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  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
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  5. Taking control
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Taking control

From the late 1950s, Aboriginal art was framed by the rapidly growing movement for social, political, cultural and land rights. Often drawing on newer materials and techniques, Aboriginal artists reflected the impetus of this movement by making exciting new declarations of identity and heritage.

The reinvigoration of art in remote communities is exemplified by developments at Papunya. There, Aboriginal artists from five main language groups took inspiration from the availability of acrylics and art board. Encouraged by non-Aboriginal art teacher Geoffrey Bardon, the male elders began to translate the imagery of sand, shield and body painting, infusing new ideas and colours with older conventions.

Many commentators consider the movement at Papunya to be the most significant in Australian art. Parallel developments occurred in areas across central and northern Australia. Aboriginal people were giving renewed expression to their knowledge, stories and symbols in places that had been established, in many cases, with the purpose of ending their cultural ‘separateness’. More than this, communities such as that at Utopia were established by and for Aboriginal people - the beginning of a new ‘outstation’ movement proclaiming both self-determination and the importance of ancestral land.

At the same time as the Papunya movement began, Harold Thomas designed the Aboriginal flag, providing a symbol of identity that would carry forward the struggle for Aboriginal rights. It was also a time of great change in Australia at large. The election of the Whitlam government in 1972 brought with it a new level of support for Indigenous communities and for the arts in general. The Aboriginal flag continued to be used in ways that signified survival and resistance, perhaps most potently by Avril Quaill, whose 1982 work Trespassers Keep Out used the image of the flag to subvert the symbol of Australian suburban property rights, the picket fence.

Harold Thomas was identified as the original designer of the Aboriginal flag in the case of Thomas v Brown (1997), proving that copyright exists for that flag and should be acknowledged and respected.

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