The truth is that imitation and exchange have long been integral in the development of human societies. Begging, borrowing or stealing other people’s ideas drives socio-cultural and economic change around the globe
ADELAIDE - Raymond Sigimet’s article, ‘The cruel and brazen theft of bilum designs’, has raised a significant issue and in so doing exposes a veritable witches brew of tricky problems.
Rightly, he regards the use of traditional bilum designs for other purposes as an example of what is commonly called 'cultural appropriation' – which occurs when cultural features or artefacts of a group are adopted by other groups or individuals in an exploitative or disrespectful way.
This is a highly contentious issue at the moment because some people, especially those who regard themselves as 'woke' (sensitive to oppression and injustice in society), are expressing outrage and indignation at what they see as cultural theft.
Their displeasure is visited especially upon those who, for example, have the temerity to adopt forms of dress, decoration or behaviour not consistent with their own ethnic traditions.
To my mind, this way of thinking is a form of racism which deems it impermissible for a person from one ethnicity or nationality to adopt the dress, hair style or music of another ethnic or national group.
The truth is that this process of imitation or exchange has long been an integral part of the development of human societies.
Begging, borrowing or stealing other people’s ideas drives socio-cultural and economic change across the globe.
China has over the last 30 years or so consciously made an effort to do exactly this in order to achieve close to economic and military parity with its great competitor, the USA.
Just to add a layer of complexity to an already vexed issue, Raymond mentions the notion of copyright as it might apply to traditional patterns and designs, whether they be for bilums or other traditional forms of craft or art.
I have had very little exposure to the law as it pertains to copyright but what I have learned is that it is a diabolically complex area of the law.
There have been and continue to be hugely expensive cases revolving around matters like who owns the proprietary rights to the name 'Ugg Boots' or other brands, as well as things like the design of items such as footwear, hand bags, machinery and so forth.
In Australia, trying to figure out a way to protect the rights of the First Nations peoples with respect to their traditional designs is still a work in progress.
For example, some white artists want to paint in the dot painting style used by First Nations peoples since time immemorial.
Is this theft or merely paying respect to a style of painting in the same manner as might be done for the Pre Raphaelite or Impressionist or Surrealist styles of painting?
Copying is not necessarily theft, although I suppose it is a form of cultural appropriation.
To focus back on bilums, I think that their value lies less in their design than in the fact that they are typically handmade artefacts.
A fabric may be printed with a design derived from traditional sources but it remains purely derivative in nature and thus has no inherent or added value beyond its purpose as a piece of clothing.
A traditionally woven bilum, on the other hand, is entirely original, has utility and has been created in an entirely traditional manner.
It is thus a genuinely creative piece of art. I think that this point of difference is what needs to be protected.
I do not pretend to know quite how this can be done other than creating a regulated market process in which the works of individual craft workers and artists are formally recognised, marked and perhaps even catalogued in much the same manner as the broader art market works.
What I do know is that it will be largely futile to try to stop of use of traditional bilum designs in other products unless and until there is some sort of legal framework in place to facilitate this.