On the trail of stolen dreams

August 29, 2003

A study into the exploitation of Aboriginal designs for commercial gain is yielding practical results, says Geoff Maslen.

After ten years of battling to prevent the plundering of Aboriginal artists' creations by white Australians interested only in profit, Vivien Johnson travelled across the US to investigate the situation there.

As a sociologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Johnson had become alarmed in the early 1990s at the continuing way Aboriginal motifs were being commercially appropriated, with no regard for the artists' rights or the meaning of their works. Following years of efforts by Aboriginal artists, she established a course that encouraged students to find out how extensively indigenous designs were used as decorations to sell a wide range of commercial objects. Ignoring copyright law, companies and individuals stole the patterns and shapes Aborigines had been creating for thousands of years.

With a Fulbright research scholarship, Johnson went to the US, hoping to obtain information about stolen Native American art. Her aim was to create a CD-Rom similar to one that she and her students had developed for Australia.

"When the first undergraduates joined the course and learnt they had to find out about the Aboriginal designs on their coffee cups and T-shirts, they thought I was crazy," she says. "But then they started investigating and began to notice that Aboriginal motifs were everywhere."

The students went on surveillance missions to scour tourist outlets, looking for products incorporating Aboriginal or pseudo-Aboriginal designs.

Their task was to track the design to its source, discover who made it and what, if any, its connection was to Aboriginal people and their culture.

The CD-Rom and website that resulted from this is called The House of Aboriginality (www.mq.edu.au/hoa). The viewer can wander through rooms clicking on hundreds of everyday objects with Aboriginal motifs to find who made them, whether the designs are genuine and if they have been stolen.

The disk also has images, a media file of news items, Federal Court judgments on copyright cases and video clips of Aboriginal artists explaining their work. It is part of a "copyright detectives" kit Johnson devised to help school students, librarians and indigenous organisations search for stolen designs.

She expected that many US examples would help create a similar set, to be called "The Home of the Brave". Instead, she met with considerable resistance - except among Native American activists - to the idea of restricting the free flow of commerce.

"The attitude I encountered was that anything published in the public domain was up for grabs. Hardly anyone understood what I was talking about, and to actually object to using indigenous imagery to sell objects was regarded as quite odd, if not un-American," Johnson says.

She thinks the reason the issue is taken more seriously in Australia is because appropriation of Aboriginal art happened more recently. Also, Aborigines have been more successful in having the courts recognise their legal rights. She continues to look for examples of Aboriginal art exploitation and recently drew attention to a publication by the British Museum. It contains an unauthorised copy of a bark painting by the late George Milpurrurru, one of the greatest champions of Aboriginal artists'

rights. Adding insult to injury, she says the book invites readers to make their own copies as well.

In 2001, she won a five-year research fellowship at the Australian National University to undertake a history of the Papunya-Tula artists. These are the creators of the famed Western Desert "dot" paintings whose earliest works now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars to collectors in Europe and America.

Under cultural heritage legislation, indigenous works produced 20 or more years ago cannot be exported without a permit. This has raised more questions for Johnson. "Following the copyright infringement issue over Aboriginal designs, we have a new field that apparently doesn't belong to anyone," she says.

"We have white experts pronouncing whether they think an object is important enough to be kept in Australia, but nobody is asking the artists what they think or how important the objects are to them."

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