Olympic Hosts Remain Sensitive to Native Culture Aborigine Artists Long Exploited

Article excerpt

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia -- A bright-eyed child's smiling face displaying the "spirit of Australia." Tumbling boomerangs symbolizing the limbs of an Olympic athlete. Thousands of colored dots on canvas mapping the nation's vast, dry interior -- spiritually as well as geographically.

The distinctive artforms of Aborigines have become some of Australia's strongest icons, from billboard ads for major corporations to the official logo of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Their work is found in museums around the world.

But Australia's record on its treatment of indigenous artists and the millenia-old culture that underpins their work is stained by exploitation and disrespect.

Since the introduction of modern art materials to a group of Aborigine artists in the 1970s prompted a renaissance, Aboriginal art has grown to become perhaps Australia's most important cultural export. Certainly it's one of the most popular; Aboriginal images now rival Crocodile Dundee and kangaroos as symbols of Australia overseas.

But the surge in popularity has given rise to unscrupulous dealers and manufacturers who are interested in cash, not culture. They have taken advantage of Aborigines, who often live in isolated communities in Australia's vast desert or the tropical north.

Artists whose paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars have been paid in cans of beer. Ancient taboos have been broken by companies that reproduce sacred totems on dish towels and underwear. Allegations of fakery abound.

"For far too long, many non-indigenous people have exploited indigenous culture through the production of Aboriginal art and cultural products not of Aboriginal origin," says the National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association, a non-government group created to combat the problem.

As the Sydney Olympics approach, "this not only compromises Aboriginal cultural values, but also Australia's international identity and integrity in the tourism market," the group says.

Early this year, the association launched a national system giving approved producers permission to use a special authenticity label -- a guarantee to buyers as well as a safeguard for artists. It is too early to measure the effectiveness of the system, its proponents say.

Aborigine art in the style known as "Western Desert" -- characterized by tiny dots in bright colors forming depictions of Dreamtime stories -- hangs in galleries and private collections around the world.

Similarly, the "X-ray style" -- depicting kangaroo, barramundi fish and other animals in ochre on slabs of straightened eucalyptus bark -- can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at Sotheby's and Christies' art auctions.

More affordable are the millions of artifacts sold daily at tourist stores across Australia. There are carved animals, spears, digeridus -- hollowed-out tree branches that make a rich drone when blown through correctly -- printed T-shirts, scarves and socks. …