The Daily Telegraph
(Sydney), July 10, 2004 Saturday

Byline: Elizabeth Fortescue

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 party.

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.

It 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.

Dr 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.

The 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.

Now 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 work.

"For 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 traditional law.

Johnson 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".