Forging Multiculturalism in Australia

“How effective has multiculturalism been in addressing the issues experienced by Indigenous communities in Australia?” 

(sub-question)

“How is the Aboriginal art industry reflective of broader issues experienced within Indigenous communities as a result of multiculturalism?”


We acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this nation. We acknowledge that this land and its people’s sovereignty was never ceded. We pay our respects to ancestors and Elders, past, present and emerging. We are committed to honouring Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ unique cultural and spiritual relationships to the land, waters and seas and their rich contribution to society.


As she looks down at her finished work, Yarran sees her life. Straight lines connects her destinations with travel: home and the city. Contained in the middle, Yarran sees the Dreamtime of her Wiradjuri people. Yarran recalls her own mother telling her this story – her presence is in the paint, sitting around a fire during a silent women’s ceremony. Their meetings are represented repeatedly on the canvas, the spirit of the Wiradjuri people and their stories flourishing with whites, blues and purples. The life of the rainbow serpent is the only thing that separates these gatherings, flowing with life like water. This piece will be a hard one to let go of. Yarran’s last three large paintings sold to a dealer who partners exclusively with corporate offices. It’s hard to think that her peoples’ Dreaming will be hung behind a desk somewhere in Sydney, with nobody to hear or understand it.

The commodification of the artwork of Australia’s First Nations people raises many ethical concerns in the face of an undeniably booming multinational industry. When whittled down to brass tax, Australia’s Indigenous arts market contributes a major sum to the national economy, with some pieces valued and sold for millions of dollars to both local and international buyers. However, the exact lack of ethics within industry practices coalesce into something far more nefarious, illuminating long-standing malignant attitudes towards Aboriginal community, culture and identity. These practices are rooted in a century’s worth of systemic, racially-driven oppression against the Indigenous custodians of Australia, presenting itself regardless of our multiculturalism. Furthermore, the sociological substructure of multiculturalism in Australia does not present itself as inclusive of Indigenous culture, although it is intended to “reconcile the rights of a recognised minority to be ‘culturally different’” (Kowal 2008, p. 338). As seen within its application to Australia, multiculturalism has served as a ways of assimilating immigrant cultures (Chiswick & Miller 1999, p. 379) rather than reconciling with existing, othered Aboriginal cultures. This sort of blatant disregard for the positioning of Indigenous Australians within our society similarly runs deep within the operations of the Aboriginal art industry. Authorship, preservation and protection must be upheld within the distribution of Aboriginal artwork, sustaining the self-determinism and autonomy of the artists and their communities. Emerging through the wave of contemporary Indigenous art are a number of socially-engaged dealers and organisations who work for artists – representing their interests and identities, thus presenting genuine ethical Aboriginal art for good.

Australian Indigenous art is an intricate symbol of othered identity, oftentimes made more complex by lived and inherited oppression. The innate visceral nature of this art, in particular dot paintings, are perceived by many as a symbol of quintessential Australian identity, capturing the colour and detail of the landscape, as well as its many natural forces. However, the authenticity of Aboriginal artwork is seemingly inconsequential in some cases, especially within Australia’s tourism industry. Through an inquest into the growing permeation of fake Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork, the Arts Law Centre of Australia helped launch the ‘Fake Art Harms Culture’ campaign in 2016. The campaign estimated that 80% of “Aboriginal style arts and crafts” (2017 Arts Law Centre of Australia) sold in tourism shops were inauthentic, exploiting and misappropriating cultural imagery. The launch of the campaign challenged these unethical practices, stressing that whilst such commodities may “look and feel like Indigenous art, [they] have no connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture or communities” (Indigenous Art Code 2016). The inquest itself highlights the widespread harm that this sort of cultural theft enacts, undermining artists and communities, whilst also denying genuine artists opportunity to work for fair reward. Furthermore, these practices delve deeper into intellectual property issues, especially in cases where artists’ works are reproduced without consent. Torres Strait Islander artist Laurie Nona sought greater legal protections, as Nona is one of many artists whose work is being plagiarised and reproduced without consent. Mass produced through Asia and Indonesia, the challenge of fending off plagiarism is insurmountable, especially as Australia has no official protections in place for Indigenous art under intellectual property law (Vanovac 2017). Placing the greed of consumerism ahead of sixty thousand years of Indigenous culture proves as demonstrative of the disrespect shown to both art and artist, presenting an empty commodity rather than one filled with story and identity.

Such oppression which line the pockets of both tourism and art markets not only include breaches in intellectual property, but even more disturbing cases of exploitation. The question of who benefits from the booming popularity of the Indigenous arts market is interspersed broadly, inconsistently landing in the pockets of the artists themselves. With the art itself being presented on the global fine art stage, it is difficult to conceptualise many large-scale paintings being created within impoverished communities. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s ‘Earth’s Creation I’ painting previously sold for $1.056 million in 2007, a record for the decade (Blanco 2017). Kngwarreye’s was among eighty-three other pieces “encompassing many regional Aboriginal styles and periods” (Cooee Art Marketplace 2017) which were included at a subsequent 2017 auction. Whilst this particular action’s proceeds directly benefitted artists and their communities, the flash of international auctions presents itself as both ambiguous and unsustainable in terms of for whom it benefits: “the contrast between the glamour of the international art auction world and the disturbing reality of the communities where Aboriginal art stems from couldn’t be more blatant” (Blanco 2017). At a 2016 Sotheby’s auction in London, the sale of a range of highly regarded Indigenous artworks garnered over $2.75 million, illuminating the exclusion of Aboriginal people “from participating in the economics and prestige of the international art world, despite their prominence within it” (Poll 2016). The auction itself raised questions regarding Australian and Indigenous ownership of Aboriginal artwork, especially with such an influx of international interest, “given the importance of the artefacts and artworks that represent the history of this culture… in the eyes of astute international audiences” (Poll 2016). The interest Aboriginal cultural products proves robust both locally and internationally, representing opportunity to “develop networks of trade” (Poll 2016) especially on a national scale. The cultivation of a grass-roots nexus has the ability to economically empower some of the most marginalised communities in Australia, involving their participation through curatorship and the sale of cultural products on a commercial level.

The production of genuine art in Aboriginal communities by oftentimes world-renowned artists can sometimes lead to problematic arrangements with disreputable private dealers. According to Bowrey (2009 p. 38), artists may be forced to exchange art for food, as well as to “[service] other debts or [provision of] four-wheel drives necessary for travel in remote communities”. The economic and social vulnerabilities of individuals within rural Aboriginal communities are prey to the rapacity of dealers, who know that artwork is a resource of survival. The marginalisation of artists, especially those working out of art centres in Central Australia labour in direct competition with “backyard dealers… polluting the market” (ATSIC News 2001, p. 63). Although codes and regulations are now in place to protect artists from these sorts of oppressive arrangements, the veracity of buyers still remains a rampant force in the industry. Furthermore, patrons demonstrate little consideration for the ways in which art is produced, extending into further disregard about the authenticity of artwork. The willingness of buyers to own a cultural product without any concern regarding their production permeates and invalidates the artists themselves, mirroring disregard and neglect that white hegemonic ideology imparts towards Indigenous Australians and their cultures.

Whilst it is clear that there is a strong and pervasive drive demonstrated by white consumers to own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural products, the answer to why is more  complex to ascertain. Multiculturalism, having been introduced to Australia in the 1970s (Lopez 2000), aimed to disperse a common national identity amongst Australian citizens, with specificity to migrants and their own distinct cultures. However, a particular aspect of multiculturalism as implemented within Australian society is its design as a “policy for managing immigrant integration” (Moran 2011, p. 2159). Further, the specific application of multiculturalist policy as a directive to integrate migrant culture presents itself as wholly exclusive towards those cultures who pre-date colonisation. Moreover, the specific objectives of multiculturalism is set as a means of assimilation for many varied cultures into one “powerful act of national imagining” (Haebich 2002, p. 62). Thus, the ideation of the assimilation of Indigenous cultures result in erasure the of culture, custom as well as an upheaval of livelihood rather than one of cultural cohesion as multiculturalism presupposes. These inexplicable limitations pertaining to the structure and intent of multiculturalism demands accountability for its incapacity to protect the culture of its First Nations People. The deprioritising of Indigenous culture demonstrates a lack of will to look inwards at the roots of racial disparity in Australia which began chiefly on the grounds of colonisation.  Povinelli (1998) regards the misguided implementation of multiculturalism within Australia as intended to eliminate othered traits within both immigrant culture and Indigenous culture, as a “new form of monoculturalism” (Povinelli 1998, p. 580). Furthermore, the dispersing of a national identity through the means of multiculturalism to eliminate national racial and cultural intolerance in Australia may present as pragmatic but does not address the issues experienced within Indigenous communities. Moreover, it is clear that through the exclusion of First Nations cultures, “the state’s struggle for hegemony depends on representing its practices and intentions” (Povinelli 1998, p. 580). Thus, although the approach to multiculturalism recognises the value of cultural diversity, the exacting roots of Australia is “shamed by past imperial, colonial and racist attitudes… of [this] nation’s history…[impairing the] social and economic future” (Povinelli 1998, p. 581) within Australia’s approach to diversity.

The colonialist impulse to ‘own’ Aboriginal culture through means of control permeates Australia’s history, spanning from white settlement to today. Although the sublimation of Indigenous peoples by the hegemonic white population presents itself as less overt in more recent decades, all oppressive efforts operate on a systemic level and demonstrate a carry-on effect, manifesting in intergenerational trauma and isolation (Seran 2015). Furthermore, First Nations peoples’ traumatic post-invasion history has never been effectively resolved, with a “denial of relinquished Indigenous sovereignty” (Moses 2010, p. 9).

However, the focus and direct popularisation of Indigenous artwork within the local and global art markets comes in diametrical contrast to the blind eye which is cast away from the issues experienced within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities. Moreover, these issues which are manifested as a direct result of the systemic oppression of colonialism are replicated and represented within the cultural products and art of its people: “white possessive logics are operationalised within discourses to circulate knowledge to circulate sets of meanings about ownership of the nation” (Moreton-Robinson 2015). The rampant possessiveness displayed by non-Indigenous people through their actions demonstrates a will to own Aboriginality, but none of the issues which are linked directly with their systemic oppression. Carnes (2011) describes these circumstances which follow colonisation as having “created a situation where Aboriginal voices are white noise to the ears of many non-Indigenous people” (Carnes 2011), a direct result of white privilege. Evident within the mainstream prevalence of Indigenous art ownership amongst non-Indigenous consumers is a “token kind of recognition… a benign if not patronising inclusion of Aboriginality” (McKenna 2014, p. 478). Utilised within corporate spaces in particular, the art of First Nation people is employed as a representation of inclusion. Furthermore, this sort of presentation of diversity and inclusivity through the displaying of Aboriginal artwork as an offshoot of multiculturalist framework: “For these have produced a new place for… Aboriginality and heritage as an inter-cultural zone between Aboriginal and white Australia” (Bennett, Brennan & Carter 2001). The appropriation of art pieces by First Nations artists embody the colonial act of ownership wielded since colonisation. Further, the unambiguous presentation of large-scale works in corporate spaces endeavour to utilise Aboriginal cultural products as the key to the superficial appearance of cultural diversity. Whilst the performative demonstration of social and cultural conscience embodies the misconceptions of multiculturalism, it serves only the hegemonic population in overlooking First Nations people through misappropriation. Therefore, the lacking of Indigenous policy adjacent to multiculturalism undermines the infrastructure of Australia’s ethnic and cultural diversity, including the misuse of Aboriginal cultural products as a symbol for social consciousness and inclusion.

The self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia is the drive of Indigenous Australians to self-govern, a right to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (Office of the High Commission for the United Nations Human Rights 2007). The frameworks of self-determination, especially in the contemporary lives of Indigenous people, should be implemented within the processes of the production and distribution of Aboriginal art, as well as to Australia’s broader society. Undeniable in their striking detail as well as for what it represents, the worldly appeal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts represent some of the purest elements of Australian culture, embodying the stories and memories of the nation’s land. It is due to this indisputable intrigue that these cultural products must be protected, in conjunction to their decidedly vulnerable artists, with authorship and self-determinism maintained as central to broader art production practices. As upheld within the broader art world, authorship functions in reaction to appropriation, wherein “the original artist’s production is… typically taken to be greater than the forger’s” (Sherri 2005, p. 128), which in the context of Indigenous art would be cultural theft. With the innate processes of art production by Indigenous artists coming “from the heart” (Coleman 2001, p. 385), the ontological perspective of First Nations artists are purely projected into their arts and crafts. The authenticity of Indigenous art extends from positions of identity, made up of lineal histories and stories of the individual and their tribe: “The ontology of insignia shows that Aboriginal claims about the relationship between their art and their identity can be understood literally” (Coleman 2001, p. 385). The manifest sacred nature of the work which demonstrates a relationship between “art, land and authority” (Coleman 2001, p. 385) demands to be viewed as sacred. Thus, authorship and self-determination should be upheld as the most significant elements in the art production process, preserving the identity and stories of the artist themselves, as well as their communities.

The Indigenous Art Code was established in 2010 as an industry alliance group whose objectives were to “establish standards for dealings between Dealers and Artists” (Indigenous Art Code 2019). The code itself was implemented in response to ongoing exploitation of artists within Indigenous communities, standing for fair and ethical trade agreements, as well as “transparency in the process of promotion and sale of artwork; and that disputes arising under [said] code are dealt with efficiently and fairly” (Indigenous Art Code 2019).

The most pressing issue facing the Indigenous art industry however, is the influx of inauthentic work being produced in Asia and Indonesia, subsequently sold through its intersection with Australia’s tourism industry. As of 2019, there is yet to be any legislation which addresses this form of cultural theft, although the Indigenous Art Code has rolled out a campaign lobbying for greater protection calling for “the Australian Government to address the proliferation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and art products” (Indigenous Art Code 2019). Affirmative action within the industry also extends to art dealers who are committed to the ethical distribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts. ARTARK is an online gallery who are committed to selling Aboriginal art “for the right reasons” (ARTARK 2019), pushing for transparency within industry practices and dealing exclusively through established art centres in Central Australia: “The art centres are as unique as the communities they support and the art coming out of each different centre is incredibly diverse” (ARTARK 2019). This particular gallery utilises the specific authorship of each individual piece, framing their cultural makeups as equal to the visual nature of the works. The ethical drives of organisations such as these prove as exemplary, demonstrating the potential for change within the industry, positioning Indigenous self-determination and authorship at the focus of the creation of policy and legislation.

Although Indigenous artwork serves as an expression of more than sixty-thousand years of oral culture (Zimmer 1999) through aesthetic or visual representation, it has not always functioned as such. Inarguably, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and craft have served as a method of storytelling, existing prior to colonisation and federation. However, it was the colonisers who changed the product’s medium, transposing it onto canvas to be bought and sold (Daley 2010, p. 647). Therefore, it would be apt for greater protections to be placed around all Indigenous artwork, deeming it as elevated above simple art, instead the representation of the oldest civilisation in the world translated astonishingly into vibrant visual art.

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Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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