From gift shops to art galleries, First Nations designs are big business. The Australian Productivity Commission estimates approx $250 million of native style art and consumer products are sold annually. But only 16% of that ends up in the hands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
When it comes to Native-style souvenirs, the commission says about 75% are not authentic. The art market is a bit better, but counterfeits are widespread enough to have appeared in comedian Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Hereafter.
To support First Nations artists and communities, here’s what you should know and ask before you buy.
Home is where the art is
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is more than aesthetically pleasing shapes and colors. It is a cultural expression, a means of passing information from one generation to the next, of telling stories.
These stories can be about sacred knowledge and dreams specific to an individual, a family, or a community – stories that are culturally not allowed for others to tell. These stories have similarities, but also differ per place: plants, animals, customs and laws.
Each of Australia’s more than 200 Indigenous nation groups – made up of clans that share a common language and kinship systems – will use designs, colors and materials associated with the place.
For example, dot painting is specific to the desert interior of Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia.
Crosshatches and “x-rays” are from Arnhem Land in the northeastern Northern Territory.
Images of “Wandjina” ghosts come from the Kimberley coast of northern Western Australia. The Wandjina are the most mighty spirits of creation, symbolizes rain. They are often depicted with dots, representing rain.
Ocher pigments, derived from soil, are used in eastern Kimberley, Arnhem Land and central Northern Territory.
Each authentic piece of indigenous art tells a story. Get to know that story before you buy.
What’s the story?
There is one simple rule when buying First Nations art or crafts: the more information, the better.
Artists have two main ways of selling their art. For original art it is through a gallery, for which a hefty commission is charged. When it comes to design on a product, licensing is more common: the artist authorizes the reproduction of their work in exchange for a one-time payment or an ongoing commission, usually linked to sales.
In either case, a legitimate gallery or licensee has a vested interest in assuring you of the authenticity of what they’re selling and that the artist benefits from your purchase.
They should be able to provide you with:
- the name and biography of the artist, including their language or nation group
- proof of the work’s authenticity, such as photographs of the artist at work
- how they pay the artist, and how much
- evidence of dedication to efforts to improve the industry, such as the Indigenous art code.
If there is no information about who created a work of art and where it came from, it is most likely a fake.
In short: buy from sellers with a transparent policy. On their website and in person, they must provide clear information about all of the above. Reluctance to share this information is a red flag.
Look for community connections
Galleries and other intermediaries can be native or non-native owned. They can be private, for-profit or community-owned companies.
Private companies can be very ethical and reinvest in their communities, but there is more certainty that this is happening with collectively owned companies that are set up specifically to benefit local artists, employ local people and fund community projects.
An example is the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, a not-for-profit company owned by artists from the Yuendumu community in the Northern Territory, about 300 kilometers northwest of Alice Springs. Founded in 1985, the company uses its surplus to fund the community projects as a health program and a dog programwhich takes care of the local dog population.
There are more than 100 such independently administered First Nations arts and crafts centers in Australia, including umbrella organizations in the following areas:
Art centers sell online. They may have made arrangements to sell artwork through commercial galleries closer to the population centers. They can also license art for use on household goods and souvenirs.
Search the broader marketplace for First Nations designs and products for evidence of Native ownership, dedication to compensating artists, and other evidence of community involvement. Most First Nations-run businesses are proud to recognize their heritage.
There is a federal regulation called Supply Nation database, verifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses. But because this focuses on government and commercial tenders, it has few listings for arts, crafts, and design companies.
So use your common sense. Ask the right questions, expect complete answers.
What about product certification?
What about product certification? This is done for Australian made goods. Why not for First Nations made products?
The problem, according to the Productivity Commission, is that certification programs need high manufacturer adoption and high consumer recognition to succeed. That would require resources that the artists don’t have.
The committee has recommended an alternative approach, namely mandatory labeling of non-authentic products, by changing the Australian consumer law.
It also recommended new “cultural rights” legislation, giving traditional owners control over cultural assets such as stories, symbols and motifs, with the power to take legal action when their rights are violated.
However, so far the federal government has not given any indication if and when it will follow up on these recommendations.
Take the time to ask the right questions and get the right answers until this is the case, and there is more legal protection and clear labeling – of fake or authentic good.
Read more: Labeling ‘fake art’ isn’t enough. Australia must recognize and protect First Nations cultural and intellectual property