Stolen Identities

There’s a chance of stopping the massive fraud depriving Australia’s Aborigines of their royalties, but will it work?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian (travel section) 29th January 2000

The Australian aborigines don’t have many advantages. For nearly two centuries they were officially non-existent, as the continent the white settlers found was decreed a terra nullis: a land without people. They were tracked and shot like wild animals. Their lands were seized and their sacred places desecrated. Their children were taken from them and handed to white families in the expectation that such brutalisation would “civilise” them. More are murdered by police per capita than the people of any other ethnic group on earth. It is hardly surprising that so many have succumbed to drug abuse and alcoholism.

But at least they have their art. As Aboriginal people transferred their visions onto canvas, buyers swiftly began to recognise their value. Aboriginal painting is now recognised as one of the most important movements in modern art. It generates around 200 million Australian dollars a year: some canvases are worth as much as A$40,000 each. For a while it looked as if the sale of art would be a means by which the Aborigines could start to recover some of the self-respect of which they have been deprived, as well, of course, as some of the resources. As soon as their painting became valuable, however, white marauders began to steal even that.

Last year a major Sydney gallery staged an exhibition of paintings by the most famous Aboriginal artist, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. At least, that’s what it thought it was doing. As Aboriginal art experts gathered to assess the work, they discovered that nearly every painting on view was a fake. Bogus “Clifford Possums” have been exhibited at two of Australia’s most prominent public galleries, and sold by reputable dealers all over the world. Partly as a result, Clifford Possum, who ought to be a millionaire, is penniless.

The indigenous people’s sacred images are being mass produced in sheds in Adelaide and Sydney. While in previous decades racist white Australians put as much distance between themselves and the indigenous people as possible, today racism has taken a perverse new turn, as whites pretend to be Aborigines. Many of the cheaper artefacts on sale are produced even further afield. Tourists have somehow been persuaded that the didgeridoos, baskets, place mats and tea towels cramming the shops of Alice Springs have each been lovingly crafted by aboriginal elders using stone tools and traditional dyes, rather than bashed out in the factories of Bangkok.

In some cases, genuine aboriginal designs are pirated. There are no payments and little hope of redress. Many Aborigines are poorly represented and easily manipulated, with limited opportunities to pursue their legal rights. In other cases, Aboriginal designs are generalised by the pirates, with, of course, no understanding or recognition of their meaning. But whatever form this freebooting takes, it can, of course, prosper only because the people hoping to buy indigenous work have no means of telling whether or not it is authentic.

That excuse, valid as it may have been, will no longer be serviceable. This month, Australia’s National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association will launch a “Label of Authenticity” for Aboriginal arts and crafts. Aboriginal artists will attach the labels the association issues to their completed work. Every label will have a serial number, which, when entered in a registry on the internet, will show who made the piece and what it is supposed to be.

Of course, the labels will work only if people refuse to buy art which has not been certified. As tourists are among the most important buyers, the success of the scheme is partly dependent on them. They should have every incentive for taking part. People buy indigenous artefacts because they want a souvenir of Australia, rather than a souvenir of the sweatshops of Bangkok. Aboriginal art will lose its value unless future buyers can be sure of its origins.

Unfortunately, certification will solve only part of the problem. Aboriginal artists are likely still to be paid only a fraction of their work’s true value. Alarmingly, some of the most important artists have themselves been party to the scam. The current method of authentication – taking a photo of the artist holding his or her painting – has steadily been losing credibility as artists admit to holding other people’s work for a few dollars. Even Clifford Possum has admitted signing work he hasn’t painted, claiming he feared he might be shot if he refused.

Labelling will only be truly effective when Australia’s indigenous artists are treated with the respect accorded to famous artists everywhere else. That means eradicating the legacy of centuries of racism, and the resulting culture of self-deprecation. But of one thing we can be sure: once the labelling system is in place, buying uncertified art will mean participating in the theft of some of the Aborigines’ last valuable resources.