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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

SMITH, Ms Margaret, Vice-Chairperson, NPY Women's Council; Tjanpi Artist

YOUNG, Ms Michelle, Manager, Tjanpi Desert Weavers, NPY Women's Council


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Michelle, were you here when we started off?

Ms Young : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: So you heard what we said about recording and that stuff?

Ms Young : Of course.

ACTING CHAIR: Okay, I won't repeat that. These proceedings are public, and we're being recorded by Hansard. They're actually going out simultaneously on the net. We don't need you to give evidence under oath, but this, as you heard before, 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 don't want to answer a question because you don't like the question or whatever, just tell us and we'll ask you again—or not! Do you want to make an opening statement?

Ms Young : Yes, I do. Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a not-for-profit, Indigenous governed and directed social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women's Council. Tjanpi supports 26 Aboriginal communities across the tri-state border region of NT, SA and WA to earn an income from fibre art.

In 1995 the NPY Women's Council membership, made up of women from across the NPY region, requested meaningful and culturally appropriate employment on their homelands to better provide for their families. In response, the NPY Women's Council introduced a basket weaving workshop. Basket weaving quickly spread. The enterprise was created to be the intermediary between the NPY communities and the marketplace to ensure a continual sale of artworks that had been created and purchased up-front and to allow women to remain in community and on country. The sale of artworks is crucial to our long-term sustainability as it replenishes the reserve to continue to purchase work up-front from Tjanpi artists. This allows women immediate access to cash and is not dependent upon the sale of the item.

Our reach is extensive, across 350,000 square kilometres, and our depth is considerable, supporting in the last financial year alone 413 artists who produce baskets and sculptures for their social enterprise. We have been a member of the Indigenous Art Code since its inception and we are a member of our peak body, Desart, and also have had an annual membership with Arts Law as far back as I have been a manager since 2009. I report to the NPY Women's Council directors five times a year and to the wider membership in an annual general meeting out on the lands once a year. I am accountable to the NPY Women's Council directors and to follow the guiding principles of our organisation to respect each other and follow the law straight, and be conciliatory, peaceful and calm, and kind-hearted, united and strong. Tjanpi is also a part of the APY Art Centre Collective and Western Desert Mob. Both entities are a regional alliance of art centres, one in the APY lands and the other in the Ngaanyatjarra lands, created to promote community based, owned and governed Aboriginal art centres; support and protect intergenerational learning and Aboriginal culture through art; celebrate artistic and cultural integrity and the ethical sale of authentic art; and encourage sustainable Aboriginal enterprises.

Tjanpi regularly utilises Arts Law contract templates to ensure that we work in an ethical and transparent manner. We also continually strive to review our practices, and last year we reviewed our artist agreement with Arts Law to ensure best practice and compliance with the code, and had plain English statements of the agreement drafted by Arts Law, which were then translated into two languages and then spoken and recorded as audio files. When an artist signs a Tjanpi Desert Weavers agreement they listen to the audio files so they understand the agreement they are signing. We have also created animations for our artists to watch in language so they understand the money story, where we are challenged by financial literacy. All baskets and sculptures created by fibre artists carry the Tjanpi Desert Weavers swing tag, which details the creator of the work and their community and acts as a certificate of authenticity signed by our CEO, Andrea Mason. We sell directly in our gallery here in Alice Springs and on our website, but we also wholesale work to retail outlets across Australia. We have artworks and large-scale installation pieces in the major institutions in this country. We produced 3,517 artworks in the last financial year, and 95 per cent of those works would retail for under a thousand dollars.

We work hard for every dollar we earn to ensure we can continue to support Tjanpi artists so that they can support their families. Tjanpi Desert Weavers is chronically underresourced, but it is the sheer commitment and resilience of Tjanpi artists and staff and the support of everyone who knows our story and buys an artwork that ensure we survive each year. When you purchase fake Indigenous art, you take away from Aboriginal governed and directed enterprises and from Indigenous artists.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. Margaret, would you like to say anything to start with?

Ms Smith : If you ask me a question.

ACTING CHAIR: How does the world look for you?

Ms Smith : I'm not really happy with the roadhouse. They're selling somebody's art on their shelf, not ours. I come from Imanpa, and my family, my people, can't sell—because they do canvas and woodworking, but Erldunda don't like them; they kick them away, poor thing, and that's not right. They've got the roadhouse on our land.

ACTING CHAIR: Who owns it?

Ms Smith : I don't know.

ACTING CHAIR: You own the roadhouse?

Ms Smith : No, we own Mount Ebenezer but they closed it down.


Ms Smith : We own Mount Ebenezer but not Erldunda.

ACTING CHAIR: Not Erldunda, that's right.

Ms Smith : Yes. So Erldunda doesn't have our artwork. It's fake—boomerangs and colourful stuff that's not ours.


Ms Smith : That's a worry that I've got in my area.

Ms CLAYDON: Yes, so you're experiencing it firsthand.

Ms Smith : It's an enormous place. Aborigines own that land, right through—

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, [Indigenous language not transcribed].

Ms Smith : [Indigenous language not transcribed]. But there is something wrong with that manager. It's very sad. My family rings me up and tells me, 'Oh, that Erldunda manager always kicks us.' Even selling it to tourists outside. They sit down and he says, 'Don't sell it in front of my roadhouse; go and sell it somewhere else.' He doesn't buy canvas from them or anything. He's so strict. But he has this fantasy artwork inside.

Ms Young : By 'fantasy' you mean fake—

Ms Smith : All fantasy ones, you know?

ACTING CHAIR: Not proper ones.

Ms Smith : Faked ones. We call them toy-toy ones.


Ms Smith : I do a lot of tjanpi work. Some of our tjanpi gets sold in town. We've been having problems so our artists have been selling it in town.

ACTING CHAIR: But not through Tjanpi?

Ms Smith : Some.


Ms Smith : The ones who come into town to live for a little while. Also, they do the dot painting and canvas painting. Sometimes they don't sell it to Tjanpi. But the ones from the bush we keep their work, because we have a field officer that drives down every—

ACTING CHAIR: All the time.

Ms Smith : All the time. He goes out there for two weeks.

ACTING CHAIR: Hard work.

Ms Smith : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks, Margaret.

Ms CLAYDON: How important is it to the women, or to artists generally in your community—but they are predominantly women involved in it? Is it exclusively women?

Ms Young : Yes.

Ms CLAYDON: What does it mean for women in your community at Imanpa to be making this work? When they go through Tjanpi, what does it mean for them?

Ms Smith : I think that out of them I'm the only one doing the tjanpi. My sister had been doing it. I picked it up by learning, by watching them—women from APY lands and NPY women. With my eyes, I pick it up very quickly. I'm a little bit famous, too, myself, with Tjanpi! Mine has gone on exhibition and stuff lately.

ACTING CHAIR: Did you win that prize last year? There was a tjanpi, and Bob Dernan bought it. I'm sure he did.

Ms Smith : What does it look like? I make them with ducks—those birds—

ACTING CHAIR: I don't know, I can't remember. But it was the Lingiari prize.

Ms Young : Okay—it might have been someone else perhaps. We definitely had work in that exhibition.

ACTING CHAIR: I can't remember.

Ms Young : I think that one of the things for Imanpa as well is that it doesn't have an art centre there, so Tjanpi's presence is quite small because of that. Also our sourcing of field officers out in the region really predominates on the APY lands and on the Ngaanyatjarra lands. So we just don't have the capacity to service places like Imanpa and Finke as much as we would like to. Also, without an art centre there is a bit of a stop gap for us. If we introduce something there, they're really dependent on us coming back more regularly without an art centre to help support in between visits.

ACTING CHAIR: Does Maruku work with Imanpa?

Ms Smith : Maruku goes to Finke.

ACTING CHAIR: So it doesn't.

Ms Smith : Imanpa sells it on the highways, at the roadhouse—anywhere they see tourists they sell it.

Ms CLAYDON: Can I ask a little bit more about the arrangements. You spoke in your opening statement about the agreements you have in place. You sound like you've gone to some lengths to ensure that artists are understanding and making informed decisions about signing these agreements or entering into them. How important has that model been for your work with the artists? In your view, are they protections that make doing business with you quite distinct from selling at the roadhouse or out the front with no-one covering your back in that situation? Can you talk to us a bit about the difference in your practice and what protection it affords people.

Ms Young : We certainly had our previous artist agreement reviewed by Arts Law. We wanted it to be compliant with the Indigenous Art Code, which had been introduced after the original agreement was in place. It was found to be lacking in areas. We also took that opportunity to recognise that when we're asking an artist to sign those agreements they're not actually understanding what they're signing. We just didn't think this was an acceptable way to move forward; if we were going to review the artist agreement we would have to look at how we explain that to our artists. Arts Law suggested that we opt for the audio file in language so that it could be played before an artist signs the agreement so they understand the agreement that they're signing.

Inherent within the agreement is a recognition that there is a relationship between that artist and Tjanpi. Often by the nature of our work, as we're travelling across 26 communities and being quite nomadic across those communities, we don't have the luxury of an art centre that necessarily links that identity. So we wanted to make sure that it was really clear to the artists that they're signing an agreement that establishes a relationship between Tjanpi and the artist. We hoped that in the long run it might reduce what often happens in town, where artists come in and maybe wear clothes for the weekend and sell to other galleries in town. It's just making them really familiar that that's actually a relationship they've established with Tjanpi and trying to get them to understand the obligations around that relationship. That is why we recognise that it would need to be done in language and there would need to be consistent messaging, which the audio file does. I think it is also a way of addressing our really wide membership across so many communities, where field officers are perhaps only having contact once a month, so that people understand that relationship as well.

Ms CLAYDON: We had the benefit of visiting Tjanpi earlier this morning.

ACTING CHAIR: Which we much thank you for, and we haven't. Thank you.

Ms Young : You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

Ms CLAYDON: I was about to offer a belated thanks.

ACTING CHAIR: I just jumped in.

Ms CLAYDON: It was really terrific. It was not my first time, but I am blown away every time I go there.

Ms Young : Thank you.

Ms CLAYDON: It's great work. You talked a little about the model that you've used and how that's undergone some change over time. You have had the benefit, at some times, of being able to work quite collaboratively with art centres that are established in some of those communities. You made the point that not every community has an art centre. Also, that became quite a heavy workload for the art centre and not something that was necessarily sustainable. You've moved to a different model. Can you talk to us about that and what the pros and cons of that might be. Where do you think that kind of sustainable pathway is going to land for you?

Ms Young : As I said, we made a change in 2014 at the request of the arts centres who had been purchasing work on our behalf for many years—in kind, generous support that was offered by them—because they recognised, as well as us, that we can't be everywhere all of the time across those communities. However, the work became quite burdensome for the arts centre. We're all chronically underresourced. To take on a mantle of purchasing artwork on Tjanpi's behalf, in kind, was becoming way too onerous for them. It also speaks to the volume of artists requiring that service on a daily basis for their immediate needs, and for having access to cash daily, so we had to move away from that model and take on responsibility ourselves. With only two field officers servicing such a vast region, it meant the best we could offer artists was a monthly trip to buy artwork and sell art materials.

What was happening in between our visits was the women still had that desire for daily income, so were selling it to community workers and anyone who was prepared to buy it. This became quite unsustainable for Tjanpi and we weren't receiving back enough work to make it viable for that service in such a vast region. So we revisited that issue with the arts centres who agreed to come back on board and provide that support to us. They recognise the benefit that Tjanpi brings to offering those daily, small amounts of money to women. Often it can be that those artists are also painters and may be waiting for a sale of an artwork and, therefore, it offers a little bit of a stopgap until that painting sells.

I went to a meeting with the APY Art Centre Collective executive, who spoke very strongly on behalf of Tjanpi Desert Weavers, who said that this was a really important income generator for women in the region. And men spoke frankly that it could not go down; it has to survive. Therefore, the APY Art Centre Collective arts centres would revisit that relationship and make it work. We learnt from our previous experiences and set in place some measures that would help in the process of moving forward with that. It was very encouraging to have senior men from the APY community speak so strongly about the value that Tjanpi has for women's lives and that it must survive. It was with that agreement that we were able to move forward. And Ngaanyatjarra arts centres readily came on board as well, because money is, obviously, a really important factor out there on the lands. Especially with Centrelink and welfare payments being reduced for non-compliance that issue of getting hold of money is really important for people.

Ms CLAYDON: I think you put a very convincing case around being often one of the few opportunities for women to gain meaningful employment in their homelands and to remain on country and in their own community. It is great to hear that that was recognised by senior men. Given the evidence we heard from Margaret around some of the local businesses not playing their role of stocking your work set, it seems to me that Tjanpi might be particularly both well-placed and vulnerable in that the market that you can enter into is very much in the tourist end of the market—given that 90-odd per cent of your sales are under $1,000. And that is the sector that we are finding increasingly very difficult to regulate, to ensure that artists get a fair arrangement. You're well-placed in the sense of being able to fill quite an important part of that market, because you have women generating work daily.

It has been put to this committee—even yesterday, I think—that, if we were to go down a path of prohibiting importation of fake art, to use that term, and look at making changes to the law and phasing in over time the mandatory nature of the code, one of the issues might be whether arts centres and collectives of independent artists have the capacity to ramp up production very quickly to fill what will be quite a gap in the market. This is a tough question, but how much are you missing out on already by being cut out by those people who are dealing in inauthentic art? I would be really interested in whether you have any sense of the economic value that might have for Tjanpi artists. Also, are you in a position to, or how quickly do you think you could, scale up your enterprise work to take full advantage of a market that would only source authentic product?

Ms Young : Certainly, at the moment we're a little bit challenged because of those production issues that I talked about earlier. With arts centres coming back on board now, we're starting to see an increase in production. But also, for example, in our remote office in Warakurna, in April—the month that's just ended—the field officer spent $15,000 on baskets from women in that community alone. We've introduced some new basket guidelines, which are very visual, and so artists can start to relate a basket size to what their payment for it will be: 'And then, if I do 10 of these, the payment is going to be this much.' It seems to have generated a great deal of enthusiasm in Warakurna. That is $15,000 worth of purchasing going on in that community, and it's supported with a field officer on the ground every day, if you will.

Our potential is only stymied by our chronic under-resourcing. To address that, we are really looking at the arts and culture assistance and trying to increase that in the communities. With the support of the field officer, we can envisage a day when there would actually be workers across all of those communities and we'd be the sort of hub to the spokes of those Anangu being employed by Tjanpi, buying that work of the artists. That is our goal and vision.

As for scaling up, I'm a little hesitant to say, off the back of some serious production issues. But, before our relationship with the arts centres ended in 2014, we were carrying $300,000 worth of stock in that gallery, and so we were able to really ramp up at that point. So I would expect that we could do the same again. With better resourcing across the lands, we could have a huge impact.

We do feed a retail market substantially. As I said, most works are under $1,000; in fact, most are under $500. Women are producing usually quite small baskets. We can certainly enter into that retail market, but we also recognise we have tiers of work going on, and that some work is for commercial exhibitions and others are big public institution commissions, so we're operating on a number of different levels. I actually tried to get Tjanpi to be a supplier of choice for the Commonwealth Games but was not successful. We see there is potential for us at big events—that we would be able to supply at that level.

Ms CLAYDON: What was the barrier? Did you get an explanation as to why you couldn't progress with getting onto the Commonwealth Games?

Ms Young : No, I couldn't seem to get through the doors to have those discussions at all, despite trying on numerous occasions. We had it in our business plan—to seek out those sorts of opportunities to be the preferred supplier for big events et cetera. That was one that I was targeting but I was not able to actually progress it. So I think there is room for us to do it, but we also need to address better resourcing for Tjanpi. We have long-term strategies, but immediate strategies would be to fund our field officers; at the moment, the funding is coming from our reserve of money because we cannot get them funded.

Ms CLAYDON: So the potential and capacity are probably there, but it just needs better resourcing and support for that to happen?

Ms Young : Yes, absolutely.

Ms CLAYDON: I want to get some of your thoughts on tapping into the broader tourist market. There were some conversations around an art trail, I believe, for the Northern Territory.

Ms Young : Correct.

Ms CLAYDON: I'm just wondering if you could better inform me of what that looks like or how you might benefit from such a scheme.

Ms Young : Certainly. We've applied for money from the NT government as part of the Arts Trail scheme to enhance Tjanpi's gallery here in Alice Springs and make it more interesting and accessible for tourists coming into Alice Springs as an overall cohesive plan of developing the arts here in Alice Springs. As you know from your visit with us this morning, we are in the light industrial section of Alice Springs, along with a couple of other arts centres, and we've often cross-marketed events together and tried to create maps of the Indigenous governed and directed operations within our area, and we often refer other customers to them because we're quite disadvantaged by our placement within the town. So I think that the Arts Trail could, potentially, enhance that visitation to our premises, which are on the periphery, and make us another viable visitation for people coming into Alice Springs. There is also just the resourcing that will be provided for the market to understand that we're there. So I think it has great potential.

Ms CLAYDON: Do you know if it's a precondition that you would be a member of the arts code to be on the Arts Trail?

Ms Young : It was not asked.

ACTING CHAIR: Maybe we could ask the Northern Territory government and maybe you could take that on notice—

Ms Young : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: because it's an issue which I think we should explore with some vigour.

Ms Young : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Can I ask you about the art code. Do you think you're impacted by people who aren't members of the art code and might be selling product?

Ms Young : I would say so; yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Would that be impacting in town here, or in other places?

Ms Young : For the consumer who is coming into Alice Springs, there is a sense that they're aware of, maybe, some sort of code and are seeking to buy their work ethically. So having the code is a way to identify us, certainly, and encourage that ethical sale of artwork.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you see much evidence of rip-offs of your work here?

Ms Young : Not so much rip-offs of our work, but what we do see, as I mentioned previously, are artists coming into town and—when perhaps we are not open because it is, say, the weekend—then going down into town and selling work at other galleries and places. It's complex, that kind of relationship, because people often don't know—hence why we went through that artist agreement process too, to try to have artists understand some of the implications of doing that. But also in the past we have reported to the code businesses that we thought were perhaps working in an unethical manner, and they had a code placement on there as well, so that gave us an opportunity to address that which doesn't exist if they don't have the code on their business or are not a member of the code either—I don't really have much recourse there—whereas, when they are on the code, I have a channel, an avenue, to explore.

ACTING CHAIR: But, as we know, the code itself is limited by resources.

Ms Young : Incredibly so, really—one person.

ACTING CHAIR: For the country.

Ms Young : Yes. It speaks volumes, really, doesn't it? We've been a member of the code since its inception, and there was always discussion of greater marketing around the code and what it means for the average buyer of artwork, and I guess resourcing has meant that that has not been progressed to where it needs to be, either, so yes.

Ms CLAYDON: Do you have any view or thoughts on what might be appropriate penalties if the art code were better resourced to deal with compliance issues and people making clear breaches? We heard earlier from the Tangentyere Artists that it was an enormous burden on them to follow up issues around artists having seen their work copied with unauthorised intent. Do you have any thoughts on what might be an appropriate regime of penalties or a framework that we would use in the arts code if it were better resourced?

Ms Young : I think there would have to be a tier or set of stages that goes through and allows people to address the imbalances and make room for improvement; but greater or more severe penalties, depending on transgression that has been made. I think there should be financial penalties and even criminal penalties on some occasions.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you have any observations about whether or not the code should be mandatory?

Ms Young : I think it should be mandatory, but I do wonder what defines who goes on to the code, too. As you were saying earlier, you can have a retail space selling fake art—fake boomerangs, for example. They would not necessarily be under the Indigenous Art Code as it's positioned, as necessarily members to that. It depends what you're going to define your member as. You tend to start to see perhaps a dilution of who actually becomes members, and it becomes unwieldy. At the moment you would have to carefully define that relationship, because there would still be retail outlets down in town, who may not be required to be members of the code, who could still sell that artwork there, by being clear with that one.

Ms CLAYDON: How do you get the roadhouses?

Ms Young : Yes, exactly. Normally that wouldn't constitute a membership necessarily, I wouldn't have thought. Or it could open up the door to an overwhelming number of places where work is sold that fall under those parameters. You'd have to be quite careful about what defines that.

ACTING CHAIR: Conversely, you'd think that if it were mandatory and if we educated consumers, travellers and tourists, even as they come into the country as international visitors—as they get off the plane, someone gives them a piece of paper that says, 'If you're going to buy Aboriginal art, this is how you buy it.' It has to be a comprehensive approach, not just mandating the code.

Ms Young : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: I would have thought that if you did mandate to code, the pressure would be on these organisations that are selling stuff which is not authentic to change their selling practices or leave the business.

Ms Young : Certainly. I think that if you educate the consumer, the consumer will come to the code accredited venues. They're looking for it. It becomes a way to get more buy-in from other businesses, because they would be losing business if you can really start to educate the public. I don't think the code has had the capacity thus far to be able to achieve that sort of marketing strategy, even though it was clearly talked about, and we've discussed it with the code itself. Obviously, resourcing has been an issue for a rollout around that story. But I can assure you that the customers that come into our gallery are asking 'How do you operate? What makes you ethical?' We're actually telling that story in the gallery. It would be nice for some heavy lifting to be done elsewhere on that.

Ms CLAYDON: Hopefully we'll get to chat to the NT government. But certainly government backed initiatives, like Art Trail or others, that are trying to support an arts sector in Australia—one would hope that there is a condition to impact being members.

ACTING CHAIR: I don't know this, but I'm imagining that there would be very few arts centres in the Northern Territory who aren't members of the code. They would come under Desart.

Ms CLAYDON: That's true from evidence we've taken. I don't know how this would work but I hope there's some mechanism that would avoid the roadhouse suddenly appearing on the arts trail—something to suggest there's a bit of a red flag about that ethical practice perhaps.

Ms Young : You would hope so.

Ms CLAYDON: We'll do a bit of homework on that front. Thank you for your terrific insights and experience. It's been really useful to help us think through some of those issues.

Ms Young : You're welcome.

ACTING CHAIR: Margaret, do you want to say anything else before we finish up?

Ms Smith : No.


Ms Young : I'm fine, thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: We thank you both very much for coming along this afternoon. Thank you again for allowing us to visit earlier.

Ms Young : You're welcome. It was a pleasure, and thank you for having us here and having this discussion with us. It needs to happen, so thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you.