• Authentic artist Glen Timbery working at the Blak Markets in Sydney. (NITV)Source: NITV
It's a multi-million dollar industry built on Indigenous culture — but who is benefitting? The Point and consumer watchdog CHOICE investigate the fake art trade and meet some of the artists fighting to protect their culture.
Rachael Hocking

5 Apr 2018 - 2:37 PM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2018 - 5:27 PM

Wukun Wanambi's eyes flick from left to right. His glasses rest above his face, his brow furrowed. Sitting in an art centre four thousand kilometres from the nation's capital, Wukun has something important he wants to share with the rest of Australia. 

“My aim is talking about nyal yidaki,” he says, looking to the right of the camera. 

Yidaki is the Yolŋu word for that wooden hollow instrument you might know as a didgeridoo: a western word, an interpretation — or bastardisation — of the reverberations from a yidaki. In other parts of the country the instrument has different names and shapes. It can even sound different. 

In Yolŋu Matha, nyal means fake. Indigenous art is a multi million dollar industry. But as the popularity of cultural items and art increases, so too has fake art and cheap 'knock-off' items. Cultural theft is a serious threat to many Indigenous communities, some of which rely heavily on art sales to create income and employment.

“We know that some yidaki, nyal yidaki, in Indonesia is coming into Australia to show, and people are buying it,” Wukun explains. 

“But, please Australia, we don't want that. We want real yidaki, to sell yidaki real, because the real one has got a real name, and the fake, nyal, has got no strength.”

At the end of the video Wukun looks straight down the barrel of the camera

“Stop that fake yidaki coming into Australia.”

Wukun’s message is part of a submission to a parliamentary inquiry looking into inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘style’ art and craft to assess if the problem is big enough to warrant new restrictions. To date there have been nearly 150 submissions and public hearings in three cities. 

Among the calls for change is a proposal to amend Australian Consumer Law (ACL) to allow for a blanket ban on the import or sale of fake or inauthentic product, a label for products which would identify them as authentic or inauthentic, and making the Indigenous Art Code — considered the minimum standard if you're going to trade and buy ethically in the industry — mandatory for anyone who deals in Indigenous art, craft and merchandise. 

The law can protect artists when there has been a copyright infringement of their original work, but this relies on the individual taking action. When there has been a case of misleading, false or deceptive conduct, such as a boomerang made in China but purporting to be made locally, the consumer watchdog might step in. 

On the eve of the Commonwealth Games, and following more than 150 spot checks of galleries and businesses selling Indigenous art and souvenirs, the Queensland Office of Fair Trading determined 12 retailers in the state needed to be investigated further for potential breaches of the ACL. All 12 were tourist businesses. 

“I’d encourage anyone to question traders about claims such as ‘original work’ and if they can’t be substantiated, take your business elsewhere,” Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath says. 

A grassroots movement

The north-east coast of Australia has arguably become the frontline against fake and imported product in Australia. Birubi Art sits in suburban Brisbane, and perhaps unluckily for them just a stone’s throw away from Kullilla and Muruwari artist Michael Connolly. 

One year ago Connolly and the owner of Birubi, Ben Wooster, had a falling out when it was discovered Wooster was importing "Aboriginal" products made in Indonesia. In an open letter on his website, Connolly accused Birubi of lacking cultural integrity. 

Birubi, who have not denied they import products from Indonesia and argue they do so under a licensing arrangement with artists, stopped supplying Connolly's business, Dreamtime Kullilla-Art, with Aboriginal flag products for which Birubi holds the licence.  

Last month the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission launched legal action against Birubi for allegedly selling fake art made in Indonesia and passing it off as authentic work made locally.

Birubi declined to be interviewed for this article.

Connolly says he refuses to stock his store with products where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists don’t benefit, and says he wants to see the law changed to stop big traders in inauthentic products driving Indigenous businesses and genuine items out of the market. 

“At my store in Southbank markets I had 30 didgeridoos and I could sell 10 or so a weekend… around $350 for a really nice painted didge,” he explains. 

“Now I go bush and cut 20 and I might sell one every three or four months."  

Calling out Birubi is not the only time Connolly has stood up publicly for authentic Indigenous art. He has been vocal on his Facebook page about other businesses he thinks are engaging in misconduct.

When The Point first called Connolly in January this year, he had just been fined for confronting a Queensland newsagency  for selling fake items. He was walking past Jetty News in Brisbane when he noticed a rack of boomerangs covered with Aboriginal style designs. A pink star-shaped sticker described them as ‘BENT STICKS’. 

"I said [to the shopkeeper], 'where are they made, and are they made by Aboriginal people and painted by Aboriginal people?'” he says. 

Connolly didn’t get a response when questioning the store, and was consequently fined for public nuisance. But, in a small win, the ‘bent sticks’ were removed from the store. 

This kind of grassroots activism has been growing in recent years, as artists contend with what Michael Connolly describes as a multi-million dollar industry: the sale of art, craft and merchandise not made, painted or licenced to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. 

In an effort to measure the scale of the problem Gabrielle Sullivan from Indigenous Art Code and Robin Ayres from Arts Law went on a mystery shop of souvenir stores across Australia in 2016, buying boomerangs, keyrings, bullroarers and other merchandise. They estimated that 80 per cent of the souvenirs they came across were fake. 

“A consumer walks into the shops, sees that and thinks it looks ‘Aboriginal’… but no money has gone back to an Aboriginal person.”

Gabrielle showed The Point one of the boomerangs they bought.  

“I was told in the store where I purchased this in Melbourne that it came from Indonesia,” she says. 

But Gabrielle explains that besides the retailer’s frankness about the boomerang’s provenance, there was little to indicate that what she was buying had any relationship to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. 

“Some of the marking on it resembles a marking which is often on boomerangs, it’s got this kangaroo, and on the back it’s got ‘Australia’ and ‘handmade,’” she says. 

Gabrielle says the onus shouldn’t be on the consumers to be able to discern what is and isn’t the real deal, especially when many stores will sell both inauthentic and authentic product on their shelves. 

“A consumer walks into the shops, sees that and thinks it looks ‘Aboriginal’… but no money has gone back to an Aboriginal person.”

Artists not the only ones getting ripped-off

It’s a sentiment consumer watchdog CHOICE agrees with. Earlier this year CHOICE and The Point conducted an investigation to find out how difficult it would be to buy 12-inch boomerangs which were made or painted by Indigenous artists or were licensed reproductions.

Armed with advice from legal bodies, regulators and Indigenous communities, we called 40 souvenir shops around the country. Around 60 per cent of stores were able to answer questions about the artist or provenance of their boomerangs.

But the stores were often unclear if the product was an original hand-painted item made in Australia by an Indigenous person, or a reproduction from overseas.

A number of stores, including Michael Connolly’s Dreamtime Kullilla-Art, cited Murra Wolka as their supplier: an Aboriginal-owned family business which makes ethical souvenirs and pays the artists responsible for the work. 

“Companies have come to us asking ‘Can we supply the blanks for you from Indonesia?’ And I always say no.”

Joe Skeen, its owner, says the business was borne out of a desire to gain back control over their art and culture, and maintain integrity. 

“We grew up painting after dinner. We know how to paint; our family knows how to paint quickly. There’s no printing, it’s all done from hand. All the wood, the shapes are done in house,” he says. 

“Companies have come to us asking ‘Can we supply the blanks for you from Indonesia?’ And I always say no.”

Joe says fake art is akin to ‘cultural genocide’. 

During their research, Gabrielle Sullivan and Robin Ayres found that price was not necessarily an indication of authenticity in the souvenir market. You can buy Murra Wolka boomerangs in retailers for under $20, depending on the size, while prices between inauthentic product fluctuate from as little as $6 to $30. 

The Point and CHOICE found similar results when taking our mystery shop to the streets. We bought boomerangs for between $6 and $12 in Sydney market stalls and souvenir shops, with several labelled confusingly. A Dreamtime Native Arts and Crafts boomerang labelled ’Dream time Australia,’ was in fact made in Indonesia. 

To find a genuine item, The Point travelled to the Blak Markets held in La Perouse, Sydney, an Aboriginal-owned enterprise which ensures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and communities benefit from their work.

Sitting crossed-legged outside the old fort built in the 1800s on Cammeraygal land, Glen Timbery sells souvenir size throwing boomerangs for $10. Made out of local plywood and using his family’s “burning-in” method to imprint each boomerang with a unique design. 

The technique of burning in was handed down to Glen from his ancestors and has evolved over time. Before Europeans invaded the south-east of the country, his clan would use the bottom of a kangaroo jaw bone and scrape it along large hunting boomerangs, creating grooves. For Glen’s grandfather, the tool of choice was a wire with a hook, held over a fire and burnt onto the wood. 

Today Glen uses an electric burner to custom design each boomerang with animals and children’s names. 

“You know the thing is I put my name on em: I write ‘Aboriginal, Glen Timbery, Sydney, Australia’, so when you see the ones that don’t come from Australia, that aren’t Aboriginal made, a non-Aboriginal person won’t write their name on them,” he says. 

Glen says the knock-off trade in Indigenous souvenirs has put a strain on his business and craft.

At the same Blak Markets, Wonaruah woman Saretta Fielding sold a range of scarves, cushions and paintings she designs. Through her business she says she has been able to make a living and share part of her culture with Australia. 

“The value of Aboriginal art should be owned by Aboriginal people,”

But her ability to do that was almost lost about eight years ago. Selling some drawings at an art fair, she was approached by a man who asked if she would like to put her designs on t-shirts and other merchandise. 

“I was quite excited about the opportunity and I went to meet him later on,” Saretta explains.

She was offered a one to two percent cut from each product sold. Saretta said no to the offer, but was left shaken. The man bought copies of her work, and Saretta immediately sought legal advice. Although she has not seen those particular designs sold anywhere, there have been situations in the past where her work has been used without a licencing fee paid. 

This kind of situation is not uncommon. But what frustrates Saretta is how processes like that can disempower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to continue making and selling their art, craft and merchandise. 

“The value of Aboriginal art should be owned by Aboriginal people,” she says. 

“The value of our culture and sharing that with others through our art mediums is something that is a great opportunity for Aboriginal people to have that economic inclusion.”

Additional reporting by Liz Deep-Jones

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