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  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
  4. Background information
  5. Protection: the issues
  6. Motives for appropriation
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Motives for appropriation

The ethics of appropriation are complex, especially when the motives of ‘borrowing’ artists are taken into account. The Sydney-born contemporary artist Imants Tillers has developed much of his distinctive work by incorporating a mixture of existing images and words (Williams, 1995). Of Latvian descent, Tillers explores in his art the nature of dispersal, migration and multiculturalism. The fragmentation and new alignments that are created by these processes are built into the construction of Tillers’ works.

For example, Tillers has worked since 1981 in a patchwork or jigsaw manner, arranging a number of small, separately painted canvases into larger, complete works. This gives a very literal meaning to themes of human fragmentation and re-arrangement. Additionally, Tillers regularly employs words or lines of text from diverse cultures - Latvian, Maori, Australian and Aboriginal Australian. In all, his works reveal the instability of cultural expressions in a world in which art reproduction and intercultural synthesis continually change people’s perceptions.

Tim Johnson is another contemporary Australian painter whose work has attracted criticism because of a perceived intrusion into the cultural domain of Aboriginal artists. A collector and advocate of Aboriginal art, Johnson has visited and worked in remote communities with Indigenous Australian artists.

Johnson has readily acknowledged the influence of this association. However, he has argued that his development of a dot style - a characteristic of Papunya Tula artists - is not an act of ‘cultural theft’:

... the dot screen or matrix ... has obvious affiliations in Western culture. For example: halftone screen images, television screens, grain on photographs and films, Pointillism and mosaic.

(Johnson, 1993)

Discussion points

  • Many Aboriginal or Maori people argue that the appropriation of their symbols strips the symbols of their meaning. On the other hand, an artist such as Imants Tillers might argue that this is precisely the kind of thing that his works call our attention to. What are the competing concerns here and how could they be resolved?
  • Tim Johnson’s works are unique but they reveal the stylistic influences of Aboriginal and Asian cultures. Do you think artists have any responsibility to the art communities or traditions that influence them? If so, what do you think this responsibility is? If not, why not?
  • Explain your understanding of the difference between copying, appropriation and influence.
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