At one Australia Day fair many years ago, I was taught how to do traditional Aboriginal dot painting using the end of a pencil and some watercolours. At that time, I did not know that what I was really doing was treating a deep-seated cultural practice as a fun children’s hobby.
Funnily enough, over time, I have seen the appropriation of the dot as a cultural practice manifest itself in my own culture, with the rising trend of wearing bindis as fashion accessories. In the Rig Veda, the earliest known Hindu Sanskrit text, the bindi symbolises many things—the sixth chakra, the seat of concealed wisdom or the third eye—but not the use of facial stickers for youth at music festivals to score hipster ‘cred.’
Nevertheless, the personal impact of this practice has allowed me to better recognise how Aboriginal art is so prominently misappropriated in everyday life. In Australia, dot paintings have become a staple feature of commercial art trade at best, through to Australian tourism’s souvenir tokens at worst.
In 2012, New York-based fashion label Rodarte launched a Fall collection ‘inspired’ by Aboriginal art and culture, in which designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy predominantly featured dot paintings and rock art across a range of printed fabrics and textiles. The label used the licensed work of one Aboriginal artist, the late Benny Tjangala, who would be receiving royalties for his work as a result. The question of whether the ready-to-wear collection had ignored an inextricable link between Aboriginal art, land and spirituality rose among artists, scholars, and lawyers. The answer should immediately have been yes; Rodarte’s use of Indigenous art for fashion was just another instance of blatant cultural appropriation.
We must question whether commercial art allows for the transferral of agency to Aboriginal artists. Since the 1980s, a rising international Aboriginal art market has helped to improve the economy of Indigenous communities and enabled access to new avenues for a political voice. For many, art has become a form of social action, where artists are in charge of their own representation and construction of a modern, collective identity. But at the same time, the dot paintings that often hang off the walls of white middle-class homes represent only a certain subset of Aboriginal culture, that which survives in a vexed marketplace, forced to cater to buyers’ tastes.
In 2003, Aboriginal artist Richard Bell won (rather ironically) the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award for his 2.4 metre by 3.6 metre painting with the words “Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing” leaping out from it. Bell told ABC Radio that he was at a loss as to why his painting even won. For him, the message of the painting was loud and clear: Aboriginal art presents a microcosm of modern race relations in Australia.
In the absence of an understanding of Aboriginal art presenting a story, life and very essence of Aboriginal connection to land and kin, these artworks instead are reduced to someone’s inspiration for an outfit or an art project. It is after all, a White thing.
Illustration by Emily Johnson.