1. Home
  2. Aboriginal Art
  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
  4. Background information
  5. Protection: the issues
  6. Cultural context
Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Cultural context

A recurring theme in the fight of Aboriginal artists for legal protection (see Part 3, ‘Case studies of copying and appropriation’) has been the need to recognise that many works embody elements of deep spiritual significance. This means that the artworks do not have a life of their own, separate from their places and communities of origin. This indivisibility of art and its origins creates some tension when set alongside ideas about art that prevail in Australian society generally. In the European tradition, art has had a long history as a tradable commodity. ‘Works of art’ have had a discrete and objective existence, appreciated as objects of decoration, cultural commentary and individual expression.

In order to appreciate the issues involved in ownership and protection, it is therefore essential to consider the cultural context in which art arises. Notions of ‘the artist’ are important here. Western culture has tended to define the artist in individual terms. Many of the qualities ascribed to the artist - interpreter, visionary, storyteller, skilled craftsperson - can be identified across cultures, but it is the place of the artist within the community that is markedly different.

In the Western tradition, the activity of the artist tends to be described as singular, solitary, and ‘outside’ the community; the artist is a watcher (voyeur) or commentator, and the work is taken to represent a personal vision. Aboriginal artists often have an entirely different social role. In Aboriginal communities, it is often the artist’s role to carry the messages and meanings shared by the people. The right to take this role might be acquired very slowly, with revelations entrusted over an extended period of time so that the artist gradually achieves permission to represent stories and figures of spiritual significance.

This contrast has implications for artists when it comes to their choice of subject matter and source material. For many of Australia’s contemporary artists, the broadest range of ideas and influences may be freely entertained. The same might not be true for an Aboriginal artist, who is often required to work within carefully established parameters. This could involve the retelling of some part of a Dreaming story.

We are not like American artists. American artists make the story up in their imagination. Ours are not like that. Our stories are given to us to carry and pass on to our children.

- Michael Nelson Tjakamarra (1991)

Historically, this role has not been appreciated by non-Indigenous Australians; original works have been subject to misappropriation and theft on the assumption that they are ‘traditional’ designs that do not bear the distinctive characteristics of their authors. It is only relatively recently that this misconception has been formally recognised and set to rest in the courts (see Part 3, ‘Case studies of copying and appropriation’).

Many Aboriginal artists have a deep obligation to their communities to faithfully render and protect symbols, sites, characters and stories endowed with sacred meaning. Many paintings are actually part of Dreaming ceremonies, perhaps depicting the journey of a spirit-ancestor. The relationship of the artist to the community can involve a reciprocal respect and sensitivity that is rarely, if ever, present in the non-Aboriginal community.

Given this relationship, the artist’s motivation is of some interest. Western culture has largely fostered the idea that an artist serves an individual ‘muse’. As an extension of this, there is another strand that might be defined as that of the ‘commercial artist’, whose motive is to target and profit from the marketplace. Both ideas apply, to varying degrees, to contemporary Aboriginal artists; however, many desire to go beyond ‘ways of seeing’ and enter into a process in which land, spirit and kinship are touched and experienced. This desire carries with it the will to both preserve and carry forward the connection of people to their sources of meaning. Lin Onus put it this way:

In the areas in which I spend much of my time the artist sees himself or herself as the custodian of a story or image - it is the custodian’s responsibility to ‘look after’ story and image and to pass it on undamaged to a new generation in the future.

... When we look at artists in the traditional areas we can see that not only are they superb craftspeople but they have other important roles as law-keepers, cultural repositories and leaders-by-example. Their role in community cohesiveness should not be underestimated.

I believe that the artists’ relationships and responsibilities to the greater Aboriginal community are paramount. We are presently witnessing an Australia-wide cultural revival. People who had lost their language, their songs, their art and their law are very slowly but surely finding their roots. In this context, the role of the artist takes on a special significance.

(Artlink, 1990, pp 38-9)

While gender distinctions can be observed in art generally, some Aboriginal communities are extremely prescriptive in the roles that men and women can play and in the subject matter of their art. A number of ceremonies are restricted to women or men only. Body decorations and designs used in these ceremonies remain secret within the particular groups. This makes the protection of art inseparable from the protection of knowledge and the preservation of culture (see ‘Case study 1: The ownership of knowledge’).

Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size