Appropriating Aboriginal Art: To Be or Not To Be

Students will ask “why can’t we use Aboriginal images?” Particularly if they see the work of artists like Richard Bell, who is deliberate in his appropriation of “western” artists like Lichtenstein or Tillers.
“If he’s apppropriating, why can’t we*?
Well there are a couple of responses you can offer that may assist students to get to the core of the issue:
  1. Firstly, Aboriginal art was never “given” to the western art industry as a school of art to be appropriated. Picasso knew what he was doing when he first exhibited cubism – he was well aware of the impact of his use of this style and what it meant. However Aboriginal artists, when their work was first being installed as art objects into galleries (and out of museums as ethnographic cultural objects), in the last quarter of the century, would have very little idea about the Western art market and its conventions. Many “traditional” artists still are not aware of their rights (and responsibilities).
  2. Secondly, the imagery/iconography may have spiritual significance and by re-producing the image you may inadvertently “call-up” something you’re not meant to.
  3. Thirdly, why use the image in the first place? The fact that the image is not from your country, your people, your culture, your heritage, meants that you have completely de-contextualised it. You would be hard pressed to create a new meaning for existing cultural icons that would “hold-up” to a critical analysis.

Above all, CREATE FROM WHAT YOU KNOW – don’t look for inspiration in the foreign exotic interesting native. 
“Be responsible for your aesthetic.” Vernon Ah Kee, 2008
* Yes I have assumed that the “enquirer” is non-Indigenous.

(Originally published on InquiryBites blog on March 9, 2009)