• The interior of a Polish hotel an Indigenous artists says stole her designs. (NITV)Source: NITV
BiBi Barba has allegedly had her artwork stolen and reproduced throughout a Polish hotel many years ago. She only found out about the theft when she began to create her own website to showcase her art pieces.
Rangi Hirini

NITV News, The Point
4 Apr 2018 - 12:06 PM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2018 - 8:34 AM

Many artists draw inspiration from hard times. For singers heartbreak can equal a hit single, poets can make disappointment into prize-winning verse — for visual artist Bibi Barba it took a divorce to make a Desert Flower bloom.

“Desert flower became an art piece pretty much about 10 years ago, that was pretty much a pivotal point in my life when my marriage ended,” she told The Point.

“And here I was being a young woman, and facing the big world out there on my own as a single woman.”

On advice from her mother and her grandmother, Bibi used her passion for painting as a healing tool after the marriage ended.

“I was a flower going through a desert of emotions and the yellow (in the work) represented a day of a new dawn, and the sunrise on a single life. There was another one to that was burnt orange that was a sunset to the past," she said.

To show the world her life in art, the proud Indigenous woman created her own website.

Bibi started to Google herself to see what was on the internet. As she continued to go deeper into her search, Bibi stubbed across something she hadn't been expecting.

She found her work on a Polish hotel’s website, Hotel Eclipse in Domaslaw.

Located 360 kilometres south of Poland’s capital of Warsaw, the hotel had reproduced Bibi’s art through most of the premises.

The Desert Flower design was used on the carpets in the 44 room hotel, walls, soap dishes, chairs, and bar tops.

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“My heart sank, I felt so sick to my stomach, I couldn’t believe that something that I painted so beautiful to me, was used in such a commercial way, and disrespectful to culture, disrespectful to me as an artist,” she said.

BiBi said the discovery caused her so much distress she almost stopped painting.

“I couldn’t sleep. I was totally floored…. You make beautiful art and you tell a story, and to be proud of who you are culturally and yet, they can just take it away,” she said.

'She thought I should be privileged'

Unsure what to do and what her rights were, BiBi turned to Arts Law, a national community legal centre.

Robyn Ayres is the CEO of Arts Law and although she didn’t act as Bibi’s lawyer she explains that what the Polish hotel was against Australian copyright law.

“Nearly every country around the world has copyright laws, and what those copyright laws do is they give an artist who is generally the owner of the copyright, the right to decide how the work is used,” she said.

“So if they want their work to be reproduced they have to go to the artists and ask for permission, and the artists can say yes or say no, they can charge a fee or not. But it’s the artists right to decide how their work can be used.”

Bibi claims the hotel didn’t ask her for her permission for Desert Flower to be used.

It’s alleged the interior designer for the hotel saw Bibi’s artwork on a gallery website and downloaded a high-resolution picture and reproduced the artwork for the hotel.

“She (the interior designer) obviously thought that I lived in the outback underneath the gum tree, with no technology but sorry, I don’t live far from the prime minister of Australia, so I’m gonna find out,” Bibi said.

“She thought I should be privileged, I’m sorry, but I think she’s privileged to use my work and any other Indigenous work for that matter because our culture is the longest living culture on the planet.”

NITV reach out to Hotel Eclipse for a comment- but received no response.

Next Steps

Terri Janke is an Intellectual Property lawyer and represented Bibi in the earlier stages of her case. 

She told The Point what Bibi went through, and what many other Indigenous artists go through when their artwork is stolen by non-Indigenous people feels like a stripping of culture.

“Internationally we have to make designers and fashion designers, and hotel designers aware that it’s not appropriate to go into Indigenous art and culture and take things and copy them,” Ms Janke said.

“They [artwork] are important culturally to Indigenous people, they are part of their Indigenous cultural expression and so we need to raise awareness that it’s not acceptable.”

The Wuthathi-Meriam woman explained one of the hardest issues Bibi’s had to face with her case, is the copyright occurred overseas.

The second is proving the hotel stole Bibi’s work as they continue to deny there was any copyright.

“She [BiBi] still has to prove that infringement because the hotel and the graphic designer still deny that infringement which I think is another way of non-Indigenous creator taking Indigenous designs and appropriating it as their own. It's like the terra nullius all over again,” Ms Janke said.

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How to protect your work

Robyn Ayres from Arts Law says it’s up to artists individually to enforce their copyrights and make sure there have been no infringements.

“So a simple way for example to do that would be do this reverse Google image search where you upload images of your artwork and you upload and see whether or not it turns up somewhere where it shouldn’t,” she explains.

However, the internet can also be a way of your artwork being stolen.

Ms Ayres gives tips to artists on how to protect their artwork online.

  1. Don’t upload a high-quality picture of your artwork online
    “Actually use low-quality images which you can’t then reproduce perfectly,” she says.
  2.  Apply watermarks
    “That your work can’t be reproduced without the watermark,” Ms Ayres suggests.

  3. Monitor your work and be careful about what websites you use
    “When you do that you’re giving the site very wide rights and also other people who come onto the site,” she said.

Almost five years later and BiBi is still fighting to reclaim her art, despite her battles she continues to paint and has found her passion.

She encourages all Indigenous artists to apply copyrights to their work in order to preserve Aboriginal culture.

“This is about your culture, this is about your work and when you understand what you’re doing is going to be left for the next generation,” Bibi said.


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See the full story on The Point - tonight at 8.30pm on NITV, and streamed live on NITV's Facebook page.