Why does indigenous art from around the world continue to be tokenized, misunderstood, and ripped off by creatives from the Western world?
This month, Ricky Gervais released his new miniseries, After Life, to critical acclaim. The darkly comedic Netflix show follows a recent widower, Tony, as he struggles with the death of his wife. In an attempt to cope, he turns to drugs in many living room scenes––all backgrounded by a large painting in the traditional style of Papunya art (from Indigenous Australians, commonly referred to as “Aboriginal” people).
However, much to the shock and dismay of many, fans of the show discovered that this artwork was a fake. It had instead been painted in 1999 by English artist Timna Woollard to be used by a prop company for film and television. In other words, there could not even be a claim of cross-cultural communication: Woollard’s poorly-researched “Aboriginal dot style painting” was explicitly created as a stand-in, selfishly and inconsiderately created to mimic and replace the real deal.
How did this happen? Why does it matter? Who is at fault? And how come this is far from the first time indigenous artistic traditions from around the world have been imitated without permission, credit, or financial benefit? This post will touch on all of these considerations.
The details in this case:
Firstly, I should acknowledge that the only reason this has come to our attention is thanks to an exclusive article by ABC News Australia’s national indigenous affairs reporter Isabella Higgins. I also recommend reviewing this excellent opinion piece by Ella Noah Bancroft, a Bundjalung artist. It provides a much-needed outline as to the impact of After Life‘s mistake.
We need to remember that this situation only arose because of the vast ignorance of non-Indigenous creatives. This screw up happened because several tiers of people in the artistic industry just couldn’t be bothered. They were not concerned with the ways in which oppression might be furthered through our attitudes to cultural artifacts (such as paintings), despite being in the arts themselves. It is worthwhile to review how many individuals’ laziness can collectively spiral into such a massive error which goes beyond a mere lapse in judgement.
First, there is Wollard, who seems to sample a wide variety of artistic traditions without much research or appreciation. Her bio suggests that she prides herself on being able to replicate any number of styles, claiming these skills to be a “best-kept secret” of the props industry. As follows, there was the original props company itself, who commissioned the fake no doubt because they felt they could not afford the real thing. Why didn’t they stop to question this? Perhaps because our culture tells us that good intentions trump all other wrongdoings (not so, if you ask me.) Finally, there were the set designers from Gervais’ show, After Life. Their responsibility is to create a built environment that suggests the protagonist has had a rich life. In their minds, perhaps he was a world traveler––someone who had gone to Australia and purchased the real deal, nevermind that this had no place in the script. Their error has less to do with researching the origins of this painting and more to do with their blatant acceptance of “exotic artifacts” as a useful tool for enriching these (white) characters’ inner world. In sum, these attitudes tell me that there is not much emphasis on due diligence when it comes to set design.
It is important to recognize that this form of painting is not simply a technique that can be mimicked. These paintings are a modern representation of ancient rock art that is thousands of years old, which served to preserve oral history of lands and beliefs of its people. Given the atrocious genocide and subsequent assimilation that Australia’s first peoples have been forced to endure, I would argue that this artform is deserving of far more respect and reverence than what little consideration the prop artist (Woollard) or Gervais’ show have failed to display.
While some people might say that imitation is a form of flattery, I would urge those people to remember that such tropes about art are largely constructed through a Western attitude towards this medium; its boundaries and its ethics included.
Similar instances in Canada:
For many marginalized Indigenous communities around the globe, there exists this particularly frustrating struggle. On the one hand, age-old artistic practices bring tourists and cultural distinction. On the other hand, these artforms are often plagiarized for cheap in a way that appeases consumers but fails to reward the real creators. This dynamic could be framed within the larger context of “misappropriation” or, as it has been termed more recently, “cultural appropriation.” The heart of the issue is that no meaningful cultural exchange occurs when outsiders mimick these cultural traditions for cheap; not only is it disrespectful to that cultural object’s dimensions of value, it is especially damaging in the practical sense that the money for Indigenous art does not flow back to Indigenous artists.
Unfortunately, there are some relevant local examples for those of us here in Canada, and particularly on these unceeded Coast Salish territories. There has been outcry against both blatant rip-offs and controversy surrounding supposedly well-intentioned non-Indigenous artists who have incorporated First Nations styles. So just because we North Americans may not feel personally involved in an Australian controversy does not mean that we are any better. The same injustices occur here and elsewhere around the world.
The take away:
Such cases must serve as important reminders for non-indigenous creators worldwide. We must all do better to acknowledge several things:
1. Western art history has a deeply problematic relationship to Indigenous art: For centuries, it was not seen as art. Then, it was imitated by now-icons (think Picasso and ‘primitivism‘), and that tradition of disrespect under the guise of inspiration continues today.
2. Colonialist and imperialist history necessitates special considerations for Indigenous art. These artworks are not just creative expressions done by individuals, but often have a profound connection to spirituality, ancient history, and community identity.
3. We need to emphasize education. Indigenous art deserves the spotlight, but that attention could perpetuate more rip-offs. Ignorance can be prevented if and when the institutions educating artists, set designers, etc., responsibly educate their students. As well, much more can be done to support ethical buying by raising awareness amongst tourists and local publics.
4. Our legal systems often fail to protect Indigenous art. Although Australia’s federal government has discussed these issues of inauthentic art and its consequences, its eight conclusive recommendations have yet to be implemented. There is still a need to clarify and specify protections through law in order to legitimize and prevent this cultural theft.
Art is not born in a vacuum, exempt from history and power dynamics.
At the end of the day, we would do well to remember that our individual attitudes towards artworks and contemporary social injustices can have more impact than we may realize. This story should not serve to shame, but rather to impress the necessity of personal responsibility. So, whether you are a collector of cultural objects, an art-maker, or a mere Netflix-binger, please remember that your critical reflections do matter. We are all implicated in these cultural controversies.