If 2020 has been good for something, it’s been stellar for interrogating the gaps in our knowledge when it comes to learning more about race, identity and culture.
The often-confrontational conversation around cultural appropriation is an example.
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
This might sound easy enough to understand but, in our digital, globalised society, the lines between something that’s obviously offensive (blackface) and something that might be considered appreciative (use of another group’s cuisine or imagery) can be blurry.
But what about when a company ‘borrows’ from a minority culture, without permission or giving back to the community, to generate its own profit?
US-owned barramundi company Australis uses First Nations-inspired artwork from Arnhem Land on its logo to market its barramundi (a Gangulu language word for large-scale fish) in the US and Canada. The company’s barramundi is farmed in Vietnam and sold in most other markets, including Australia, under the Clean Harvest brand, which does not use Australian Aboriginal-inspired imagery.
“I believe the artist that created our logo took inspiration from Australian food and wines culture ― where modern interpretations of Aboriginal art has been prevalent,” Australis CEO Josh Goldman told HuffPost Australia via email, in response to questions from HuffPost about whether the artist was Indigenous or if the company was Indigenous-owned.
“Clearly, one can view this sort of inspiration through the lens of cultural appropriation ― or just as easily as a celebration of people, place and history. Respectfully, we see it as paying homage to history and an invitation to find connection between people.”
Clothilde Bullen, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s (MCA) senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander exhibitions, disagrees and explained that taking the look and feel of First Nations art denies Indigenous peoples economic opportunities and undermines the role of communities in sharing cultural knowledge.
“Economically it completely takes away an income stream from artists that are actually permitted to create these kinds of artworks,” Bullen told HuffPost Australia in Sydney.
For Aboriginal people, food is a resource, a basis for storytelling and for generating moral narrative. “When those ideas are put onto paintings, that constitutes copyrighted images of a culture, there’s moral property involved in that,” Bullen said.
“There is nothing illegal about taking that away but there’s a moral imperative to protect peoples’ cultural property. That’s where it starts getting murky and that’s what’s happening in this case.”
The media interest in ‘calling out’ cultural misappropriation may have some rolling their eyes and muttering “am I not allowed to do anything anymore?” Others argue this is an imperative conversation, especially when culture is taken from an oppressed group to help a foreign company get richer.
But this is hardly a new issue.
Luxury brand Chanel came under fire in 2017 for selling a boomerang ‘accessory’ for close to $2,000; while the Ricky Gervais Netflix hit ‘After Life’ blatantly used a fake Aboriginal dot painting in the lounge room set — misappropriated by a UK artist.
Unfortunately, Bullen’s job means she sees this misappropriation all the time, leaving her “revolted” and in disbelief that this is still happening in 2020. Bullen explained that when a company takes from an ancient and sacred culture known for its art and storytelling, the narrative is diluted and there’s a moral reason that this should not be happening.
Since colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been dispossessed of their lands, massacred by settlers, decimated by European diseases and cruelly mistreated by the government (Stolen Generations), all of which directly led to modern people of Indigenous heritage being subject to social, health and employment outcomes far worse than those of the wider Australian population.
“In this country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their ability to be able to represent themselves as they see fit, has been consistently overrun by non-Indigenous cultures,” Bullen said, adding that it is important for global corporations to listen to First Nations people on these issues.
“If an Indigenous person is saying this is wrong — why does a white person anywhere in the world get to decide it isn’t?” she asked.
“That’s the privileged nature of non-Indigenous people saying ‘hey it’s fine, because I say it’s fine’ but all of the Aboriginal people in this country say ‘it’s not fine.’”
Terri Janke, an Indigenous solicitor with Wuthathi/Meriam heritage, said the use of First Nations art in the logo is “potentially misleading”.
“[Australis is] using the logo as a connector to Australia using First Culture but there’s no connection,” she said.
“To me it shows that people can sever connections to country and people and culture and modify the culture without even thinking of it. There’s an opportunity missed for this company.”
What can companies do to change for the better?
The MCA’s Bullen says it is easy for companies to engage with First Nations artists to commission art or seek advice on cultural protocol.
“There’s an organisation called Supply Nation,” Bullen explained. “Australis could approach them and ask ‘do you have an Aboriginal artist that could do a logo for me?’”
“Companies can approach any number of institutions in the country, all of our institutions have Aboriginal curators, you can approach us and say ‘do you know anyone that could do this’, that’s what we’re here for, we answer these sorts of questions.”
Individuals and companies can also contact ANKAR in the Kimberley region, which is the peak body to support artists doing this sort of work.
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