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  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
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  5. Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art
  6. The context of appropriation
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The context of appropriation

The ownership rights of Aboriginal artists before the 1960s can be judged from the fact that it was not until 1957 that an exhibition of non-European-style Aboriginal art - The Art of Arnhem Land - actually identified individual artists and indicated their communities.

It is important to appreciate this context in order to understand the basis upon which there was so much appropriation of Aboriginal art forms. Under the generic banner of ‘Aboriginal art’, a great diversity of cultural, regional and individual approaches had been disseminated. This led to the assumption that, rather than being owned, design elements fell under the vast collective notion of ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ - they belonged, in a sense, to everybody. From a copyright perspective, this was equivalent to assuming that they belonged to nobody.

Today, many Aboriginal communities are fighting for recognition that there is a form of collective ownership. However, this ownership is not diffuse and meaningless. It involves real and particular communities with real and particular cultural expressions. In the same way, the nature of Aboriginality is not an abstract concept that can be freely tapped into; it is contextual, and may combine individual heritage and identity with community recognition and acceptance.

The inclination of non-Aboriginal artists to adopt Aboriginal art forms was given impetus by Margaret Preston in 1930, when she urged readers of Art in Australia to ‘be Aboriginal’. Preston’s urgings were the result of her disaffection with Australian art, which she felt to be generally undistinguished. It was her belief that an Aboriginal perspective could somehow be infused to produce art that was distinctively ‘Australian’. In retrospect, Preston’s ‘Aboriginal phase’ is widely seen as appropriation, and she has been described as the ‘Mother of Kitsch Australiana’ (Marrie, 1995).

De Lorenzo (1988) suggests that Preston’s response to Aboriginal art was both aesthetic and mystical - a response typical of contemporary modernists, who sought abstracted, geometric designs as a way to express universal human experience:

So strong was her conviction that she enthusiastically raided any available Aboriginal art. In her paintings and prints she incorporated and freely adapted a range of motifs.

Preston’s influence is evident from the fact that fabric and ceramic designers began to faddishly lift and adapt Aboriginal designs in a way that attached no meaning other than the decorative. They may have taken encouragement from her waiver of responsibility in 1930: ‘Please do not bother about what the carver means in the way of myths, rites, etc; this is not the decorator’s affair.’ Timms (1986) observes that Aboriginal motifs were immensely popular in arts and crafts societies throughout the 1930s.

The equation of Aboriginal imagery with decoration clearly persists. It is evident in T-shirts, coffee mugs, place mats, earrings and any number of other products. Visual richness and the sense of the aesthetics are valued by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike (even if in a range of different ways). Once again the issue is the degree of control: to what extent are Aboriginal people able to determine the uses and dissemination of their art? Even where Aboriginal artists do appear to be exercising artistic control, critics such as Germaine Greer (1977) have suggested that they may be under irresistible market pressure to mass-produce works.

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