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  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
  4. Considerations for teaching and learning
  5. Appropriating Aboriginal artworks
  6. Borrowing or stealing?
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Borrowing or stealing?

Using elements in a new design

Today’s students live in an era of referencing. As a preliminary investigation, students could identify and/or collect examples of the ways in which art, advertising and other visual texts borrow from existing images to create new texts. Students could consider:

  • what portion of the original work is used
  • the purpose of using the original work
  • whether, and how, the value or perception of the original work is changed
  • whether they think that the use of the original work is fair to its creator.

This analysis might lead students to discuss, and form an opinion on, the qualitative differences in referencing - how a work is referred to, rather than how much.

The ‘sliding’ position of the viewer could be reinforced by an activity in which students, or groups of students, create a design element which is then used in a number of different mock-ups. These could include:

  • the cover of an art catalogue
  • a taxi display advertisement that includes a slogan to sell a product
  • a postcard
  • a page in a children’s picture book
  • the logo of a government department.

Students then nominate the uses of their design element that they would be happy to allow, and those uses that they believe should be prevented, and they give their reasons. Students could then consider whether there might be qualitative differences between the parts of a work that are appropriated. Could one element of an image have more sensitivity for people than another? If so, why?

Using elements in a new medium

The question of artistic elements being used in a new medium is central to 'Case Study 4: 'The carpets case''. The issue involves the translation of artistic elements into wooden, metal, fabric, ceramic or electronic media. It includes products such as furnishings, coins, rugs, tea towels, T-shirts, hats, cups, bowls and multimedia products.

A particular image might be perceived in different ways, depending on the medium of reproduction. Students could consider the following questions. Do some products attach more status to the image than others? Are some products more appropriate to, or ‘in keeping with’, the image than others? Are there types of products into which students would hate to see elements of their own artworks incorporated?

Another aspect of this issue involves the right of artists to represent three-dimensional designs in two-dimensional form. It is regarded as an infringement of copyright to make a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional artwork (for example, a photograph of a ceramic vessel). It is also an infringement of copyright to make a three-dimensional version of a two-dimensional form (for example a sculpture derived from a drawn or painted image). These are classed as reproductions. (See Section 21(3) of the Copyright Act.)

If students are inclined to draw inspiration from the designs of objects such as headdresses, boomerangs and morning star poles, the opportunity arises for an important discussion. Although the present legal provisions give students a good deal of freedom to take the designs of such three-dimensional artistic works that are on ‘other than temporary’ public display and to use them in paintings, drawings and prints, it is important to consider how Aboriginal communities might feel about such use.

There is some incompatibility between the concern Aboriginal people have in maintaining control of their cultural property and the copyright law that assumes artworks have individual creators. The Designs Act also assumes ownership vests in the individual designer or designers. In addition, the Designs Act deems that designs are only worthy of protection if they meet the innovation threshold of being new (not identical to pre-existing designs) and distinctive (not substantially similar in overall impression to a pre-existing design). Since Aboriginal designs are very often traditional (as well as communal) in origin, they might be precluded from registration under the Designs Act because they are not able to satisfy the requirements for novelty.

Using stylistic qualities

This is an aspect of appropriation that presents students with complex issues of ownership. The history of visual art testifies to continuing cross-fertilisation in style and technique, and it is apparent that stylistic qualities - unless they are capable of being expressly defined and trademarked - are in the public domain.

Students are rightly encouraged to draw inspiration from the existing body of art forms and ideas. They may derive great value from activities in which they simulate the techniques and processes associated with particular Aboriginal communities. For example, the preparation and painting of fallen tree bark might lead to a deeper appreciation of the skill of bark artists, and the tools and techniques involved.

It might be possible for students to experiment with x-ray or cross-hatching techniques; however, this should occur in circumstances where it is clear that no particular style is being imitated, and where there is no chance that the work created will be displayed or distributed in a way that misleadingly gives the impression that it is ‘Indigenous’. As much as anything, it is this potential for misrepresentation that underlies Aboriginal artists’ concerns about style.

Before students draw in any way from the ideas and works of Aboriginal artists, they might discuss or debate whether it is possible to ‘own’ visual arts styles. As a background to this, it would be valuable for students to consider the position of contemporary artists. Students could jointly view unfamiliar artworks and speculate about the cultural and/or gender backgrounds of the artists: Is it possible to make accurate predictions? Is it reasonable to expect that artists will adopt styles that appear to match their cultural and/or gender identity?

To consider the position of consumers/viewers, students could collect examples of souvenir art that appear to be traditional Indigenous works, and investigate their origins. Were they produced in Australia? By Indigenous artists? Is it reasonable to expect that they would be?

Before discussion or debate, students should be made aware of the perspectives of Aboriginal artists and communities as represented in this text and elsewhere. How could their sense of ‘ownership’ over style be affected by:

  • being part of a marginalised social group
  • belonging to a culture having tens of thousands of years of continuity
  • the authority of individuals in the community who are the receivers of stories and techniques
  • belonging to a community that uses art as one of the ways it identifies itself and distinguishes itself from others?
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