Paper presented at the Art Crime Protecting Art, Protecting Artists and Protecting Consumers Conference.
Indigenous cultural values, intellectual property and modes of artistic expression vary greatly from tribe to tribe, and region to region. Far from being static, Aboriginal culture is constantly and dynamically evolving. Aboriginal artists are restricted in what they can depict without causing offence.
There were, in Australia, some 600 different tribes, before Europeans arrived, and there are still more than 250 tribes that are relatively intact culturally. Each of these has their own stories, song and dance and it is considered offensive to "steal" images, dances and songs that do not belong to their own clan or tribal group. In other words, there is not ONE Aboriginal culture, there are hundreds. Young people in traditional communities have to earn the right to certain knowledge by going through initiation...for more important cultural information and stories they must go through many initiations, which often involve physical and mental hardship. What sort of message are tribal initiates receiving when any artist, black or white, can paint whatever they like, appropriating other peoples cultures. Whilst small tribal groups struggle to maintain language and cultural conventions, their young people drift away from their communities, indulging in alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing and other forms of self inflicted.