ARTISTS MUST GET THEIR JUST DESERTS
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), July 10, 2004 Saturday
When the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri went to court to prove
someone had stolen his dreamings, he emerged a victor -- and an
emotionally damaged man. Tjapaltjarri successfully defended his
sacred inheritance and the case secured Australia's first criminal
conviction involving art fraud. But Tjapaltjarri emerged from the
white man's legal system feeling as if he were somehow the criminal
Under cross-examination, bewildered by the adversarial justice system,
Tjapaltjarri believed he was being called a liar. He died in 2002,
on the day he was to be presented with the Order of Australia for
services to art and the indigenous community. For desert art expert
Dr Vivien Johnson, it is now time to see Tjapaltjarri as a hero
in the struggle to protect Aboriginal heritage from illegal ommercial
harvest. "I hope people will see his actions in this case as
heroic, for making a stand not only on his own behalf but for his
culture ... ," she says.
is also time, she believes, for a more committed acceptance among
art collectors of the notion of "family paintings", when
family members assist a senior artist on a painting. This is the
way successive generations learn about their Dreamings and how to
depict them. Failure to truly accept this way of working was taking
a heavy toll on the maintenance of Aboriginal culture, Johnson says.
Johnson says collaborative painting was a controversial issue at
the time Tjapaltjarri took his case to court, and some of the artist's
evidence was misunderstood as a result.
Johnson is an art scholar who specialises in the desert art movement
which started in Papunya in the early 1970s, and which has fanned
out across the country in an explosion of Aboriginal contemporary
art. The glamour auction houses devote specialist auctions to this
art, and Sotheby's next one will be previewed in London and Paris
as well as in Australia. Tjapaltjarri's distinctive work, depicting
his dreamings from his ancestral Anmatyerre country, north-west
of Alice Springs, became enormously sought-after.
artist travelled overseas and seemed to have bridged the chasm between
desert life and the jet age. But Johnson still winces at the memory
of the ordeal the court case represented for Tjapaltjarri -- and
the adverse way it affected the market for his work.
Johnson has initiated a symposium titled Authenticity in Western
Desert Art. It will be held on July 10 at the Art Gallery of
NSW, alongside the Johnson-curated retrospective exhibition of Tjapaltjarri's
a lot of Aboriginal people, copyright is a kind of shorthand for
cultural and intellectual property issues," Johnson says. "In
copyright [cases], someone takes your painting and presents it anonymously
without acknowledging you, and possibly in a context that's inappropriate.
But forgery is much more personal because in that case someone is
creating something that is not yours, and which may be an inaccurate
representation of your dreamings." An Aboriginal artist whose
designs are appropriated may be accused within their own culture
of representing someone else's dreaming or of not knowing how to
represent their own dreamings. These are dire transgressions of
suggests safeguards in the legal system, so Aboriginal artists could
seek redress for fraud and copyright infringements "without
being made to feel they're on trial".