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Two ghost gum trees made famous by the work of Australian Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira have been found burnt.
Officials in the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory say they believe the fire was started deliberately.
The trees had been due to be added to a national heritage register.
Indigenous leaders say that the burning of the trees is a desecration – they are regarded as living spirits in indigenous culture.
Tribal elder Baydon Williams said the loss of such a revered site was “heartbreaking”.
“Those two trees symbolised a lot of sacred areas and songlines and marking of boundaries of different skin groups and different clans,” Mr Williams said.
The pursuit of cultural authenticity in Aboriginal art will make it harder for young artists to enjoy the success of the old masters.
New research into the sustainability of Aboriginal art claims the market for new works is already falling away, even for sought-after artists, because some indigenous works are still being treated as ethnographic objects.
A paper by Melbourne academic Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios says major artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Rover Thomas, are promoted as Aboriginal in a way that Pablo Picasso would not be labelled Spanish.
“To secure the future of the Aboriginal art market, it needs to expand and evolve so that a new generation of artists is cultivated and they are accepted as contemporary practitioners,” she writes.
“Marketing the first generation of Aboriginal desert painters as the genuine ethnographic article has the corollary effect of initiating a spiral of redundancy that makes it increasingly difficult to promote subsequent generations of Aboriginal artists.”
Australia’s greatest ancient Aboriginal rock art is at risk of being damaged or destroyed because it sits at the epicenter of the country’s resources boom, experts say.
The etchings of men and animals on the rocks of the Burrup Peninsula, some of which are believed to be up to 30,000 years old, lie in Western Australia’s remote and mineral-laden Pilbara region.
Images carved onto the red rocks scattering the landscape include kangaroos, lizards and emu tracks as well as the extinct native Tasmanian tiger which died out on the mainland 6,000 years ago.
Among the most significant panels are those showing human faces and activities and what experts believe are mythical figures.
“One of the pictures is depicting movement, is showing a man climbing a tree; probably to go hunting a possum or something like that,” says archaeologist and anthropologist Sue Smalldon.
“The depiction of movement is quite rare in historic art around the world.”
But the peninsula is also seeing increasing industrial activity, including a gas processing plant, a fertiliser factory and iron ore port facilities, making it the only place in Australia to feature on the World Monuments Fund’s list of the most endangered sites.
Smalldon believes the rock art has suffered since mining took off in the Pilbara, which holds some of the richest mineral deposits on earth, in the 1960s.
“We had nearly one million panels of rock art,” Smalldon said.
“That’s what so important about it. Yes, it’s important to culture, yes, it’s important aesthetically and for other reasons. But from an international perspective, it’s the greatest concentration of rock art in the world.”
She said the threat to the art has intensified in recent years as mining and energy companies drain the region of iron ore, natural gas and other resources to feed the huge demand for raw materials from Asia.