. Unbeknownst to most of the throng, one of the 80 exhibiting galleries had
been forced to engage in a little self-censorship. The public-subsidised contemporary art space 200 Gertrude St removed an
artwork from its exhibition stand after a complaint that it was culturally
insensitive.

The work was one of three digital collages exploring the subject of
campsites. They were made by Helen Johnson and Michelle Ussher. The offending
piece included archival photos of Indigenous campsites including the old Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Gallery
staff received a complaint that it was inappropriate for these non-Indigenous
artists to incorporate images of Aboriginal people in their work. It’s believed
there were fears that the gallery’s stand would be picketed by protesters if the
work wasn’t removed. Gallery staff were bewildered by the claim that the collages were overtly
critical of white interpretations of Indigenous history and culture. As one
source close to this incident told Crikey: “Indigenous issues are marginalised
enough as it is, so for white artists to be told they can’t address these issues
in their work is pretty distressing.”

The fair runs until Sunday and will set you back $22 a ticket.

Peter Fray

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