Did it cross your minds that one of the factors that caused the rejection of the Voice Referendum was the very public divisions on the issue by Aboriginal people themselves? That was no joke for those who passionately backed the Yes vote.

But down in Tassie, that sort of divisiveness is a long-standing issue with a dominant Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) lead by would-be Senator Michael Mansell prepared to go to court to control the issue of Indigenous identity on the island. Indeed, Nathan Maynard’s play ‘At What Cost? has had two successful runs at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney supporting the TAC’s case that wannabe Aborigines have to be kept out of the game.

Unfortunately, artist Reuben Oates is considered an outsider. Even more unfortunately, he was the artist chosen by the Tasmanian Jack Jumpers basketball team to design their Indigenous Round shirt for next weekend’s game.
Oates has had a long-time association with Hobart’s Indigenous specialist Art Mob Gallery and has been ignored by the TAC purists up till now. But the moment the Jack Jumpers T-shirt was unveiled, all hell broke loose. A TAC official, Rulla Kelly-Mansell (note the surname) instantly declared that the design was a “misappropriation of culture … of our palawa pakana culture from the island lutruwita. The dots in the design do not represent traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal culture — and the club should have been better informed”.

Kelly-Mansell even took objection to the artist’s portrayal of the Jack Jumper mascot, a ferocious and venomous jumping ant found in Tasmania, over a semi-circle of green and gold dots and a bold rendition of the state’s Palawa name, Lutrawita. “In no way is the design contemporary to our Fauna or our culture, it is plagiarism and misrepresentation of Palawa-Pakana culture”, Kelly-Mansell claimed.

“Dots are dots – I don’t know what else to say,” Oates told a press conference. But he did add that stands behind both the artwork and his heritage, which is recognised by some Tasmanian Aboriginal organisations, but not the TAC. “I am a proud Tasmanian Aboriginal man, the seventh great grandson of chief Mannalargenna”.

He’s also descended from one of the most heroic of lutruwita leaders, Dolly Dalrymple (c.1808-1864), “who was born in the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, daughter of George Briggs, a sealer from Bedfordshire, England, and Woretemoeteyenner, who was the daughter of Mannarlargenna, a chieftain from the north-east of Van Diemen’s Land,” according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Dealer Euan Hills – who may have played a part in promoting Oates to the Jack Jumpers – tells me, “Reuben Oates first started painting when he was 9 years old. He’s now 30 and has been painting full-time for 8 years. Reuben’s Aboriginality has never been questioned before – how appalling! He has a family tree clearly showing his descent from Mannalargenna & Dolly Dalrymple.

“His use of dots contravenes nothing. Dots started to be used in Aboriginal art in 1971/72 at Papunya through the tutelage of Geoffrey Bardon and have become widely recognised as an artistic expression by many Aboriginal artists across the country. To say that dots were never part of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture is absurd. Dots were in fact part of the petroglyphs carved by ancient Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the north west of the island”.

Despite this level of reassurance, the Jack Jumpers have decided to cancel the shirt and wear nothing Indigenous this weekend. Dealers have been asked to remove the shirts from sale. But supporters who’ve already bought the special shirt may well turn up for the match wearing their Oates.

And there’s the possibility that the TAC’s claims to exclusivity may be tested by a legal case; for Reuben Oates considers he’s been defamed.

PS On the subject of the specificity of dots in painting, I encountered some dotting on a Kandinsky painting at the Art Gallery of NSW’s glorious new exhibition that spoke to me quite clearly of Emily Kngwarreye. Take a look at the section of painting I photographed.