Protecting the fine arts and crafts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual arts and crafts are part of Australia’s national identity.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been creating fine arts and crafts for tens of thousands of years, helping to sustain, strengthen and share Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The practice has grown into a significant industry – with total sales reaching approximately US$250 million in 2019-20 – generating income for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and art workers and economic opportunities for communities.
But inauthentic handicrafts – mostly “indigenous-style” products not made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – are ubiquitous. In a recent report, the Productivity Commission found that two out of three Indigenous-style souvenirs are counterfeit, with no connection to – or benefit to – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Australian Government mandated the Productivity Commission to study the size and characteristics of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fine arts and crafts markets and to examine possible policy changes to address market deficiencies.
The Commission found that while many non-authentic products are generic imitations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designs and styles, some people own Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP), such as using sacred symbols inappropriately and without the permission of traditional guardians. This misrepresents traditional stories and images and limits the economic benefits accruing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Legal recognition and protection of ICIP is patchy, with few restrictions on whether, how and by whom ICIP is used in fine arts and crafts.
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These concerns are long-standing and have been the subject of multiple reviews over many years. The Commission’s recently published draft report proposes two new remedies.
First, mandatory marking of inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait fine arts and crafts – mainly souvenirs – would raise consumer awareness of counterfeit products and help them make authentic purchases. Imposing the regulatory burden on suppliers of counterfeit products would impose a negligible compliance burden on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists (and their trading partners) and would incur relatively small costs.
Second, a new law strengthening the protection of aspects of ICIP in the fine arts and crafts would formally recognize the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in their cultural assets, encourage respectful cooperation and allow for legal action, when protected cultural assets are used without the permission of the traditional owners.
More broadly, improving the effectiveness of support services and strengthening the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts workforce will be critical to future growth.
Many Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander artists rely on arts centers and other organizations to practice their art, engage in the marketplace, acquire skills and access legal assistance in dealing with unscrupulous behavior such as copyright infringement. These organizations fulfill important cultural and social tasks, but their modest resources are becoming increasingly scarce.
An independent assessment of the Australian Government’s funding of the sector, conducted in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is needed to inform future funding needs, objectives and strategic priorities.
There is much to celebrate about the visual arts and crafts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the significant economic, social and cultural benefits the industry is bringing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australian society. However, targeted, low-cost reforms would strengthen the sector and put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts organizations on a better footing for future growth. The Commission continues to work with participants and invites feedback on their proposals. Our final report will be submitted to the Australian Government in November this year.
View the draft report and make a comment or submission.