Hugely successful British artist, Damien Hirst, has come under fire from indigenous artists and elders.
Hirst’s new Veil series, it is claimed, bears too similar a resemblance to the work of Polly Ngale and Emily Kngwarreye, two of the most successful painters in the history of contemporary Indigenous art. And guess what? He hasn’t given the slightest nod to their influence.
Because, of course.
The artistic community of Utopia, Northern Territory is known for its unique style of dot art. Every mark is imbued with deep meaning, reflecting an aerial view of the sacred desert landscape and painted from memory over many hours. Speaking to the ABC, elders have argued Hirst has lifted the aesthetic style without any understanding of the meaning.
“The painting [we’re] talking about has been passed down by Emily’s father, the same with Polly,” she said. “It’s not a made-up one, it’s a very important story”, said Barbara Weir, Utopia Elder and traditional painter.
Communicating with the outside world via a spokesperson, Hirst flat out denies the claim. Apparently he wasn’t aware of Kngwarreye’s work, but “has huge respect for the importance of the value of art in all cultures”. Rather, he cites the work of French Post-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Pierre Bonnard as his main influence and considers the Veil series a development of the 1993-1995 series, Visual Candy.
This isn’t the first time Hirst has found himself in gross, murky, steal-y water. In 2010, Hirst copped 15 accusations of plagiarism, with multiple individuals throttling him for taking financial and artistic credit for the work of other artists. Hirst refused to comment.
In 2017, Hirst sparked controversy at the Venice Biennale. Nigerian artist, Victor Ehikhamenor, accused Hirst of copying The Head of Ife, a well known Nigerian brass artwork. Surprise, surprise: Hirst wouldn’t offer any attribution to the original piece.
In the age of mega-corporations stealing the work of independent artists without a nod to their intellectual property — this kind of foul play is nothing new.
Up-and-coming Melbourne artist, Esther Olsson, recently called out Hillsong Church for stealing the aesthetic of her work for an album cover and merchandise line. All of this kicked off after she’d politely decided an offer to produce work for them, deciding their ethics did not align with her own.
While there’s never an excuse for plagiarism or cultural appropriation, there’s something particularly icky about this one. The meaning behind indigenous art is drawn from the land — from stories passed on through generations and dream sequences. It would appear that Hirst has white-washed a sacred history for financial gain.
It leaves an even nastier taste when you consider Hirst’s reputation as a money-grabbing, all-consuming capitalist. Rather than doing the rounds of galleries, much of Hirst’s work has gone straight to auction. His Veil paintings were recently shown at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, each bearing a hefty price tag ranging for $500,000 to $1.7 million USD.
Hirst may be a multi-millionaire, but he’s hardly painting the portrait of himself.