Authentic Aboriginal art: the top-ten highest selling Aboriginal artworks sold through auction.

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By JOHN MOYLE

A recent Federal Court decision has seen an Aboriginal tourist art supplier hit with a record $2.3 million fine.

The case against Birubi Art Pty Ltd was brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission who accused the company of making misleading or false claims that many of its products were hand painted by Aboriginal people.

The court found that over 18,000 plus products, including boomerangs, bull roarers, didgeridoos and clap sticks, were labelled ‘genuine’ and ‘Aboriginal Art’, when they were made in Indonesia.

In their submission, the ACCC said “Such conduct puts at risk an array of economic and social benefits which are vital to Indigenous communities.

“It was unacceptable that Birubi sold Indonesian-made products as having been hand painted by Australian Aboriginal persons when that was not the case.”

‘Aboriginal Art’, made in Indonesia

Birubi has since filed for voluntary liquidation, leaving a huge gap in the tourist market supply chain and even more questions about recognition of Aboriginal rights and cultural appropriation.

Independent curator, writer and sometimes artist Djon Mundine said “Aboriginal artists are on the bottom of the social order in Australia and this is about colonising culture and it makes Aboriginal people even more irrelevant.”

During the 80s and 90s Mundine was involved in four cases involving manufacturers who were putting Aboriginal art onto T-shirts and not bothering to contact the artist or pay a royalty fee.

“The cases were won and set precedents about the rights of Aboriginal artists,” Mundine said.

Adrian Newstead is the owner of Aboriginal art gallery Cooee, a curator, valuer and writer on Aboriginal art.

“At the beginning of the eighties there was a move by some Aboriginal artists and bureaucrats and a number of Aboriginal galleries to establish a label of authenticity for Aboriginal art works,” Newstead said.

“This was mainly for the tourist industry because most Aboriginal paintings come with some form of certification, whereas tourist level art carries a manufacturer’s label.

“There needs to be a distinction between goods that are licensed, and goods that are manufactured under licensing agreements, for which Aboriginal people receive some sort of income.”

The problem for the tourist retailer is twofold: reliability of the supply chain and the price point of the goods.

Tourist shops such as those in Sydney’s The Rocks and Circular Quay area need a constant supply of goods to meet the demand and the goods need to be at a price that the tourist is prepared to pay.

“The person who wants to buy a cheap gift for someone back home doesn’t want to spend $100 on a genuine handmade boomerang, and this is the market that they are targeting,” Omid Nayer, owner, Aboriginal Art Galleries, QVB said.

Reno, from Spirit Gallery in The Rocks, said, “With boomerangs, no-one can produce the supply, and while we have got good relations with a lot of suppliers, it is always challenging to get work.”

The Indigenous Art Code was established in 2008 to set voluntary standards of ethical behaviour for art dealers and galleries dealing in Indigenous works.

“The code is just not for fine artists and, ultimately, it is about fairness and transparency around the transactions between the artist and the dealer,” Gabrielle Sullivan, CEO, Indigenous Art Code said.

“In Australia there are no laws around Indigenous art and Indigenous cultural knowledge, but the laws of copyright apply to everybody.”

Cultural appropriation

Sullivan said that many of the products sourced in Indonesia used a mix of cultural elements such as the cross hatching ‘rarrk’ work of eastern Arnhem Land with the dots of Central Australia.

While the average souvenir purchaser is unlikely to be aware of these culturally significant mismatches Sullivan said “This is part of the cultural damage that is happening and we have an industry that is dictating what Aboriginal art looks like. For the souvenir end of the market the tourists think that if it doesn’t look like that, then it is not authentic.”

“From the perspective of the artist the cultural difference between a painting that might sell for $5,000 and a painted boomerang is not a whole lot different, that is just the lens that we are looking at it through,” Sullivan said.

“The fake art issue is at the souvenir end of the market but the cultural significance is not based on the monetary value.”

Omid Nayer has been on the Aboriginal art business for over 30 years and while he sources ethically he said, “The fakes have been flooding the market ever since I have been in the business.”

Djon Mundine puts an Aboriginal perspective on the argument, adding, “It means that the dominant culture can take everything, including your very sense of being.”