Problems Facing Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal art is one of the most highly sought after exports amongst tourists yet the culturally rich and diverse art form is being threatened from all sides by ominous forces that threaten to undermine its value and authenticity.
Its status as highly coveted Australian souvenirs has exalted it to a level of popularity that threatens to eclipse its rich heritage and authenticity.
1: Exploitative dealers
Otherwise known as carpetbaggers, exploitative dealers seek to profit from the largely illiterate and non-English speaking indigenous artists, resulting in a pervasive sense of anger, loss and frustration in indigenous people. Elder artists in particular are exploited for their paintings because of their lack of education, their absence of know-how when dealing with local white dealers and their lack of business sense.
Following the escalation of indigenous art’s popularity, many Aboriginal artists were thrust into the public spotlight where they had little to no control over the purchase and distribution of their paintings. Disempowerment was a common theme amongst painters who felt disillusioned when unscrupulous dealers refused to pay reasonable prices for their art or showed scant interest in the history and culture reflected in the painting.
Other instances involving exploitative dealers have resulted in indigenous artists receiving cars with flat tyres or no fuel in return for their paintings or relentlessly being hounded by dealers when they move between towns.
2: Graffiti and man-made forces
Graffiti, construction work and corrosion directly caused by the touching of sites have resulted in the decimation of rock paintings and rock engravings throughout Australia. The offenders span from early day settlers to modern-day visitors. Many of these rock paintings and engravings are now protected under the provision of National Parks who employ rangers to strictly guard sites or prohibit public members from visiting them at all.
3: Backpackers masquerading as artists
A shocking discovery from a public inquiry in 2007 revealed that backpackers were masquerading as indigenous artists and painting artwork that was being sold in tourist shops across the country. False descriptions and ambiguous designs mask forged artwork in souvenir and tourist shops throughout the Northern Territory in particular and especially when it came to the art on didgeridoos.
A number of systems have been put in place to ensure the protection of authentic artwork. A ‘Label of Authenticity’ formerly existed as a national trademark that encouraged people to buy genuine indigenous artwork. After the label ceased to operate, individual artists and art conservation organisations created their own certificates of authenticity to attach to their art products. Problems that arose from the creation of the certificates included no guarantee that the works were genuine, misuse of the certificates by commercial galleries and the ease in which these certificates could be created.
These days, there is an Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct that is a voluntary code of ethical behaviour for art dealers operating in the indigenous art realm.
It states that most people who bought false Aboriginal art were doing it out of appreciation and sympathy towards the plight of Aboriginal artists but were in danger of being hoodwinked by devious forces at play. It is the hope of conservation institutions and indigenous people alike that the profits from indigenous art go to those who created them – an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.