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Exploitation of Aboriginal artists and artworks needs to stop

By Zoe Ong

It’s hard to find somewhere to begin when we attempt to talk about the innumerable failings that have fallen upon Australia’s Indigenous people due to European colonization. This year, Australia celebrated NAIDOC week from the 7th to the 14th of July. 2019 NAIDOC week’s theme was ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth. Let’s work together for a shared future.’, but in order to really understand what that means, one must delve into the shame that Australia tucks away when inconvenient - the truth. The truth being the real, horrific history of European invasion, the mass death of Aboriginal people throughout history and the countless issues that continue to plague our Indigenous population to this day.

The real story of European colonization is so often numbed down into the mess of an oversimplified, jarringly inaccurate and rather inappropriate lie that many Australians have been told and believe to this day. I’m sure everyone remembers learning about Captain Cook and how he ‘discovered’ Australia, as if it was an island with a predestine fate, ripe for European taking. I’m also sure that you remember this as a half-truth, something probably didn’t make sense - if there were already people here, how could Captain Cook ‘discover’ Australia? But our year five selves were generally incapable of really thinking about how this story didn’t make any sense at all and how it left out all of the truths about European settlement. How could Australia have left out the mass spread of disease, the countless conflicts, the mass murders, the hunting’s and our own nation’s genocide history?

Since we go to Loreto and have celebrated NAIDOC week in the first week back at school, you’re probably well informed on the statistics and the various areas Aboriginal people continue to suffer. However, an area of less focus is one that probably requires the most public, mass attention of all Australians and the international audience - the exploitation of Aboriginal artists and artworks.

It’s hard to move forward if you can’t accept what’s holding you back, and the continuous, vicious cycle of both fake Indigenous art and stolen Indigenous art is representative of the extensive disregard Australia has for the culture of our first peoples.

Whilst there are general rules regarding the purchasing and sharing of any artwork, most of them require credit, money or the artists’ freely expressed permission in order to share the work on any platform. Whilst these general rules should be followed, if broken, often have minor consequences or lead to legal action. However, the sharing and viewing of Aboriginal artwork without the express permission of the Indigenous artist has much more dire consequences. To fully understand the severity behind the exploitation of Aboriginal artwork, one must understand what Aboriginal artwork is to Australia’s Indigenous people.

Artwork is an integral part of Aboriginal culture. Art is an inherent part of Indigenous peoples’ appreciation and understanding of Country, the Dreaming, cultural expression and ownership of culture. Whilst it takes many forms, the most commonly exploited area of Aboriginal art are paintings, drawings or sculptures. Most Aboriginal artworks depict symbols that represent stories or journeys.

Aboriginal art is unique in the way in which it carries a personal, yet community-related message and connects Aboriginal people with their peers and Country. It focuses greatly on Dreaming and Country, as well as an artist’s personal relationship with certain aspects of their culture and life. Aboriginal artworks allow the artist to connect with their past, present and future through the translation of various stories and other events into symbols or other forms of art. Aboriginal art greatly represents an artist’s and/or a community’s own spiritual values and beliefs, with a strong sense of culture stemming from the fact that over time, the artworks carry similar messages and concepts as their ancestors did before them, reinforcing their connection with their past. The recurring theme in Aboriginal artworks that incorporate ideas of the Dreaming and Country, Aboriginal expression and the ownership of culture that Indigenous people achieve from creating these are what make various art forms of immeasurable significance to Aboriginal people.

Whilst there are numerous issues with viewing or exploiting Aboriginal artworks without the permission of the artist, one of the most problematic ones comes with the sacred symbolism contained within some artworks. Aboriginal art encompasses the complex, layered structure of Aboriginal culture, of which certain places and artworks hold significant, sacred value and require a certain level of initiation to be accessed. Both non-Indigenous people and some Aboriginal people do not have permission to view these artworks that hold sacred symbols or value. These sacred symbols contained within the artworks may be representative of a Dreaming story, journey, map or a sacred place, specific to a certain Indigenous group or members of their community. Of specific concern are exploited artworks that contain sensitive information that is sacred to a particular Indigenous group, such as Aboriginal Knowledge or sacred sites and journeys. So the problem with exploitation and mass viewing of Aboriginal art produced authentically by our Indigenous population is not only limited to the general consequences that come with art exploitation, but the much deeper, repercussive, adverse effects this has on Aboriginal people in the past, present and the future, on a sacred level.

Wandjinas can only be found in the Kimberley region in North-Eastern WA and are the oldest continuous sacred painting movement on the planet. To the Mowanjum people, Wandjinas represent the supreme Creator and are a symbol of fertility and rain. Wandjinas are extremely sacred and are of a deep spiritual significance to the Mowanjum people. Only Aborigianl people who went through the law and understand their stories are allowed to produce the image of Wandjinas. Adrian Newstead states that “Only a few Aboriginal artists ever win the right to depict Wandjinas, and only then after years of initiations and ceremonies,”. Knowing the sacred context of Wandjinas, it seems absolutely shocking that they would be appropriated and exploited at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, a sacred symbol that some Aboriginal people are not even allowed to look at, broadcasted internationally. There has also been an incident in which the Wandjinas were carved into stone as part of an exhibition by Caucasian people in the Blue Mountains. An Aboriginal Blog Commentator stated, “As an Aboriginal, I am upset at the way my choice to greet and respect the Wandjina (law) has been taken from me. You aren't supposed to just walk up to Wandjina and take a photo. You aren't supposed to look at him unless the correct rites have been conducted. It's disrespectful.”

Whilst it may come as a surprise that dot paintings are not traditional Aboriginal art, they still hold cultural and spiritual significance, and can contain sacred symbols or images. Dot paintings came to be as a result of Aboriginal people working together with a white art schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon in the 1970s. Appropriating the dot painting style is inappropriate, as it takes away the Aboriginal cultural significance and identity of the art form. It is only appropriate to produce an artwork in the dot painting form when an Aboriginal person expresses permission, guides you through the process and shows you what is culturally appropriate. In knowing this, it now becomes apparent that many of Australia’s commonly purchased tourism items that display the dot painting form and a ‘Made in China’ sticker are completely inappropriate, however they often over represent other tourist gifts or ethically produced Aboriginal art in market places or tourist stores.

Essentially, the context behind Aboriginal art serves as a purposeful reminder that whilst the exploitation of Aboriginal artists and artworks in Australia is prevalent, it is also completely inappropriate and a disgrace to all Australians. The practice of misuse of Aboriginal art needs to stop, and is an integral part of moving forward together, as a nation.


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