There seems to be fixation, when outsiders come to Australia, with tourist shops here and there selling boomerangs, didgeridoos, kangaroo stuffed animals and of course, Aboriginal artwork. Similar to the way bugs are helplessly drawn to that eerie yellow streetlight, tourists flock to these stores to bring back a piece of “Australia” (the ‘Made in China’ sticker on that boomerang doesn’t seem to phase them).
During the Indigenous Studies class one student inquired about the ethics of white Australians, or even outsiders, copying the style of Aboriginal art known as dot-painting.
The lecturer’s response was graceful, yet very to the point. She said, “dots belong in the desert,” she continued to explain that dot-painting is a specific technique that comes from people in the central desert of Australia. “As you fly over the central desert, you can see that those dots mimic the landscape.” Flowers appear to be dots on bushes which are little, scrubby dots on the open landscape. Round, red rocks form larger dots. When it rains, big fat drops create dots on the sand. Dots belong in the desert. Art from other places around pre-European Australia come in all shapes and colors but they are unique to the landscape and materials available to each of those regions.
She held her arms out wide and said, “this issue is actually this big and it would take us a week to get to the bottom of it.” Not only is there the idea of location but also of method. In a Western understanding of art, we can create it, copy it, sell it, hang it in our home, keep it in storage. Art has value to us but we treat it differently. Painting dots on canvas is a modern translation of an old ceremony. For people of the central desert, such as the Pintupi, Luritja and Pitjantjatjara, dots were created in the desert sand itself using stones, feathers and other found materials. The important thing to understand is that the process and materials of this creation are more important than the finished product. It is ceremonious.
The commercialization of Aboriginal art is a fascinating clash of cultures, one I am not nearly learned enough to discuss in great depth. However, it is clear to see that commercialization has most certainly taken place. If you hop on a bus from here within 10 minutes of almost any direction you’ll find a place where you can buy a boomerang, a coffee mug, a keychain, all bearing a replica of a dot painting. Of course this artwork came from a printer thousands of miles away in a factory operated by people who may have never even been to Australia.
Of course there are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artist now who utilize dot-painting techniques but they do so with the intention of sending an honoring nod in the direction of those who have come before. In the end it seems that as with almost anything, there is a certain caution that is respectable to approach situations with. But as artists we bounce ideas off of each other, we copy what is great and it makes it greater. We add connections to other artists who have inspired us.
We do this because this is how we as artists relate to the world.
But there is clearly a difference between this approach and the local bug-zapper that draws in thousands looking for a material representation of a fun experience.