Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs; Report
In February 2017 I seconded the member for Kennedy's private member's bill to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and their customers from cheap fake Indigenous art and craft flooding Australian souvenir shops. I must acknowledge and commend the member for Kennedy on his work in this space. He really has been an excellent advocate for Indigenous Australians getting a fair deal for their unique cultural and intellectual property. As a result of the member for Kennedy's advocacy, the Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs has undertaken this fine body of work on inauthentic Indigenous art and its impact. It is widely appreciated by those involved with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art that we have a problem with inauthentic Indigenous art in Australia and we need an urgent solution.
I support the recommendations of the committee and seek to strongly urge this government—and any government elected to this place, following it—to act on those recommendations. In particular, I wish to draw attention to recommendation 8, which concludes that standalone legislation is required to protect Indigenous cultural intellectual property, including traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. Work on this legislation and public consultation needs to start urgently, as cheap, fake imports should not be allowed to continue to undermine the livelihoods of Indigenous artists.
In closing, I thank the committee and its secretariat for their work and I thank the member for Kennedy for his advocacy. I urge the government to act upon the report and its recommendations, especially the urgent introduction of legislation to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from cheap, fake imports.
It really is my pleasure to speak to the Report on the impact of inauthentic art and craft in the style of First Nations peoples. I was on this committee. I joined the inquiry when it was partway through its work. I thank all of the committee for their involvement and those that travelled far and wide across the various Indigenous art centres and Indigenous art fairs in this nation to take the parliament to places around the country and meet with people who wouldn't normally get to speak with their elected representatives on such an important matter to the artists concerned.
I particularly want to thank the chair, Ann Sudmalis, the member for Gilmore, who concluded this report, along with the deputy chair, Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari, my colleague Sharon Claydon, the member for Newcastle, and all the other MPs who participated actively in this inquiry. I'd also like to thank the secretariat for their great work—it was a challenging inquiry, going around the country, as it did, to many remote areas—and also the Hansard operators, who really did have some challenges on their hands in various parts of the country. It was hot work at times for the Hansard operators, under some interesting conditions. I thank you all for your support of the committee and the work that it carried out.
It was a remarkable experience to be part of this inquiry. The statements of the people we got to meet and hear from were very moving. Hearing what their art and cultural expression mean to them was very enlightening. I was only elected just over two years ago, but it's a remarkable experience as a parliamentarian to go and meet people in their own lands and hear about things that matter most to them. In this case, it was about the dignity of their art and how they are seeing it become terribly undignified by the proliferation of fake, cheap imitations of the expression of a culture that is 65,000 years old.
Anyone who knows the souvenir stalls that are on many main streets around certain parts of the country knows that some are trying to do the right thing and get authentic art on the shelves for tourists, but there are other areas where it feels like an insurmountable task to try to address it. And these are in very popular tourist destinations such as Cairns, Darwin and Fremantle and in airports all around the country. The abundance of imitation art, which really harms the culture of First Nations people, has to be seen to be believed. As parliamentarians, we all pass through airports and see this work. I now have my eyes open to just how prolific it is and the fact that something needs to happen to stem its tide.
I totally agree with the chair, the member for Gilmore, when she says in the foreword to this report:
This unacceptable misappropriation of First Nations cultures cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. These imitation products exist solely to make money. They demean the rich and ancient history of Australia's Indigenous peoples. These items have a profound and harmful effect on First Nations peoples. They do not teach or inform the buyer about Indigenous heritage as they have no connection to it. Beyond the immediate consequences mentioned above, this situation has a negative impact on Australia's image abroad.
I'd like to reflect on our image abroad in respect to Indigenous art. It was a matter that came up in the inquiry. In fact, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade put in a submission and appeared before the inquiry. In their submission they highlighted that First Nations cultures need to be recognised as a part of Australia's collective identity and nationhood. They also stated in their submission:
Australian Indigenous art is unique, world-recognised and one of our greatest public diplomacy resources.
This is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the high regard that it holds First Nations art in.
In their submission, Regional Arts Australia put forward this statement:
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art industry is an important Australian industry. It is unique in the world. It is acclaimed throughout the world. It enhances Australia's national identity and national reputation. It is a source of belief and pride for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It provides substantial economic benefit for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
How damaging therefore, to our nation, to the regions and to the artists on which this unique industry is founded, that there are ongoing and unresolved allegations about fake art, misleading and deceptive conduct and market manipulation.
Now, some people might not be aware, or might take for granted, how significant Indigenous Australian artworks are around the world. Many people in this place and lots of Australians have been to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. If they go to one of the higher levels, they're able to look down and see the roof of the Musee du Quai Branly. On the rooftop there is a work of Lena Nyadbi of the Kija people. Her painting Dayiwul Lirlmim shows the barramundi scales reimagined on the roof of this very important museum in the heart of Paris. On the banks of the River Seine the world sees the dreaming of Dayiwulcountry in the vast Kimberley. This is a remarkable thing to happen in this world, where a woman from the Kimberley can produce art that is reproduced in the heart of Paris for all of the world to see. This is how Australian First Nations art is seen around the world.
One of the world's most famous artists, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, has been compared with Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock. She was born in 1910 in the desert area north-east of Alice Springs, the area we know as Utopia. In her obituary that was published in London's Independentin 1996, it was said that Emily:
… carried aboriginal art beyond the limited sphere of ethnographic curiosity into the broad stream of contemporary culture.
These examples—and there are many more; some more contemporary than Emily—contribute to the arts and culture of this world and to a greater understanding of our humanity. It being the oldest culture on the face of the work, we cannot underestimate the importance of First Nations art and its cultural expression to global heritage. It deserves and needs the protection that we as parliamentarians can provide. To protect and preserve First Nations art—the art and cultural expression that sustains the people who create it—is a great advantage to our nation as a whole.
For those who didn't see the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum last year, it captured the Dreaming of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, a Dreaming that came into being in their history and their minds long before the Greek civilisation was even considered. We need to think about time differently when we think of our First Nations community and the art that they produce, because they were producing art long before the ancient civilisations that we seem to sometimes have a much higher regard for. If we can protect the treasures of ancient Greek society, we should probably think more about how we can protect the treasures of our First Nations society right here in Australia.
There are a couple of recommendations in the report and a couple of things to highlight. Properly funding the Indigenous Art Code is very important. There's only one full-time staff member trying to do everything to protect a pretty remarkable body of art around the country, and we need to think about how that can be bolstered further.
The prospect or the idea of a national Indigenous arts and culture authority is one I hope we will get to explore further in the next parliament. It is probably too late for this one but, whatever the next parliament is made up of, I hope the government of the day considers this. Recommendation 8 of the report suggested there is—and I highly support this—a need to have a look at how our intellectual property system can create new laws to protect what is a unique area of cultural expression and art in this world and not try to contain the protection of First Nations Indigenous art within the existing copyright system. New intellectual property laws would be a great endeavour. It would be a great endeavour to protect what is a great endeavour itself: First Nations art. It is not beyond our wit. We have seen many other nations seek to protect their treasured things, like Champagne in France, of course. I don't think it is beyond the wit of Australians to protect the great cultural heritage of our First Nations peoples.
It is with great pleasure that I rise after my colleagues to speak on this report on the impact of inauthentic art and craft in the style of First Nations people today. This report has been worked over for a couple of years, actually, by a range of committee members, but I have had the honour of being there throughout the course of the inquiry. I really want to thank my Labor colleagues—in particular, the deputy chair, Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari; my colleague and friend Madeleine King, member for Brand, who just spoke before me; and, of course, the chair, the member for Gilmore, who, when she was available, played a very active role at that time.
It was a really remarkable inquiry in many ways. In order to understand some of the context, we perhaps need to acknowledge the very strong community based campaign that was run. It was perhaps initially kickstarted by the Indigenous Art Code and the Fake Art Harms Culture campaign. It was a very strong community based campaign. It really highlighted the essence of the need for the inquiry. I'd like to start with a quote from Ms Marjorie Williams from Tangentyere Artists in Alice Springs. She tried to convey to the committee, as did so many artists, what that lived experience of the impact of inauthentic art was like. I quote Ms Williams:
When I see fake art I get a really bad feeling. How can they steal our culture and our style, which we learned from our elders? After many years of practising, we paint our Dreaming of our country. The river runs through and every land has Dreaming. Each Dreaming belongs to the people of that land. It's what we are. Fake art is destroying our identity and what we are. We are First Nations people and our arts and story must be protected for only us to share with our kids and the wider world.
I hope that goes some way to conveying what we're really talking about here. The flooding of the market with inauthentic art is not just a nuisance for people; it's not just flooding our souvenir stores with inappropriate product. It actually has a profoundly hurtful impact for First Nations people. We need to keep that front and centre when we read this report and when we think about the recommendations that are put here. Hopefully, if that is kept front and centre, there will be really good responses from government as a result of this inquiry. But we can never lose sight of the profoundly hurtful effect on First Nations peoples and their cultures of the denigration of the imagery, which, of course, has great cultural significance for First Nations peoples. So this is not just an inquiry about inauthentic art; it actually goes to the very core issues of identity and culture.
I also highlight the very significant economic impact that this has had for First Nations communities. It is deeply regrettable that one of the issues we discovered in the course of this inquiry is that there isn't any robust or accurate data around the size of markets and what the economic loss to First Nations communities might be through the flooding of markets with inauthentic product. We as policymakers certainly need to address that. There is a very good recommendation in the report that goes some way to ensuring that there is appropriate data in the future that would be made available so that we've got much stronger guidance for how we might implement some of these recommendations.
When you consider that First Nations peoples are among the most economically disadvantaged peoples in Australia, their lives and their communities could be transformed by earning a very sustainable living from their own culture. Indigenous art centres across Australia, many of which gave terrific evidence to the inquiry, are very, very responsive to the need to maintain some cultural integrity but also address the economic needs of people in those communities. There is an excellent recommendation in the report that goes to recognising the art centres and the role they play in providing safe places for people to work in, in the marketing of art and in giving sound advice around measures to best protect intellectual property within the constrained environment of the existing laws. As I said, the art centres certainly gave a lot of terrific evidence. It was quite clear, throughout the course of the inquiry, that really much of the problem is not at the high-end fine arts market—which is predominantly governed by the art centres, notwithstanding a few independent artists in that market—but at the lower end souvenir range, where there has been cultural theft. I don't think we should sugar-coat in any way the fact that it is a source of cultural theft.
We also took some very disturbing evidence around what is colloquially known as carpet bagging, which has happened in that higher end of the market too. It is just obscene that in Australia in 2019 there are people perhaps working against their will or having their artwork stolen in a number of different ways. That is an issue that every government should take very, very seriously. As I said, we took some very disturbing evidence around that issue, and I certainly expect that there will be ongoing inquiries in that regard.
But I would like to support my colleague the member for Brand and her calls just a moment ago for us to take a really serious look at the adequacy or otherwise of the existing intellectual property rights in Australia. Terri Janke, an Indigenous woman who has worked in this legal space for decades now, has written extensively in this area. She gave us for consideration a very good proposal around a national Indigenous art and cultural authority. I think she was not alone in giving that evidence. I think it is very worthy for the parliament to look seriously at that. It shouldn't be as difficult a job as it may be to make our intellectual property laws accommodate different sorts of concepts of ownership. To be able to consider the concept of collective communal ownership should not be beyond our wit.
We know that other nations have struggled with these questions, and there is no reason that Australia should not in fact be leading the world in terms of strong commitments around protection of intellectual and property rights for First Nations peoples.
I do hope that government, whoever that might be, takes seriously the recommendations in this report. There are certainly a large number of Indigenous artist communities and organisations out there relying on us to do a better job. The Indigenous Art Code absolutely needs to be adequately funded in order to do the task that it has been set. It is not just a matter of funding, though. It is a matter of deep commitment from policymakers in this nation to change laws that do not adequately account for First Nations cultures and communities.