Selling Yarns


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More than money

Selling Yarns 2: Innovation for sustainability – March 2009

Senior Curator of Indigenous Studies at the Queensland Musuem Trish Barnard's presentation from the Selling Yarns 2 conference in which she critiques the authenticity of Indigenous arts and craft objects made for the tourist market. She argues that appropriation of Indigenous motifs can disadvantage Indigenous artists with respect to the integrity of their represented cultures.


More than Money focused on concerns over the tourist market from an Indigenous perspective, and how the success of Government funded programs are evaluated. I am particularly interested in the direction contemporary Indigenous arts and crafts are taking in Queensland and the potential devaluation of our arts and crafts.

The art produced by Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, are the embodiment of creative expression, particularly in Queensland where they reflect the States uniqueness and geographic diversity. Queensland is the only state to have two distinct Indigenous cultural groups, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, with many more cultures within those two groups. It also includes the unparalleled unique cultures from the rainforest groups of north Queensland.

Although my research on appropriation has identified concerns within the arts and crafts industry from an Indigenous perspective regarding the direction of the tourist products and the implications on the authenticity of Queensland Indigenous cultures. I should emphasise that 'fine arts or visual arts' are not included in my research but rather the affordable portable arts and crafts sought by tourists and consumers. Tourist items produced in Queensland attract national and international attention, but are predominately driven by the market demand for a product that often reflects appropriation of the Indigenous motif. This practice can disadvantage the artists with respect to the integrity of their cultures represented. These issues are associated with the perceived 'cultural experience' for visitors who are naive in determining which motifs and products are authentic.

So what are non-Indigenous dealers communicating to the market about our Indigenous cultures or are the appropriated motifs purely decorative? Is there a cultural context in which some objects are produced? These concerns raise questions on how we control self presentation. What are these arts and crafts products saying about our cultures? The aim of my Masters research is to place North Queensland's Indigenous arts and crafts in the psyche of artists, arts workers and critical authorities, to challenge the conventional paradigms of the tourist industry.

The Indigenous arts market is estimated nationally to be worth millions of dollars annually although there are no statistics available to determine what the ratio is between fine art and tourist art. Many artists are disadvantaged by appropriation by non-Indigenous dealers who are making financial gains from marketing arts and crafts as genuine Indigenous products.

Tourist items promoting Aboriginal Australia made by non-Indigenous and non-Australian makers, reinforce appropriation or misrepresentation of Indigenous Australia, and capitalise on the popularity of Indigenous Australian culture. Such products have risen in popularity, especially in North Queensland, and highlight issues of authenticity. It's more than money at stake here, we must be more aware of the integrity of our cultures in Queensland, and be conscious of how we want people to see us. Does our product have integrity, credibility? Also, are the tourist products made by Indigenous people becoming hybrid Indig-kitch, indistinguishable from mass produced Indigenised products produced for the Australian market from places such as China and Malaysia? These questions prompt us as Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders to look seriously at why we are making art and crafts and how we are expressing our culture?

I am hoping to raise an awareness of the potential devaluation of cultures within Queensland that are currently overlooked in preference to groups from the Northern Territory who are perceived as presenting the 'authentic' Indigenous Australian experience. It is time we took a step back and looked at what we are making and why, and take full advantage of current funding opportunities towards developing a sustainable and credible industry that disassociates ourselves with the hybrid tourist product.

There have been various programs developed to encourage and support credible arts and crafts and promote cultural retention. In Queensland, more Indigenous people have an occupation in the visual arts or crafts than any other state or territory, and with 30% living in remote areas, funded programs play an integral role in developing and promoting community identity and providing further opportunities. 1

Accredited study, training or traineeships are often only six months long, some study links to Certificate 2 or 3 in Business Administration which is a twelve month course by correspondence with a local supervisor. Yet with limited or no opportunities in a remote community for such a qualification the withdrawal rate is high and does not always guarantee a position at an arts or cultural centre. At the Queensland Museum we informally take placements assisting communities to develop basic curatorial and collection management skills, and offer ongoing support. This provides an opportunity to be more actively involved in self presentation of information and therefore claim ownership.

Visiting arts advisors into communities have good intentions and each bring fresh ideas but some are pre-programmed to produce objects seen already on the market and rarely assist artists to further investigate and research the cultural material from the group that they identify with. Therefore we get more hybrid appropriation from desert and top end styles. Across the state, people also articulate to me the need for commitment from an arts advisor to stay longer than six to twelve months in the community for some continuity, and truly understand the culture behind an artist's work. A three year contract with a six months probation period, would provide long term projection and a sound business plan for the direction of the arts and crafts centres. This has been proven with the commitment from arts advisors in Lockhart River and Yarrabah who nurtured the art and craft centres to gain a broad profile for the artists and the quality of work produced. Arts advisors could become more active by providing the artists with skills to research traditional culture for those who have suffered significant cultural disruption and no longer have access to the valuable knowledge of Elders.

The direction of contemporary Indigenous art and crafts is not necessarily about maintaining credibility through the use of natural traditional materials, we can utilise new commercial materials, and be more innovative utilising existing skills and knowledge. Artists in some communities are also beginning to embrace new materials using traditional techniques handed down to them. Raffia for weaving is being used in Kowanyama and Aurukun to keep up with current art market trends. Plastic has been used by weavers from the Jumbun community, but the women have not pursued this further and it needs further exposure and encouragement. For many years, in my discussions with weavers across North Queensland, I learnt that they felt as if they were compromising their weaving and their culture by using commercial materials and this explained their reluctance. There are also difficulties in acquiring or gaining access to natural traditional materials located on private property which has led them to the realisation that commercial materials may become the only option. We reserve the right to preserve our cultures as we present it, which is fundamental to our understanding of who we are.

Pricing is also becoming an issue for consideration. Novice artists are coming to expect the considerably high prices paid for work by established skilled artists and encouraged to believe they can get such prices on the market. The reality for a novice weaver or artist is their work may sit unsold for a very long time. Other options include developing a cohesive business plan to produce a set number of objects at a lesser price and perhaps marketing them though the local arts centre website as does Maningrida Arts and Crafts centre. Web portals can also be used to take orders providing a sound small business turnover, decent cash flow and raising the profile of the artist. The arts and crafts have more value when accompanied by cultural information as opposed to an aesthetic art piece with limited understanding of the culture behind it.

I am not advocating that we should not be making tourist arts and crafts to sell, but rather the challenge is to maximize our opportunities and value the support and initiatives provided by Government funded programs. In the absence of legislated ethical and equitable guidelines for our arts and crafts, we need to be more diligent in providing authentic products and clarifying the differences in product for the end consumer. There is support for a Prescribed Code to be introduced by our Government, but while the 'Indigenous Art Commercial Code of Conduct' remains voluntary, we will continue to witness the impact and loss of a considerable amount of revenue and credibility because of disreputable artists and operators across all States.

Without appropriating from other Indigenous groups, we can reaffirm our unique Queensland cultures and reserve the right to share ideas with other groups without sacrificing the integrity of our cultures and values. In doing so, let's ask ourselves, "am I making art for art sake, just to make money, or, does my art show the world our unique Queensland culture/s? And do we have control over self presentation and the misleading hybrid product currently available?" Indigenous arts and crafts are more than a commodity, and our material culture is worth more than money.


Trish Barnard is the Senior Curator, Indigenous Studies in the Cultures and Histories program at the Queensland Museum. She is currently based at their Museum of Tropical Queensland campus in Townsville. Trish is a descendant of the Yambina people of Central Queensland and has experience in the interpretation of collections and the curation of exhibitions, and co-curated the first major survey exhibition of art from Cape York, Story Place: Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest at the Queensland Art Gallery (2003 with Peter Denham). She contributed to the successful 'Dandiiri Maiwar: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures Centre' at the Queensland Museum, and the Enchanted Rainforest at Museum of Tropical Queensland. She is interested in new developments and innovations within the industry and regularly writes for exhibition catalogues, commentary on contemporary Indigenous art issues and embraces opportunities to enhance public understanding. Trish is an Honorary Research Adviser with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Studies Unit at University of Queensland, and is continuing her Masters studies through the James Cook University.


  1. Partnerships Queensland Baseline report 2006