Connecting the dots to the dollars

Australian Aboriginal art is not always what it claims to be – especially if it’s made in Indonesia

Connecting the dots to the dollars

There are few genuine Australian souvenirs that visitors can take home and admire for their originality.
Tea towel impressions of the Sydney Harbor Bridge or Central Australia’s Uluru – formerly Ayers Rock – are more kitsch than culture.  

But Aboriginal art is unique, a global stand-apart, and to the fury of its creators has been left vulnerable to swindlers. That could start to change following last month’s conviction of Birubi Art. The company has been fined AUD2.3 million (US$1.6 million) by the Australian Federal Court for marketing fake Aboriginal art. 

More than 18,000 boomerangs, bullroarers, didgeridoos (wind instruments) and other artworks had been bought since 2016, mainly by overseas holidaymakers. 

The court found the sales had broken Australian consumer law by leading customers to think they’d acquired authentic local art and paid a fair price benefiting the creator. In fact, the artifacts had been mass produced in Indonesia, imported and retailed.

One estimate is that 80 per cent of indigenous arts on sale in Australia are phonies, or have been created without a legal licensing agreement.

Aboriginal art, colloquially called “dot painting,” is marginally similar in technique to pointillism though less refined and presenting no identifiable likeness; it’s mainly abstract and rich in secret meanings. It has been appreciated by the public only since the 1970s, largely through the initiatives of the late Geoffrey Bardon.  

A teacher at the Northern Territory Papunya settlement, he recognized the originality and complexity of Central Desert creativity; much is spiritual and impermanent because the canvas was then sand and scrub.

Bardon persuaded the Papunya artists to use modern materials and make their art two-dimensional and portable, starting with paintings on shed doors.

And profitable. Jump ahead half a century and the curious designs can be found at every sightseer stop, often with a simple statement about the alleged “story behind the art”.  

Although dismissed by some as just pretty patterns, a few farsighted connoisseurs got in early and have done well.  

Former official war artist Frank Norton started collecting for the West Australian Art Gallery after being appointed director in 1958. Astute private buyers then became interested.

Two years ago Earth’s Creation 1, a 1994 painting by the late Utopia (Central Australia) artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye sold for AUD2.1 million (US$1.47 million), the highest price ever paid for a painting by an Australian woman. Ten years earlier it changed hands for AUD1,056 million (US$742,000).

Traditional paintings are based on “song cycles” revealing stories of ancestors’ journeys and discoveries, but there’s also a practical side. The art included three-dimensional models of the landscape showing symbols of waterholes and places where food was abundant = maps of the environment.

Survival in a harsh land meant remembering the elders’ words and pictures, usually created using paints made from ochres plus feathers and grasses.

Indigenous Australians carved rocks and painted caves. Some petroglyphs (images hammered onto rock) in the Pilbara district of Western Australia are estimated to be 40,000 years old. Although imaginative artists, Aborigines never developed a written language.  

Counterfeiting has long been a Vietnamese specialty; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) market wanderers will have seen racks of competently copied Mona Lisa lookalikes and Last Suppers.

Indonesian tourist art has tended to be hybrid and corny, Balinese maidens happily laboring in scorching ricefields. Now some entrepreneurs have turned to filching motifs from the culture of the country next door. About 825,000 citizens have Aboriginal ancestry. That’s 3.3 per cent of Australia’s 25 million population.

The tricksters manufacture with impunity in their homeland while ranting against outsiders who have appropriated local batik designs for clothing. The alleged culprits are usually said to be Malaysians.

Australians are only slowly realizing the need to protect the nation’s distinctive heritage.  Back in 1967, the government blushed to find artist David Malangi Daymirringu’s work had been used on a new one-dollar bill without acknowledgement or compensation.  

Though the errors were fixed it’s taken more than half a century to legally expose rip-offs with a court conviction. But the June decision is a colander, full of holes to let dodgy operators drain royalties from creatives.

Technically the guilty company would have stayed clean had it acknowledged, however tiny the typeface, that the daubers were in Kuta and not Kununurra.

In her court judgment Justice Melissa Perry said there was “powerful” evidence Birubi's conduct caused great social, economic and cultural harm to Indigenous communities and artists. 

She said she hoped the fine would deter others from undercutting the rightful Aboriginal art industry, but this laudable aim seems likely to miss the target. 

The company involved has reportedly gone into liquidation so is unlikely to pay the penalty. This has prompted three agencies – the Indigenous Art Code, Copyright Agency and the Arts Law Centre of Australia to call for tougher laws.

The prosecution was launched by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. In a statement Commissioner Sarah Court said “Birubi's actions were extremely serious. Not only did they mislead consumers, they were liable to cause offence and distress to Australian Aboriginal people.

“… [this] has the potential to undermine the integrity of the industry and reduce opportunities for Australian Aboriginal peoples.”

The Director of the National Indigenous Art Fair Peter Cooley said: “ [Fraud is] lessening the value of authentic art and swaying people to be nervous about purchasing; ultimately they stay away from buying and that’s not what we need as Aboriginal artists and businesses.”
So next time Strategic Review readers are shopping Down Under for a dinky-die (bona fide) example of the Great South Land’s art, they might wish to scrutinize labels and ask searching questions of the seller.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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