• Mitjili Napurrula painting in her distinct style. (YouTube)Source: YouTube
The US-based multinational retailer Urban outfitters has been accused of copying an artwork by late Luritja artist Mitjili Napurrula.
Keira Jenkins

21 Apr 2020 - 8:22 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2020 - 11:32 AM

One of Australia's leading Indigenous Intellectual Property Lawyers says a move by the US retailer Urban Outfitters to replicate a remote Northern Territory artist's design is "wrong".

The design, 'Watiya Tjuta' by Mitjili Napurrula, depicts the making of spears, a sacred aspect of men's business.

Last week, social media users pointed out that a rug from Urban Outfitters' online store looked similar to the painting.

Following a number of posts questioning the likeness, the retailer removed the product from its site.



It's not the first time the multinational corporation has been accused of copying the work of Indigenous peoples.

In 2012 the retailer was sued by the Navajo Nation for selling items branded 'Navajo' without their permission. The lawsuit was settled in 2016 for an undisclosed amount.

Indigenous cultural and intellectual property lawyer Terri Janke told NITV News that despite Urban Outfitters appearing to have slightly modified Ms Napurrula's design, it's highly unethical.

"This rug from Urban Outfitters looks like it has been altered a little bit from the artwork. Graphic designers think that if they change something by 10 per cent it is not a problem. This is wrong." she said.

Ms Janke, a  Wuthathi / Meriam woman who has worked in the space for more than 20 years, said it's not surprising. She wants laws created to better protect Indigenous artists worldwide.

"It has happened for many years, since Indigenous art rose to prominence ... problems with copying happen all over the world," she said.

"There's no copyright police, so even if you do know you have to take action yourself and that can be very hard if it's overseas because you have to work with lawyers in that jurisdiction, a lot of artists can't afford to do that either."

Ms Napurrula's artworks have been exhibited all over Australia and overseas. She passed away last year. 

The Ikuntji Arts Centre, where Ms Napurrula's work is housed, told NITV News it is looking into the accusations.

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