Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

We must be careful to preserve the value of Australia's Indigenous art

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Friday, 13 December 2002

Earlier this month, the Australia Council for the Arts (OzCo) announced a series of protocols for dealing with Indigenous cultures. Developed to guide non-Indigenous artists and the wider community in how to interact respectfully with Australian Aboriginal identities, imagery and ancestral myths, the Oz Co's Indigenous Protocols are a major step towards protecting the status of native Australian's cultural heritage.

In three decades, the Australian Aboriginal art movement has grown into a multi-million dollar a year international industry. Descended from the earth's earliest known artists, contemporary desert-ased painters' stylized dotted abstract dreaming canvases have guided this nation's eyeline towards far greater understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal art is now big business here and abroad. Indigenous artists' iconic dotted linear patterns have been so successful in visualizing ancient stories that the style is intricately linked with the identity of Australian Aborigines in the eyes of rest of the world. For non-Indigenous Australians, the increased profile of Aboriginal imagery over the past 30 years has provided a welcome opportunity for increased awareness of the genesis and visual shape of the continent's ancient stories.


Importantly, the Indigenous Protocols will strengthen the defense of Aboriginal cultural copyright in Australia's courts by providing clear and expert guidelines as a basis for assessing claims. Cultural authenticity and provenance are also emphasized to protect artists' imagery rights under customary laws, regional tribal styles and male female ceremonial restrictions. The 1997 furore over Indigenous artist Kathleen Petyarre's admission of collaborating with former de facto partner, artist Welshman Ray Beamish on certain dotted areas of her award winning painting "Storm in Atnangkere Country II" was driven by gallery owners' concerns over the origins of authorship. Petyarre's uncomfortable fortnight in the glare of the national art world highlighted the mainstream art market's lack of awareness about Aboriginal ideals of artistic ownership as well as the industry's more mercantile concerns about the potential lessening of economic status of Petyarre's name on all she painted.

The Indigenous Protocols take pains to distinguish what may constitute shared tribal rights of artistic authorship, inherited stories and Indigenous cultural practices in art making. The document recognizes that for many Aboriginal painters in remote communities, sitting around a canvas adding dots and sharing stories can be standard studio practice as well as a way of passing on important tribal lore.

The Federal Parliament's only Indigenous politician, Democrat Senator Aden Ridgeway, advocates swift adoption of Indigenous copyright amendments to protect artists' cultural rights. He says "the Protocols are long overdue in establishing concrete business practices for working with tribal imagery and will raise standards for the appropriate uses of Aboriginal cultural heritage".

Indeed, the Indigenous Protocols raise several philosophical questions about the representation of Aboriginality in national media and advertising campaigns. While the new Aboriginal-styled logo for Oz Airlines does not technically breach copyright laws, it "bastardizes a particular style of traditional artists intentions", Ridgeway believes. Has Australia lost track of the difference between Aboriginal-styled works of art and the real thing?

Commercial TV home improvement programs often demonstrate how to get a decorative Aboriginal look into viewers' homes without paying for it. A recent program screened a non-Indigenous studio craftsman painting an Aboriginal-style canvas in a range of ochres, sienna and rouge pigments, to go with the made over household's new décor.

After re-covering a sofa, a female presenter joined the TV artist to help fill in the blank white space with as many Aboriginal-style dots as they could fit into the show's airtime. The studio-rendered painting's story line had nothing to do with native Australian culture but for suburban wannabes these do-it-yourself Indigenous art solutions fit tight family budgets neatly. Is television's democratisation of access to Aboriginal imagery a sign of our society's increased cultural tolerance, or does it merely tell us how cheap some of us are when it comes to valuing authenticity in works of art?


The ABC's Message Stick website outlines codes of practice for film makers working with Indigenous communities. But Channels 10, 7 and 9 aren't obliged to follow these guidelines when it comes to inventing Indigenous-style art works to match the modern Aussie day bed.

Apparently, Australian arts bureaucrats are missing television's intellectual influence on popular imagination. Sadly, the recently released Myer Report on the Contemporary Visual Arts also fails to assess television's influential role in presenting the idea of contemporary art in mainstream society. This demonstrates a trend in current national arts policy development, potentially at the expense of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian artists.

In our heavily mediated environments, television is central to the development of public awareness and consciousness and the flow of information and ideas but the visual arts industry remains continually suspicious of its commercial implications. It is time for arts policy writers to change channels and broaden their horizons. At the end of the day, if home decorating is recognized as an Australian national pastime, then contemporary art of all forms will certainly find its way onto our nation's tenderly repainted sitting room walls.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jane Rankin-Reid
Related Links
Australia Council for the Arts
Photo of Jane Rankin-Reid
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy