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The fight against fake Aboriginal art

Aboriginal artist Jeffrey Samuels of Boomalli Arts Cooperative beside one of his creations. Photo: supplied



The sale of artwork as ‘Aboriginal’ when it is neither of indigenous origins nor provides income to Indigenous communities is an issue that infuriates Aboriginal artists.

Following cuts to the Australia Council by the Federal Government last year, funding remains a significant issue for the Arts sector at large. For Indigenous artists, however, the problems are more complex than the funding struggle because Indigenous art is generally well supported.
CEO of the Indigenous Art Code (IAC) Gabrielle Sullivan said, “Across mainland Australia and the Torres Strait there are between 80 and 100 Aboriginal owned and governed arts centres that receive federal funding.”

She says the bigger issue is the sale of fake art and merchandise targeting the tourist market.
“We started to get artists coming to the Code complaining about people who were selling fake art. These people were not members of the Code. They’re interest is only to make money.”

Following an increase in complaints about the sale of fake art, Ms. Sullivan said, “The Board decided it was something we needed to do something about.”
She said the issue is not just about dishonest sales practice but the spread of misinformation about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.
“Especially for tourists, if they’re only engagement with Aboriginal culture is in a tourist shop, often they’re being told absolute rubbish.”

Ms. Sullivan says the vast majority of galleries targeting tourists are not members of the Code.
The IAC was set up after the 2007 Senate inquiry into misconduct in the sale of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

The not-for-profit organisation advocates for the ethical and fair trade of Indigenous artwork, and transparency in its promotion and sale. Ms. Sullivan said that while it was intended to be mandatory, it functions as voluntary code of practice to which Indigenous galleries and suppliers can apply.
“In some ways a voluntary code is a good idea because it can set best practice whereas mandatory can sometimes bring things down to a base level.”

However, she said, “Unfortunately, there are people in this business who are not in it for the right reasons and the issue with the code being voluntary is that it allowed everyone to sign up.”
In 2014, the IAC Board made a recommendation to the federal government that the code become mandatory but it was rejected. Instead, they decided to review the application process earlier this year, including questions used to demonstrate provenance for artwork and processes for remunerating artists.

Ms. Sullivan said she’s noticed a shift over the past six months.
“Slowly, more people are signing up. There are a lot of people who want to be doing the right thing but just don’t know what that is so asking more questions allows us to have really open conversations.”

Currently, there are over 300 registered members of the Code but Ms. Sullivan says that what is really needed to prevent the circulation of fake art is a legislative amendment to the Competition and Consumer Act.
Together with the Copyright Agency and Arts Law Centre of Australia, the IAC launched the ‘Fake Art Harms Culture’ campaign last year to lobby the federal government for a change to consumer law.
According to the Copyright Agency’s website, an estimated 80 per cent of stores selling products claimed to be Indigenous, are selling fakes.

In August, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs responded by announcing an inquiry into the proliferation of inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
“I know people are cynical about inquiries but nothing is going to change without one,” Ms. Sullivan said. “This is an issue that artists have been trying to do something about for decades.”

Submissions for the inquiry closed last Friday, 3 November, and Ms Sullivan said the next step will be public hearings.
“The report probably won’t be released until May next year, at the earliest,” she said.

While there is no tangible outcome just yet, the industry does have other measures in place to protect artists.
Judy Grady, the Manager for Visual Arts at the Copyright Agency, said thanks to the resale royalty scheme introduced in 2010, compensation for Indigenous artists is improving.
“Since its commencement, the scheme has generated over $5.6 million in royalties for over 1,500 artists,” Ms. Grady said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists represent 63 per cent of the artists receiving royalties, and the scheme is providing greater clarity on how their work moves through the market and their market value,” she said.

Ms. Sullivan said ensuring appropriate compensation is still an ongoing issue.
“Appealing to people’s good will to do the right thing doesn’t always work when there’s money involved.”
Boomalli is a member of the IAC and also pays artists under the resale royalty scheme. As an Indigenous owned and operated art dealer, Phemie said they are different to commercial galleries.
“With commercial galleries you just don’t know how much money is getting back to the artist.” Reluctant to criticise other dealers, she simply said, “Boomalli is better.”

“The difference is … You know that old song?” she laughed, “We’re doin’ it for ourselves!
“Who would have thought, after 30 years, we’re still here,” she said, “big and bold as ever.”

The Boomalli 30th anniversary exhibition is curated by Djon Mundine OAM and will run until late January 2018.

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