Title Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Database Senate Committees
Date 06-11-2019
Source Senate
Parl No. 46
Committee Name Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Page 7
Questioner CHAIR
Urquhart, Sen Anne
Hanson-Young, Sen Sarah
Responder Mr Henderson
Ms Torres
System Id committees/commsen/b8f9511b-76b2-4540-bc76-ab35362a750e/0002

Environment and Communications Legislation Committee - 06/11/2019

HENDERSON, Mr Geoffrey, President, Aboriginal Art Association of Australia

TORRES, Ms Charmaine, Director, Aboriginal Art Association of Australia

Evidence from Ms Torres was taken via teleconference—


CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement, and then the committee will ask you some questions.

Mr Henderson : Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before the inquiry. We want to set out a little bit of background as regards the association and what we see as the key issues to be addressed here. The Aboriginal Art Association is an industry body that was founded in 1999. It's a body comprised of artists, dealers, participants in the industry and supporters. There are about 400 members of the association, 160 of which are Indigenous artists. There are about 50 dealers, and those dealers come from both the private and public—it's a fully Indigenous-owned area. Professor Altman was speaking about the Warlukurlangu artists at Yuendumu. They are one of our members.

The board of this association is comprised of six people from the dealer sector and three Indigenous artists. The current composition of the board—there is one position open at the moment—is four Indigenous people and four non-Indigenous people. Very importantly, we are not an advocate for any one section of the industry. We are an advocate for the industry itself. What we are interested in is stated on our website—a vibrant, healthy, sustainable and, very importantly, inclusive Indigenous visual arts sector.

As regards how we got to the submission that was sent to this committee, most importantly, that submission was a bottom-up build from our Aboriginal Cultural Council. We turn all matters of culture that we look at as an association over to our Indigenous members. We have four standing members on the cultural council, and the cultural council calls in other experts from within the association where necessary. Charmaine is one of those members, and there are three other Indigenous people—so it is clearly only Indigenous people. Logically, the way we see it as a total organisation, there is not much point in myself, as a non-Indigenous person, expressing all sorts of opinions about Indigenous culture when we all have them. I understand, as president, that those matters are important, but what is most important to us is that those opinions come from our Indigenous members.

Briefly, on the key issues, what Charmaine, the other cultural council members and I drilled down to was that, first and foremost, we think it is very important wherever we go with this matter that the right of choice for Indigenous people is respected. For us, it is critical that that is maintained. That is very much part of the DNA of the association itself.

The second point is that we would suggest that this issue is 80-20'd. What we mean by 80-20'd is that we think there are some issues there where there is furious agreement across the industry, and from people outside the sector: 'It is just wrong. They can be dealt with under consumer legislation. Can we please get on and do that?' Senator Hanson-Young, you yourself were talking about some of this type of stuff. Putting it another way, we could go down a rabbit hole for five years on these matters and come out at the end and still be discussing the same stuff. There's stuff that does need to be discussed by appropriate bodies—I'll get to that and our suggestions there in a minute—but there's stuff that we think can just be dealt with. There are two very, very clear matters; firstly, for the marketing of non-Indigenous products as Indigenous, labelling. It's a no-brainer, I think, for any of us. The other is the proper remuneration of the Indigenous creators. That, hopefully—surely—we can deal with.

Going on to the third point, there's a whole bunch of actually what are cultural matters there. Our feedback, which we put in the submission, is that we think, with respect, it would be inappropriate—frankly, the feedback that the cultural council gave us is that it's offensive—for deeply cultural matters to be dealt with under consumer legislation. This is not about consumption; this is about people's culture. We think we should be looking to an appropriate body, for example, to lead a discussion on some of these things. By the way, the draft legislation brings up really, really important issues. It may be trying to catch too much. For example, probably you're all aware that a national Indigenous arts and cultural authority is being proposed at the moment. Maybe that's the right forum for some of these more difficult and nuanced issues to go before—just an idea.

The fourth point, from the point of view of key issues, that we see is that we've got to be aiming for informed choice, and that's informed choice for both the artist and the consumer—again something discussed with Professor Altman. What you were discussing were all things that resonated with myself and with the cultural council, from my discussions with them. At this point, anything that we do or that's proposed needs funding for education, and there are three groups that we see as needing to be educated: the retailers, the consumers and the artists. If we don't do that then, frankly, we've got no chance of getting traction. We really may as well pack up and go home.

The fifth point, really importantly, is funding for another group, and that's enforcement. This was the point that, in a different role, I made at the time of the establishment of the Indigenous Art Code. Without proper funding for enforcement, not just administration, we won't achieve what needs to be achieved in the industry.

They're what we see as the key points. The only other thing, from a point of view of introduction, is: we're here to help. The association and, in particular, members of our Aboriginal Cultural Council offer their ongoing assistance to this inquiry.

CHAIR: Thanks very much. Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: Thanks very much, Mr Henderson. Could you outline some of the benefits there would be for Indigenous communities in developing better projections around cultural expression and cultural artefacts—economic, cultural or otherwise. What are the benefits?

Mr Henderson : I would break that into two issues. You've got cultural issues and monetary issues. We talk about money a lot in this world, and money does make the world go round, including for Indigenous people. It's very important that they can put food on the table for their families. Firstly, some of the things we see out there are simply deeply culturally offensive—an unlicensed product manufactured in Indonesia marketed as coming from an Australian Indigenous person. So a benefit would be taking away just one of those many pieces of pain that Indigenous people in this country suffer and have had to suffer. There is clear benefit there.

From a monetary perspective, it's also important. Look at Warlukurlangu. Look at independent artists that are members of our association, such as Gloria Petyarre, Barbara Weir and Charmaine. They make very important amounts of money for themselves, their families and, whether they're independent artists or not, their communities, because money does go back to their communities, whether it's via an arts centre or not. So it's really important to their financial wellbeing, their families and their communities.

So, if we get this right, those boxes can be ticked. Will they be ticked to everyone's absolute pleasure, dotting every i and crossing every t? No, and that's going back to the 80-20 thing.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Ms Torres Pwerle, do you have anything you want to add to that?

Ms Torres : Yes. I just think the cultural stuff is sensitive and needs to be discussed elsewhere. Art is a part of the culture, but it is also separate, because there's a whole lot of different stuff. I talk to a lot of the people on my community, and their thoughts are that it's the artist's choice of what they do with their art and culture. That would make a difference, like me being able to provide for my family and everyone else to survive. But other people are doing your work for you—whatever. They're ripping off the work. They'll take from you.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. Mr Henderson, you talked about the 80-20, and I think you said the 80 could be dealt with under consumer law. What are your concerns with the current framework of this bill?

Mr Henderson : As I think we said in the submission, it's trying to solve everything. I think it's commendable, but I think it's suffering from overreach. The issues where we see it overreaching are issues that do need to be addressed, and we support that. It's just: how do we do this in a digestible fashion?

Senator URQUHART: Can you just break that down. I know it's probably a really big question, but does the bill address all the harms that you've identified from the exploitation of Indigenous cultural expression? What harms are not being addressed by this bill?

Mr Henderson : I don't think it's missing much out, quite frankly. Probably, if we sat in a room with some fellow people in the industry and discussed it, we'd say, 'Oh, yes, there is that one.' But again I think it's really striving to capture as much as possible. The words that we used in discussing it were, 'The kitchen sink's in here as well.' So I think pretty much what's important around this inauthentic art question has been captured. It's a matter of how we deal with it.

Senator URQUHART: Of course. Do you support the development of standalone legislation to address the broader harms related to the exploitation of Indigenous cultural expression beyond the Australian consumer law? Again, that probably goes back to your 80-20 point. Is that something that you would look at—standalone legislation?

Mr Henderson : We support those matters being referred to an appropriate body for discussion. They are so nuanced, they're so complex and there are so many different opinions. Frankly, I'm not sure that any of us can sit here at the moment and say that any piece of legislation will ever be able to address all of that. Again, I'm banging the drum here. Let's address the ones that we know, but let's not disrespect the hurt that's out there and those cultural issues from your first question by ignoring those other issues and putting them in the too-hard basket.

Senator URQUHART: So what does this 'appropriate body' look like?

Mr Henderson : For example, the National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority—

Senator URQUHART: Okay, so that—

Mr Henderson : or some such body. We're not wedded to or rusted on with any one solution. That body needs to be focused, though, on culture.

Senator URQUHART: Is that body up and running at the moment?

Mr Henderson : No, it's not. There's still a whole consultation process happening. I think the next major thing is in February. There's another gathering to happen.

Senator URQUHART: In terms of that body, are you satisfied that the representatives on that body will cover the appropriate issues that you're talking about?

Mr Henderson : That is to be determined. That's one of the challenges. I think everyone here sees it in Indigenous issues. Sometimes everyone wants to save it. It's not really necessary. It's great that you have a say. It would be like my being on the cultural council. I'd love to have a say, perhaps, but it's not for me. It's not where I should be. So my concern, and our concern as an association, is really that we do get that right—that we do have the right people at the table, so that it's not too broad and not too narrow.

Senator URQUHART: From your association's point of view, what does the make-up of that board or that body actually look like? What's the perfect mix? Is there a perfect mix? If you want to, take it on notice—it's a pretty big question.

Mr Henderson : Yes, if you don't mind. And here am I—I'm a whitefella. It's not for me to say. Charmaine would give her own answers to that. I think that's something to be referred to the cultural council—

Senator URQUHART: I am happy for you to take that on notice, because I'd be interested to see what, from your organisation's point of view, you see as that body's role.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you, Mr Henderson, for your submission and for taking some time, with your organisation, to look at this piece of legislation. You've made a number of specific recommendations, and I think that's really helpful. I want to tease out the ceremonial and sacred objects element. Could you talk us through what you're recommending there. I guess this is part of the trying to solve everything. I interpret from this that what you're saying is that this is an element that this bill might not have to deal with, so that we can deal with the bigger problem of the 80-20.

Mr Henderson : Simply put, yes. As I alluded to before, as in the submission, let's divide the cultural issues from the more mechanical issues—that's what we're saying. One of the things we're saying it in respect of is: as to these ceremonial and sacred objects, as I think I said, the feedback that we got was: 'Wow! You want to deal with these sacred objects under Consumer Law? Please not!'—or not even, 'Please not,' but just, 'No.' Maybe we've read it wrongly, as well, because, when we went through it to dissect, 'What's the bill trying to achieve?' we segmented it, and we segmented the response, then, into three separate areas. It appears to be a grouping here, a grouping here and a grouping here.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: This is similar to what I asked a previous witness to reflect on. I'm interested in this in terms of the fact that your organisation represents the industry and the sector as a whole, not just artists and not just dealers. Obviously, in order to keep that sector alive, you also need consumers who are prepared to purchase art. I imagine that—and please correct me if I'm misinterpreting this—a lot of the art that you're dealing with is at the higher end.

Mr Henderson : That's one of the interesting things about our organisation: it's a good cross-section. If I put aside the artist area for a minute: within that dealer area, yes, we have art centres and galleries such as my own. I don't deal with souvenirs or knick-knacks, basically I deal with acrylic on linen or ochre on linen or canvas. But we have members who are absolutely in this field who are big suppliers into the souvenir market.

In our submission we said, 'We're really happy to share with you what we see as best practice.' This association actually considered in detail the matter of Birubi Art. Mea culpa—they were a former member. We had a complaint lodged by one of our artist members about them, so we dealt with the Birubi issue internally. Of course, in dealing with that—in those days my hat was as the chairperson of the complaints and disputes body—we not only dealt with how this was for artists, including someone's Aboriginality, we also asked: 'What's best practice out there? What are our members doing and what should we recommend that all members do? What sorts of hurdles should they jump?'

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So in seeing souvenir shops flooded with materials and products that are not authentic at all, do you accept that this is the overriding issue that this piece of legislation is trying to deal with?

Mr Henderson : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And that would be the bulk of the products which pass through the marketplace in terms of frequency, quantity—

Mr Henderson : Excuse me—inauthentic products are the bulk of them, or souvenirs themselves?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, souvenirs.

Mr Henderson : Yes, I would agree, absolutely, from a volume perspective. Does the legislation seek to address the shortcomings? As stated, yes, I think it does—if we can remove the kitchen sink and a few other implements.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If the legislation were targeted on that problem would you feel comfortable with that?

Mr Henderson : Undoubtedly—absolutely.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Charmaine, I'm conscious that you're on the line and haven't really had an opportunity to speak much—I apologise for that. It's the difference in not seeing you in front of us! Would you be able to reflect on this as somebody having to live within and manage these issues on a day-to-day basis as an artist? What is your response to those of us in Canberra trying to come up with a solution to this?

Ms Torres : Is that for the stuff in general or for the souvenirs?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm happy for you to take both sides of that conversation.

Ms Torres : Okay. As an artist, and as someone who has been through Aboriginal law as well, the discussion of them is a ceremonial and sacred. I don't get to see the sacred stuff—that's a man thing. I don't like to discuss that part of it—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, that's fine.

Ms Torres : as a law woman and out of respect for my culture. But with souvenirs, my own opinion is that as long as the buyer knows that it's not authentic or whatever, that's fine with me. But copying the artwork isn't fine.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Copying?

Ms Torres : Yes, copying of an artwork. If an artist goes and makes a deal and they get a fair deal for the artwork to be used, that's fine. Personally I wouldn't do it, but it's everyone's choice. My main thing is that what we do with our art is our choice, as the artist and as the owners of the culture and everything. That's my opinion. Every artist has a choice. We don't all do the same sort of stuff. Some people are more educated or they have different opportunities to what I or other artists do, so, if they want to go that way and do reproduction or whatever of their own artwork, I think that's fine. That's their choice, so long as they know what they're doing and they get a fair deal. I just don't agree with how a lot of people get ripped off because they're not informed and there is no-one there to help them out.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Henderson, you wanted to—

Mr Henderson : Yes. I wanted to ask Charmaine to clarify something. Charmaine you said that if they are not authentic that's fine. In saying 'not authentic', do you mean not hand—

Ms Torres : The labelling. The labelling is there. For myself, I don't, because I don't deal with it. I'm dealing with my own artwork and my family's artwork. It's just not an issue that we really deal with, I suppose. We just do our own thing, but for other people to do our art and then sell it off as Aboriginal art, no, I don't agree with that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is this something that is spoken about a lot within the Aboriginal arts community?

Ms Torres : No, not really. It's only really if your own artwork gets on to something that people discuss it a lot. For instance, my auntie has some stuff on clothing. We were just talking about that sort of stuff, because she didn't get a fair deal and stuff like that. She didn't really understand her contract, but, apart from the little key chains and stuff like that, I'm talking about that sort of stuff. I haven't really looked at it, if it' mentions the artist or stuff like that, but I do know that it's made overseas and I just thought, 'No, I don't think that's right.' Of course not.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you'd find it wrong that you could walk through shops here in Melbourne and buy a boomerang that looks like it's been painted by an Aboriginal artist but in fact has been made in Indonesia.

Ms Torres : Yes. Personally, yes, because then it has taken the work away from the artist. Unless the artist has made a deal or something like that for there to be mass stuff, but yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If it's licensed, it's a different matter.

Ms Torres : Yes, that's right. It's up to everyone. Personally I wouldn't do it, but some people do.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence here today. If you have taken any questions on notice—I can't recall if you have—

Mr Henderson : Yes.

CHAIR: You have. Then if you could have a response back to the committee by 27 November that would be great.

Mr Henderson : Will that question be communicated—


Mr Henderson : Thank you for your time.