Indigenous Issues + Graphic Design

As someone who works with Indigenous issues in graphic design and art, I get asked frequently about what is okay to do. Most Australians and most workers in graphic design have little or no understanding of the issues involved in working with Aboriginal people, design and artwork. People generally ask the question, without realising that the answer is long, full of qualifications and is something that requires discussion and thought. I’ve been meaning to write about this issue for a long time, especially referencing some of the design decisions that we’ve made over the past ten years. The thought of writing about this topic has been quite daunting, so I’ve put it off. But rather than continue to put it off, I’ll start with a first post and go from there.

The first concept to understand is the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of design and intellectual property. In a traditional Western sense, intellectual property is about the individual, even where that “Individual” is a corporation. Original designs are created and will fall under standard Australian or International copyright laws. As an individual your designs are protected for your lifetime plus seventy years (depending on the jurisdiction). There are also protections and mechanisms for redress where you copyrights have been breached.

From an Indigenous perspective, the issues are less clear cut and fall under the realm of cultural intellectual property. That is, there are cultural dimensions to intellectual property that are not considered under the Australian law. Some of these issues include –

  • designs (ie. patterns) may be produced by an artist in 2013, so while they’re original in one context, they may also be copies of patterns that have reproduced for thousands of years. Therefore they do not fall under the purview of Australian copyright law as they are not original
  • Designs that are literally thousands of years old, may be, under Australian copyright law, in the public domain
  • Under cultural understanding, designs and patterns may be owned by a whole community and their future descendants, not an individual person or corporation

How does this impact on the non-Indigenous graphic designer?

From an Indigenous perspective, there are a range of issues at play.

  1. Representation is a political issue – “Representation” in this post, is about how a group and/or individual is represented in popular culture and beyond. From a self-determination perspective (ie. Aboriginal people controlling our own representation, NOT being subjected to racist, condescending and ignorant representations by others), it is imperative that Aboriginal people are involved in every aspect of the design/creative process. Too often, non-Indigenous designers focus on particular aspects of Aboriginal visual culture, and completely fail to grasp regional and local nuance.
  2. Appropriation is theft – There have been many high profile cases of non-Indigenous companies using Aboriginal designs, without permission, in order to make products for commercial gain. Sometimes this theft has occurred in breach of Australian copyright laws, while other times, in breach of cultural laws.
  3. Using patterns without understanding – Some of the worst culprits of cultural theft are those commercial entities who desire to make profits using Aboriginal designs, without giving anything back to the Aboriginal community and having no connection to Aboriginal communities whatsoever. While designs can be developed that have an “Aboriginal look and feel”, and are not technically appropriation or theft, it is still unethical. Tourist shops are probably the worst offenders in this instance.

How and where to proceed?

  1. If you’re a non-Indigenous designer and you have a client who wants to use an Aboriginal design or wants you to create an Aboriginal design, you need to undertake due diligence if you wish to have an ethical practice and approach. Do not go to art books and copy or adapt Aboriginal art for your graphic design. This is appropriation and theft.
  2. Engage an Aboriginal artist as equal partner – In your community (yes, the one you live in), identify an Aboriginal artist who could be an equal partner to develop designs that are appropriate. Ensure that they are given attribution, and are remunerated as an equal.

If you’re an appropriator of Aboriginal designs and patterns you will be identified and publicly name and called-out on this behaviour. Do yourself a favour and do the right thing at the start of your creative process, not at the end.

Further reading:

Terri Janke Our Cutlure Our Future: http://frankellawyers.com.au/media/report/culture.pdf