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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs
Growing presence of inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 'style' art and craft products and merchandise for sale across Australia

BULLEN, Ms Clothilde, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of Contemporary Art


CHAIR: Welcome. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Bullen : [Indigenous language not transcribed.] My name is Clothilde Bullen and my family are from the Wardandi nation, which is in the south-west of Western Australia. I've brought some goodies for you because what we're talking about isn't ethereal and in the air; we're talking about—

CHAIR: Real.

Ms Bullen : Yes.

CHAIR: As these proceedings are public, they are being broadcast and recorded by Hansard. If you wish to have evidence heard in private, please let the committee know, and we will consider your request. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I wish to advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. If you object to answering a question, please state the reasons for your objection, and the committee will consider the matter. I now invite you to make an opening statement.

Ms Bullen : First of all, I'd like to say that I haven't actually written an opening statement because this is something that's obviously close to my heart. I've been in this industry for a very long time, so if I don't know what I'm about to say, then we're in trouble. I do want to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I am a Nyoongar woman, so this is not my country that I speak on, but I am able to speak about this. What I've given you there are very good examples that we sell in the MCA store which are readily available to any institutional store or any place and which are examples of work accessed directly from remote community art centres. Our store shops directly from remote community art centres. For example, it goes up to the Darwin art fair and has relationships with art centres and purchases directly from them. You'll see that's a Tjanpi weaver basket. Lots of this is mine, actually, from home. There's work from Girringun in north-east Queensland. There is work from the Tjanpi weavers, which I'm sure you would be familiar with. There is work from Warlukurlangu, such as the little dog that's in there. There is a range of things. I wanted you to have a look at those because this is what we're talking about. We are talking about not just objects and works of art but the product of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists on this continent, and this is the real deal. This is what's readily available for people to purchase at this point in time.

In listening to some of the other speakers and in thinking about this issue, I think there are a couple of elephants in the room that we haven't spoken about. One of those is the issue of power—the nature of power and the willingness to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture doesn't fit neatly into this western, capitalistic system that we operate within. That's really critical to understanding why this is such a difficult conversation, why we are having these kinds of conversations and why there are issues that come about particularly with existing legislation where Aboriginal art and culture doesn't fit neatly into any of the existing or proposed legislation at this point in time.

The issue of power is really critical, because what we're talking about is privilege in the sense that Aboriginal people are the First Nations and the first owners of this country but have not been in a position where we have had agency to be able to speak in our own languages and be able to determine what we would like to see happen. Part of that is an understanding about the way art and culture exists in Aboriginal society. In my language, in my cultural background, there is no specific word for art. There is a word for culture. There is no decontextualisation: 'This is an artwork, this is dancing and this is singing.' It's all culture. I think that's really critical to start understanding that what we're talking about here is not just objects that are taken out of their context but something that is an expression of culture, and all of us should be able to practice and express our culture in the way that we see fit.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists obviously understand that there is an economic opportunity in being able to express culture in particular ways. There is a complete understanding of that, and we should give more credit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who really do understand more about this business than perhaps any of us. However, we also need to understand that the critical component and the critical thing that we're talking about is culture and not just art or objects. I wanted to really pull that out because that's at the heart of everything that we're actually talking about. The other component to this is about relationships, about the nature of reciprocity and about education. Something we haven't spoken enough about is educating not just consumers but also institutions and educating our own artists about how to be their own advocates. That's really all I wanted to say. I haven't written a statement as such, but they're components that I feel are missing in this conversation.

CHAIR: Thank you for your words spoken from the heart. It doesn't make it any easier to try and determine the best way to bring culture into a legal framework to protect those who are producing the culture, and that's the complexity of the situation, but your heartfelt words are most welcome. Sharon, do you want to open with any questions?

Ms CLAYDON: We took evidence from the parliamentary store the other day where they have a policy not to purchase on the secondary market and to buy in directly from the art fairs and art centres and so forth. They were members of the art code. Is the MCA shop a member of the Indigenous Art Code as well?

Ms Bullen : Not as far as I know.

Ms CLAYDON: Would that be deliberate?

Ms Bullen : No, there's nothing deliberate about it. I've only recently come on board with the MCA a year and a bit ago. Previous to that, I was at the Art Gallery of Western Australia as their curator of Aboriginal art for over 10 years. They couldn't be part of that because they were a government organisation. We're not, and that is what we're moving towards. I've known Gabe for years; I've certainly worked with her over the years. That's what we're working towards. As well as a number of other things, what is in place—and what I would suggest is important for every institution to have in place—is an Indigenous advisory group that has been in place for many years now, and they are an active Indigenous advisory group. We don't just go to them and say, 'Can you sign off on this?' We actually involve them in every decision-making process when it comes to whatever we sell at the shop, what we might be doing in financing, in philanthropy, in curatorial terms—across the board.

The second thing we have is an Indigenous policy which embeds across every facet of the MCA. It was one of the reasons I actually went to work there because what that does is provides cultural safety to our seven staff. We have the most Indigenous staff in any visual contemporary arts organisation in the country, and it is because we have cultural safety within our workspace. That policy is a working policy, so it's constantly being updated, where we speak to things like this that are happening, which is why we made a submission. We're cognisant of what's going on, currently, within this ecosystem.

We have those two things in place and all of our staff are very active in making commitments to things like this—ensuring that we are purchasing ethically through the shop, that we liaise with our philanthropists and our corporate partners in an ethical way, that they're across what we're actually doing, and that everything that we present is done in collaboration directly with community art centres and with artists. That's the way it's been for quite a long time.

Ms CLAYDON: We've seen some very good practice. You're probably setting an example of what we might like to see as best practice. One of the terms of reference for the committee is about looking at the ways that we might enhance existing institutions or outlets of various descriptions to be models of best practice and to ensure that there are authentic arts and crafts being supplied that provide some direct benefit back to the artist. Have you got thoughts about how we'd encourage others to take up best practice—whether that should be a voluntary thing, a mandatory thing or embedded in regulations or legislation? I'm interested in your thoughts about how that might best happen.

Ms Bullen : I would like to see it mandatory across institutions. We provided our ATSI policy to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Certainly with what's going on in Sydney Modern we have been encouraging them not only as a group of Aboriginal curators and artists but also from our perspective at the MCA to develop an Indigenous advisory group. We've offered them our model and also our policy to have a look at. I think it's absolutely critical, because, from that, there is an education process that happens with all staff, with the shop and with anyone involved in that kind of business. This is not a dichotomy. It's not just a top-down approach that's necessary—and I'm not just talking about government legislation in an institution—but it's also got to be a bottom-up approach. That's been fed from remote community art centres and artists who are speaking to us about what is critical and prioritised for them—it's relationships, it's reciprocity, and it's people talking.

Part of it is that education process about why it's critical to have an Indigenous advisory group within your institutional space so that they act as a mechanism for—I wouldn't say policing, because it's not a particularly mature word—encouraging people to act in ethical ways, institutionally. It's about embedding it within a structure or a framework. It gets placed on the individual artists and the individual art centres, who are under enormous pressure already. It shouldn't be up to them to be policing and encouraging people to purchase ethically. They do not have the resources for that. There do need to be structural frameworks in place that allow us to do our jobs in ethical ways. It's about having an understanding that culture is at the heart of this and that it's critical not just to us in the arts ecosystem but across the board. In tourism, all the international tourist ads that go out focus on Aboriginal art and culture. That's part of our identity and who we are, so why is it not critical that we then support communities and individual artists from a grassroots level to have a stake in that? It's about having the willingness and the desire to answer that question on both levels.

Ms CLAYDON: Finally, do you have a view around who might be an appropriate body to administer and help provide—we've got the Indigenous Art Code, and there's a proposal that Terri Janke and others have worked on for a long time around a national Indigenous cultural authority. I don't mean to pitch them as different models necessarily, but there are a few ideas around about different bodies that might be appropriate for administering. Do you have a preference?

Ms Bullen : I certainly wouldn't leave it in the hands of galleries and art dealers, that is for absolute certain. It needs to be a completely independent body. We have spoken about this from a curatorial perspective, because we don't have an Indigenous curatorial peak body at all that supports us or advocates for us. I would suggest that there's so much diversity, even within states and in communities, that you would need to have a representative state body that at least speaks to the communities within its state. Even then, you're going to run into problems because there is so much diversity in communities. Certainly, from my perspective, it would be a peak body that was able to speak directly to government, but also its committee members would be selected directly from community. It would be those particular community members who were put up as the people to be speaking for community.

What tends to happen is that government selects representatives based on particular characteristics—they might have won this or done that or whatever—but they're not necessarily the people the community want to have speak for them. Again, there needs to be agency in all of these things where communities are being asked to represent themselves, not being told who will represent them. So, I can see it as being a state based thing, as we have with many other peak bodies. And that's not to say that people like ANKAAA and Desart are not doing an incredible job already, because they are. But they are completely under-resourced and not able to fulfil that function at this point in time.

CHAIR: The last presenters talked about an Indigenous cultural council, which I'm guessing is a little along the same lines as that which you're proposing—that is to have an Indigenous grassroots advisory body on cultural acquisition, and I understand that you're coming from the point of view of ethical purchase for cultural acquisition. The other concern of this committee is: how does a consumer, outside of cultural acquisition in an organisation of top priority, identify that the goods produced are authentically Aboriginal-produced and Aboriginal-designed, or what percentage is? How does a consumer in your gift shop know that everything in there is authentic, apart from by talking to the person behind the counter? If they're in a rush and they have to jump on a bus, how do they know that this is an authentic item? Or in the airport or anywhere else—down at the quay. There needs to be some way of taking account of the cultural background and knowing that the item that you're purchasing is fair dinkum. Has your organisation got any ideas or recommendations for that sort of scenario?

Ms Bullen : Given that we purchase ethically already, myself, the other staff members and our IAG already know that that work is being purchased ethically, and all of the shop staff and in fact all of our hosts—everyone is aware of what we do and what goes on there. They are able to speak about it. In that sense, we haven't had to deal with what you're alluding to with this labelling system or something that shows an artwork is authentic.

I used to work for a place called Artists in Residence, which was a commercial Aboriginal gallery. That's how I started in this. It was a really early model of working with—they weren't community arts centres at the time, because this was 22 years ago; they were community stores and they used to sell Aboriginal artwork. This is how the community arts centres started, particularly in Western Australia. We had a label at the time. It had a thumb print on it—not a thumb print of the artist but an actual logo of a thumb print—and it told people exactly the information they needed to know about where it was sourced from, who the artist was, their country and all of that. It didn't make a scrap of difference at all. People would still purchase other things that were not made by people from community.

I think the question is not 'How do we signal to people whether it's an authentic product or not?' but 'How do we educate people to acquire the ability to differentiate?' It's the flip side of that. I'm not suggesting that there shouldn't be labelling or some sort of notification of that, but the flip side is the other educational development that occurs within a consumer space. ANKAAA already puts out pamphlets and things like that, but that doesn't necessarily work either. I don't have the answers for that, but I think it's a dual question about how to educate consumers better and not just at the point of sale.

CHAIR: It's definitely two sides of a coin, without a doubt in the world. The problem we're faced with is that the proliferation of inauthentic art is harming the livelihood of a number of Indigenous groups and potentially the market overall. There's zero royalties going back to community; there is just not the structural space in there. This committee has to develop a strategy where culture's respected but there's an identity process. So, yes, it is definitely education, but it's also the marketing side of the labelling and the education of the perceptive consumer but also the spontaneous consumer.

Ms Bullen : Absolutely.

CHAIR: You've got to have something that addresses both consumers, and that's part of the challenge that we're facing.

Ms Bullen : I wonder if there's something that is linked in to the art code, although I don't want to place any more pressure upon that—but certainly something where you can scan something and it gives you the information immediately. That at least gives you a choice. A consumer will choose whatever they will choose at the end of the day. This is just off the top of my head, but there could be something that allows you to identify and get information about where that work was sourced from, and if you can't get any information, you need to ask the question: why can't we get any information about that object? We don't have that mechanism in place, because we have our other mechanisms in place that, long before the point of sale, mean that the product that you're getting is from community arts centres and artists.

CHAIR: You do.

Ms Bullen : Yes, we do. We are a model of best practice, and we do continually review our structure and our practice. I think that's just another aspect to this.

CHAIR: Can I toss a question for you to take back to your amazing, wonderful group of Indigenous employees as well, who feel safe to express cultural views in your workplace?

Ms Bullen : Yes.

CHAIR: How would they see how an item such as one of these could have an identifier or a scanning device on it, or there may be a device in the shop, that puts a screen up and says, 'This was made in this community by such and such a person. Buy this'? Can you ask them if they have an image of how that might be possible at the point of sale.

Ms Bullen : It's a good question. We have a really fantastic digital team. Unlike many other institutions, we focus a lot on digital and websites and on people being able to access our work internationally. There are different ways that you could potentially have links directly to arts centres so that you could scan something and then have pop up on an app a direct link that immediately takes you to the art centre and assists in promoting the work from that centre as well as providing lots of information. It's certainly something that we could think about, and we could broach that with our Indigenous Advisory Group as well.

CHAIR: Thank you. I've given you a challenge, I'm sorry. But I think it's a good one.

Ms Bullen : I think it is a good one.

CHAIR: You're off the hook formally. Thank you for your attendance at today's hearing.

Ms Bullen : Am I able to mention something?

CHAIR: Sure.

Ms Bullen : There was mention of a sliding scale for valuations. Clearly, I've done a million evaluations across my curatorial lifetime, and that's something we do all the time. It's a bit of a dangerous idea because what needs to be understood is that, if families are working together on a work, that is completely acceptable to the artists themselves. What they are custodian of is the story within that work and not the decontextualised artwork in and of itself. Again, it's a different understanding of why and how you value a work, but certainly, when I value art works for insurance purposes or within our collection, we do not look at decreasing the value because other family members have worked on that particular piece. And, if an artist says, 'I'm custodian of this story and I have allocated this, this and this family member to work on this,' we will name all of those family members, but that work is still the custodianship of that particular senior artist. It's a different way of thinking about it. I just wanted to make mention of that before we went.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. You're not the only person who's come forward and said that the paradigm of looking at a copyright or intellectual property rights doesn't fit culture. Any input that we have that explores the fact that they are very different can be taken on board by the committee. That's a very valuable comment.

If you've been asked to provide any additional information—which you have—and if there is anything else you'd like to provide, please forward this to the secretariat by 20 March. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence to which you may suggest changes. Thank you so very much for coming.

Proceedings suspended from 10:46 to 11:18