Bad news (in a time of almost exclusively bad news); hopes for a law that would have made amendments to the Australian Consumer Law to ban the sale or supply of Indigenous ˜style’ products unless they were produced by or licensed from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person has been yet again delayed.

In 2016, the Arts Law organisation with the Indigenous Art Code and the Copyright Agency launched a ˜Fake Art Harms Culture‘ Campaign to raise awareness of the huge presence of inauthentic ˜Aboriginal style’ art and craft products and merchandise for sale across Australia. They estimated that as much as 80% of items sold with the ˜look and feel’ of being Indigenous is, in fact, inauthentic and often culturally inappropriate. Mostly aimed at the tourist market, these items appear to be made by First Nations people but are in fact fakes made by non-Indigenous people, and often produced overseas. This practice robs Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the income produced by the exploitation of their culture.  

The Campaign has had some success in making more people aware of the issue and are therefore making better decisions when they purchase apparently Indigenous works. The ACCC has also successfully prosecuted a large manufacturer. In October 2018, the Federal Court found that the Brisbane-based Birubi company had made false and misleading representations in breach of the Australian Consumer Law in the sale of souvenir boomerangs, didgeridoos, message stones and bullroarers. Birubi marketed and labelled these products as Australian made and hand-painted by Aboriginal persons, when in fact they were made in Indonesia.

Justice Melissa Perry imposed a $2.3 million fine on the company, plus an order to pay the ACCC’s legal costs. But Birubi went into liquidation and is unlikely to ever pay the fine. Despite this, the court wanted to send a clear message of deterrence.

The Campaign has also lead to private bills being introduced to Federal Parliament by Independent MP Bob Katter and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, and two parliamentary inquiries. Unfortunately, these bills have both been rejected by Parliament, and the reports released by the inquiries have resulted in no action.  

Senator Hanson-Young’s Bill was referred to the Senate’s Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, who considered submissions and evidence from a range of stakeholders. The Committee’s report this week expressed in-principal support for addressing the issue of inauthentic Indigenous-style products in the souvenir market. However, they fell short of recommending that Parliament pass the Bill, instead recommending yet more consultation.

The campaigners are extremely disappointed that Parliament has failed to act in the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Consultation on this topic has been extensive over many years, and the Bill was the overwhelming consensus of artists, communities, organisations and parliamentarians that change is both necessary and urgent.  

Coincidentally, the Wyndham Art Prize is today going to be awarded to the Wiradjuri artist, Amala Groom whose work tackles this very subject of appropriation head on. As her notes to the work ‘Copywrong‘ (2018) put it: Our cultures are continuously appropriated at our expense and for the benefit of prescribed national interests and the Australian economy. The boomerang is an internationally recognised symbol of ˜Australian culture’, which is bastardised by the tourism industry; sold as a trinket, a souvenir, and the physical memory of a holiday.

“‘Copywrong‘ is a work about the severe lack of entitlements to copyright for First Peoples cultural materials. This boomerang was made overseas, it has been marked with unidentifiable totems in acrylic paint. Ochre is used (added) to incant the need for our cultures to come back home; they need to be protected under the international legal system.

Wyndham Art Gallery, in Werribee west of Melbourne, says it Prize showcases the best new artists and the best new art from across Australia. Last year, the 2019 winner, wāni was described as an accomplished artist, known for his spoken word performance, complemented with his media work that uses image and representation to challenge commentary on race, society and political rhetoric. It’s obviously a very political prize “ an appropriate home for an artist like Groom with legal training and participation in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Groom has also been selected for the Telstra NATSIAAs in Darwin in August “ as has Bundaberg-born . More than 200 entries were received for this year’s Awards and Sarra was one of only five finalists selected from Queensland. But, in another coincidence, Sarra’s work is also based on the politics of the boomerang. His entry is an intaglio print inspired by the ancient history of Bundaberg and consists of three handmade boomerangs inked and then impressed upon a sheet of paper in a press. ‘The Tale of Three Boomerangs‘ (2019) was an earlier work on the same theme.

The idea aligned with how the original Burnett River rock carvings were recorded with rubbings, Sarra told ‘Bundaberg Now‘, a transfer of an image from one surface to another. I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that the judges saw my work and deemed the story valuable enough to promote it on a national stage. I don’t see this as a personal win, but a win for the Wide Bay Burnett regional community. We have such a rich source of cultural history that extends far beyond colonisation.