• Rebecca Wessels negotiates better deals for Indigenous artists. (SBS)Source: SBS
Meet the small business founder helping to protect the rights of Indigenous artists, amid a broader crack down on the sale of 'fake' Aboriginal-style souvenirs.
Sandra Fulloon

8 Jul 2019 - 1:54 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2019 - 4:37 PM

Rebecca Wessels is an Adelaide-based Peramangk and Ngarrindjeri woman who is negotiating deals for authentic designs while working to combat the sale of 'fake art'. 

“It blows my mind to think people are still going about using Aboriginal artwork or even some dot design they have found via Google, and think that’s OK,” Ms Wessels told SBS Small Business Secrets.

“We still see people using [Indigenous] artwork without crediting artists and without naming who they are or their language groups and nations, without honoring their work or paying them appropriately.” 

One wholesaler was recently fined more than two million dollars by the Federal Court for selling thousands of products made in Indonesia, that it claimed were hand-painted by Indigenous Australians.

The Australia Council for the Arts estimates that up to 80% of all ‘Indigenous’ artefacts sold are inauthentic and is calling for tougher controls on what is sold.

“We support amendments to existing intellectual property laws to protect the right of Indigenous artists, and potential penalties for those who exploit artists” said Patricia Adjei, Arts Practice Director Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, at the Australia Council for the Arts.

Other options to address the proliferation of inauthentic ‘Aboriginal style’ arts and craft products include non-legislative mechanisms such as protocols, authenticity labels and awareness raising.

Rebecca Wessels started Ochre Dawn after a career in IT and Community Services. She now works with dozens of artists across the country sourcing authentic Indigenous designs.

By negotiating better deals for corporate gifts, logos and sportswear, Ms Wessels is helping Indigenous artists earn royalties long-term.

Artist Elizabeth Close is a Yankunytjatjara woman from Central Australia in the APY lands, who is benefiting from working with Ochre Dawn.

“I have recently painted the indigenous uniform for Thunderbirds for Suncorp Super Netball and for my little girl to see her mum’s artwork on the uniforms of the Thunderbirds, she’s just so excited,” Ms Close said.

The registered nurse has spent 10 years working in emergency departments while painting part-time. She is largely self-taught.

“Working with Ochre Dawn, I now have a better understanding of how art fits into the corporate space and the licensing and intellectual property, and also how to place value on what I do,” she said.

Demand is also rising for Indigenous designs as corporate gifts.

“Gift giving internationally is still done beautifully within business. So we’d love to see our products share a story about an organization, because Aboriginal artwork always tells a story,” Rebecca Wessels explained.

By establishing very strong network with experts in legal and copyright fields, and taking advice from elders, Ochre Dawn has established a reputation for creating a safe commercial space for artists.

The business has also recently opened a new studio where artists can paint.

“In the corporate gift space there’s an opportunity for ongoing royalties and that’s amazing because that artist can have a sustainable income for something they designed years ago and they are still getting paid for,” Ms Wessels said.

“So not having to churn out artwork day after day, that’s really wonderful and has a ripple effect on them their family and community as well, which is really special.”

While many products are produced locally, Ms Wessels also sources ethical suppliers offshore.

“Our culture has been trading internationally for many thousands of years and  there’s nothing wrong with global trade, it’s a wonderful thing, as long as you do it well and you do it ethically.”