Indigenous art: How fake works disrupt the market and disempower local artists
This year, Gabrielle Sullivan and her colleagues at the Indigenous Arts Code went to some of the most popular tourist destinations in the country for overseas visitors.
They visited Circular Quay in Sydney, the Queen Victoria Markets and Swanston Street in Melbourne, Darwin and Alice Springs, looking to buy arts and craft done in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander style.
“We asked the vendors the same series of questions … we’d go and look at an item and we’d ask ‘Who was the artist?’, ‘Where’s the artist from?’, ‘What’s their language group?’,” Ms Sullivan said.
“[In] one blatant example of the fakes being out there, I went into one shop to purchase an artwork, and I was told straight out that it came from Bali when I asked.
“The guy in the shop then went on to say: ‘Most of the Aboriginal work that we sell isn’t from here. It’s from Indonesia, so it’s not Aboriginal artwork in the first place.'”
Art is an extension of its creator, and traditional cultural art from Indigenous Australians is a visual interpretation of the rich history of one of the oldest living cultures on Earth.
The visual interpretation transferred onto traditional artefacts is sacred knowledge, willingly shared in this day and age by Indigenous countrymen and women — though in modern society it can seem as if nothing is sacred, and exploitation of tradition is inevitable.
And although some say imitation is the highest form of flattery, the scale on which fakes are being produced is having an impact on Indigenous artists.
Artists encouraged to paint outside own culture
Leonard Andy — a Diru traditional owner of the Mission Beach area in Queensland, and a painter and maker of traditional objects — says he has been asked to asked to produce works that don’t belong to his culture.
“I’ve been asked in the past to paint didgeridoos, and I come from the rainforest,” he said.
“The people asking me to paint the didgeridoos weren’t Indigenous but they were tourist operators. I told them that I didn’t do it, and it wasn’t my culture in the rainforest.
“First they offered me $50. It went all the way up to $150 for each didgeridoo if I painted one. But I still said no … It’s Aboriginal, and I’m Australian, but it doesn’t come from our area in the rainforest.”
The problem goes beyond artefacts made in Bali for overseas tourists. It extends to forgeries, fraudulent activity, and exploitation of artists.
Laurie Nona, a lino cut artist from the Torres Strait island of Badu and the manager of the Badu Art Centre, said seeing fake art makes him weak.
“That’s disempowerment … these people don’t have a culture, all they’re looking at is dollars, and what they gain from producing,” he said.
“They don’t have no connection to it.”
Code relies on members doing the right thing
The Indigenous Art Code is just one organisation established to protect the rights of artists in Australia like Andy and Nona.
Ms Sullivan, the code’s chief executive, said it was set up after the 2007 Senate inquiry into misconduct in Australia’s Indigenous art trade.
“One of the recommendations was to establish the code,” she said.
“It’s not a mandatory code, it’s a voluntary code, so we rely on our members to do the right thing. Some do, some don’t.”
The legality of the trinkets and artefacts on sale in Australian airports and markets is dubious, but the devil is in the detail.
Can a work be legitimate if it’s in an Indigenous style, but not purporting to be Indigenous per se?
“The ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] can look at things under misleading and deceptive conduct, but that needs to be brought to their attention,” Ms Sullivan said.
“Without bringing it to their attention, how are they going to know about it?
“From the code’s perspective, and we’re working on this with Arts Law and the Copyright Agency, it would just make a lot more sense for these products not to be there in the first place.”
Distorted market means no money going to communities
Derek Farrell, the ACCC’s regional director for the Northern Territory, said the body would investigate anyone breaking the law.
“People living on country are dependent on this industry as a very important income source,” he said.
“It is incredibly unscrupulous to undermine, to distort that market by producing fake artworks, which ostensibly are Indigenous work, but there is no money going back to those communities.”
One artist feeling the impact is Charmaine Green, a writer and visual artist belonging to the Badimaya/Wajarri language groups in Western Australia.
“We don’t have a lot of the opportunities that people do in the more urban areas,” she said.
“We have to rely on websites, and it is costly to get to Perth to have exhibitions and to have markets and those types of things.
“We really feel it when there’s any downturn anywhere else in the industry.”
Mr Farrell said breaches of consumer law can be penalised with fines of $1.1 million per offence.
“We’re also able to get orders that prevent this activity happening again, and in some circumstances, we can get orders for compensation,” he said.