The pee-wee Picasso taking the art world by storm

Aelita Andre at home with one of her many works.
Aelita Andre at home with one of her many works. Photo: Simon ODwyer

Nikka Kalashnikova and Michael Andre have been called many things since January last year, when the world first heard of their daughter, Aelita.

Aelita Andre was just two when her paintings went on show in a gallery in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. The story was told on the front page of The Age, then repeated around the world.

Aelita was dubbed ''the pee-wee Picasso'', but her parents were called far worse: exploitative, deceptive, manipulative.

They were ''using her as a randomly programmed automatic paintbrush'', wrote Germaine Greer in The Guardian.

''Good news for smother- mothers and stage parents everywhere,'' said designfederation.net in a response typical of the blogosphere.

What Aelita does, I don't see other kids do.

But during an afternoon spent in their two-storey Bundoora home on the eve of Aelita's fourth exhibition in just over a year, the word that best describes Kalashnikova and Andre is indulgent.

The ground floor of their home is given over to their only child. There's a toy drum kit in front of the television, an electronic keyboard on an ottoman, a wooden toy train set on a large, low table.

And on every wall, there are Aelita's bright, bold abstract acrylic paintings, the paintings that garnered so much interest and inspired so much debate, the gamut of which effectively ran from ''my two-year-old could do that'' to ''there's no way a two-year-old could do that''.

The truth, as it happens, lies somewhere in between.

Aelita's canvases are primed for her by her parents in the strong reds and blacks and blues that help make them so distinctive. She uses professional-grade paints and brushes and rollers.

Her every gesture on the canvas (and elsewhere) is encouraged, whether it be pouring a pot of paint over it or dumping a mountain of cotton balls on top of it. Her parents insist everything else is her own work, but with advantages like those, some observers say, any child could turn out work that looks professional.

''That's exactly right,'' her father says. ''That's what I'd encourage parents to do. And then the art world is going to be flooded with all this material produced by kids, and what's going to happen then to adult avant-garde artists? Down the gurgler. It's an enormous threat for that reason.''

Andre isn't arguing against the avant-garde so much as for the child. His child especially, but not exclusively.

''What Aelita does, I don't see other kids do. But maybe all the other kids who would have been as good as Salvador Dali, say, went off to become accountants or bank managers because their parents put them through a traditional education that didn't value the arts. We're simply giving our kid these professional materials and the time and saying, 'Go for it'.''

In the past 15 months, Aelita has certainly done that.

She had a second show in Fitzroy in April, a show in Hong Kong in December, and has a stall at the massive Art Melbourne show from Thursday.

Thirty-two of her paintings have been sold to collectors around the world - ''Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Singapore'', Kalashnikova rattles off their locations. Her first painting on canvas, Russian ''Mir'' Space Station in Cherry Blossom, was bought recently by a Hong Kong collector for $HK200,000 ($A28,000). That's a pretty good effort for a painter who can't yet tie her shoelaces.

Andre is certain that much of the criticism directed at him and his wife stems from the fact that Aelita's achievements make some parents feel they've failed in their own parenting. ''They're thinking, why did I not encourage my kid and treat them the same way these guys did? So it brings out guilt,'' Andre says. ''And the only way you can mentally handle guilt is to criticise the people who are doing it because you're not going to criticise yourself.''

But what of the charge of exploitation, the one that depicts Andre and Kalashnikova as a pair of fringe artists (they collaborate on film projects, he paints, she is a photographer, but they take commercial work to pay the bills) who have found mainstream success vicariously through their daughter?

''This is Aelita's money, it's not my money,'' says Kalashnikova defensively.

''It's in a trust fund, it's hers,'' Andre adds. ''People say, 'You're making money off a child'. It's not my money, it's hers.''

Kalashnikova claims she struggles every time she sells one of her daughter's works. ''I feel guilty that I am touching her work, that I am selling it. Two of them I bought back.''

Then why sell them at all?

''Because people offering money for her work legitimises it,'' she says. ''This is how society works. Most of the time I develop relationships with the buyers. They buy it because they feel positive about it. People have told me, 'We're not buying because a two-year-old did it, we're buying it because we love it'.'' But Andre will admit there's a polemic aspect to his daughter's burgeoning career. He argues that the acceptance of his daughter's work as art is a challenge to, and challenged by, the mainstream because it puts the lie to the notion that the artist's intention is key to a work's value.

''The arguments we've had against Aelita are basically that because she doesn't have intention, it's not great art. But Jackson Pollock spent years trying to unlearn how to paint. He boozed himself up trying to get back to a childlike state. Are you trying to tell me that every one of his marks was intentional? How do we know it wasn't a case of 'I'll grab my house-paint and see what happens'? You can never know the mind of the artist.''

Would he concede, then, that to some degree this whole caper is a bit of an up-you to the mainstream? ''From my point of view, yes,'' says Andre. ''But it's only an up-you because the establishment can't defend itself.''

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