Features/Q&A/Visual Art

A pop-up that never stopped

7 May 2020

Welcome to Seesaw’s new Q&A series, in which we will be talking to local artists and arts workers about how they’re travelling in COVID times. Here, Nina Levy interviews gallery owner and curator Anna Kanaris.

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Together with her partner, Arthur Clarke, Anna Kanaris runs South Fremantle’s Artitja Fine Art Gallery. Based in the couple’s home, Artitja exhibits Aboriginal arts from some of Australia’s most remote regions.

This is the first Q&A in a series profiling West Australian artists and arts workers, and revealing how they are working during these challenging times.

Nina Levy: Anna, tell us about Artitja Fine Art Gallery.
Anna Kanaris: Artitja Fine Art Gallery launched in March 2004. From the outset we never envisaged having a bricks and mortar walk-in space. We were always to be a by-appointment gallery, showing Aboriginal art from our home, but we would hold exhibitions in “spaces”. Pop-up. Back then, however, the term was so unpopular in the fine art world, we wouldn’t dare call ourselves pop-up. Then came the GFC and some of the highest profile commercial galleries around the country began pop-up exhibitions, and closing their gallery spaces. I still look over my shoulder if I use the term!

Our first exhibition was held at Kidogo Arthouse (Fremantle) in March 2004, and after that for several years we held three or four exhibitions at the beautiful Old George Gallery in East Fremantle. They were amazing exhibitions, we would get 200-250 people to the openings, there was such a buzz. To begin we exhibited mainly Central and Western Desert artists – big name artists mostly from Utopia, in the Northern Territory. Gradually over the years we built trusting relationships with the growing number of remote art centres. We now exhibit the work of well over twenty art centres from as far away as the Tiwi Islands, Arnhemland, the APY lands (northern desert region of SA/WA/NT; and remote Western Australian art centres.

NL: What does a “normal” day look like for you?
Busy. There is so much administrative work to do, we don’t have staff – we (my partner Arthur Clarke and myself) – are the staff. Everything it takes to run a successful business is what a “normal” day looks like.

Working from home makes it feel quite relentless at times, and there are times that I kick myself that I sent an email off late at night, thinking that the client will think I don’t have a life! Sometimes that is true – particularly when an exhibition is coming up.

NL: And what does your average day look like now, in the time of Coronavirus restrictions?
As much as I would like to say “It’s nice to have a breather,” I have to say I am just as busy, if not busier! Trade is down of course, as it is for everyone, but it is really important to stay on top of the current situation, not get too despondent, and keep our name and presence out there. I’ve had to up our social media presence, keep in touch with our clients and followers more. Because our home is our gallery, at times I have to remind myself that we are in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions.

NL: What were your plans for 2020 before the COVID-19 shutdowns?
Now this is the sad bit! 2020 was shaping up to be a big year. We began with our popular annual January “Summer Salon” show and had to close our March “I KNOW MY COUNTRY” exhibition 10 days in. It was doing well and luckily the sales made via pre-sale and in that first week meant we could send the artists some healthy sums!

The opening of ‘I KNOW MY COUNTRY’, 13 March, 2020.

We are still planning our June exhibition (all this year’s exhibitions are at Earlywork in South Fremantle this year) which will be paintings from Melville Island, the Munupi Artists; and sculptures from Maningrida in Arnhemland. Details are still to be worked out, but it will be a reduced program, although running through June.

I’ve had to postpone/cancel an amazing bush trip planned for July and of course the fun part, which I look forward to every year, visiting Darwin for the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) and the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair – all cancelled. Our exhibition plans for the second half of the year are still in the making, but it really is a case of “watch this space”. The sad part of it all is that 2020 was looking like Aboriginal art had finally recovered from the 2008 GFC disaster and was on a rising trajectory.

NL: How have your 2020 plans been affected by physical distancing and enforced shutdowns?
Much of the answer to this question is in my answer to the previous question, but in a nutshell, business is definitely down. Plans for purchase from clients have been put on hold, so that’s a downside. However we are getting more online enquiries, and the sales are dribbling through. We are still taking private appointments, but having to “vet” people on the phone prior to their visit, and have the sanitiser etc on hand.

NL: How have the restrictions impacted the artists whose work you exhibit?
: COVID-19 has had a hugely detrimental impact on the Indigenous artists, whose main source of income is through their art. I know that the artists, many of whom have gone back to country, have had their daily routines severely disrupted, and the safety and social interaction of their art centres is not available to them right now. We are all suffering financially, but it is almost more important now to work hard to get the sales and send that money straight away through to that artist’s art centre. It’s not only the best we can do at this time, but it feels like all we can do until this nasty virus has left us for good! It will be a happy day when we can say VALE COVID19…

NL Are there any silver linings to the COVID-19 restrictions?
AK: In a weird way I feel the pressure is off. Weird because if anything the pressure is on, particularly financially, but somehow the “craziness” of the world seems to have diminished a bit in the sense of, as awfully cliched as it is, “we are all in this together”.

It seems without all the pollution from cars and aeroplanes the air is a bit clearer and people’s heads are too. Although this isn’t to do with our work, families are spending more time together and friends are making greater effort to keep in touch. Perhaps this is just my bubble – I am aware it is very difficult for people who are in different situations – but something at the moment makes me feel that we are just a little bit more united than before.

Artitja Fine Art Gallery is open by appointment. You can also browse artworks for sale on the Artitja website:

Pictured top: Elizabeth Dunn 180x100cm Acrylic on Canvas Title: ‘Piltati’ . Photo: courtesy the artist and Ernabella Arts

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Since July 2016 Nina has also been co-editor of Dance Australia magazine. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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