Respecting Aboriginal Heritage and Culture in Australian Comics

Image Credit

Cover image from Sorry Day by Coral Vass (author) and Dub Leffler (illustrator)
Published by the National Library of Australia
Image used with permission from Dub Leffler
© Dub Leffler, 2018
Aboriginal Flag
© Harold Thomas, 1971

Respecting Aboriginal Heritage and Culture
in Australian Comics

Guidelines for Non-Indigenous Comics Creators

By Julie Ditrich

 

The Australian comics scene is going from strength to strength as more comics creators enter the arena and generate uniquely told graphic narratives that focus on Australian content, some of which includes themes from Aboriginal culture and heritage.

A portion of this material is written or drawn by comics creators identifying themselves as Indigenous Australians who have genuine ancestral connections to mob and country and therefore represent authentic voices to their readers. However, non-Indigenous Australians are also beginning to explore this subject matter, and some are coming perilously close to making colossal mistakes in their representation of Indigenous culture. This suggests a critical question that needs to be asked: Do non-Indigenous comics creators have the moral right to enter this creative territory? And if so, are they inadvertently doing more harm than good?

When non-Indigenous authors and artists from any media create art about the lives, history and spiritual perspectives of our First Nations people, they expose themselves to a clear and present danger… that is, at the very least they can potentially misrepresent important facts, concepts and ideas, and, at the very worst, they can be accused of cultural appropriation and cause great distress in Aboriginal communities.

Wikipedia (2018) defines cultural appropriation (AKA cultural misappropriation) as:

“a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power”.

The “elements” that have a dark history of cultural appropriation include: visual art styles; fashion, jewellery and ceremonial wear; iconography, including totems and symbols used for worship; artefacts; spiritual traditions and ceremonies; language and names; music and dance, including the usage of musical instruments; supernatural or elemental entities or beings whether they resemble humans, beasts or monsters; weaponry and utensils; and mythology. (NOTE: In Indigenous Australian culture the correct terminology for the latter category is “Creation stories” or “Dreaming stories”.)

Cultural appropriation takes the form of copying and / or distorting these elements and misusing them outside of their original cultural context and the expressed requests of members of the originating culture. The impact can be deemed insensitive but, at its extreme, offensive to the point of desecration.

Australia has a dubious history of cultural appropriation in visual media. Although none of the cited examples below emanate from the comics medium, they underpin how insidious the practice is and serve as powerful reminders about what not to do.

One example involved Elizabeth Durack, a Western Australian writer and artist of Irish-Australian extraction, who painted a series of artworks and signed them with the Aboriginal man’s name – Eddie Burrup – then passed them off as genuine Indigenous art. The paintings were featured in various Aboriginal Art Exhibitions in galleries all over Australia, and when the news broke about their provenance, the art world exploded in controversy.

More recently, and without consultation and permission from the traditional land owners, a business owner from Katoomba, Blue Mountains, NSW commissioned an eight-tonne sculpture of a Wandjina to sit outside a wellness centre and art gallery. The problem was that Wandjinas are associated with the Kimberley region of Western Australia and nowhere else. Moreover, the Wandjinas are the supreme Creators and have great spiritual significance to the Mowanjum people in that area. Only a few Aboriginal artists gain the right, after years of intensive initiations and ceremonies, to depict Wandjinas in visual art. As a consequence, the sculpture caused great consternation in the Aboriginal community at large, including the Mowanjum people. The NSW Land and Environment Court upheld a decision by the Blue Mountains City Council to remove the sculpture. (Learn more about the case here—be sure to read the comments.)

On a personal level, several years ago on a Christmas shopping trip to a NSW country town I witnessed an Australian shop owner painting dots and Aboriginal motifs on some polished stones. I asked her if she had Aboriginal heritage and she sheepishly said no and admitted to selling the stones as souvenirs. I told her about the various guidelines and protocols that were available to help guide people through the issues of cultural appropriation, but I suspect she continued with her trade, never addressing the ethical (and indeed fraudulent) nature behind what she was doing, let alone conducting any research about the symbolic nature of the artwork and its importance to the Aboriginal people within that region.

To combat the global problem of cultural appropriation, the United Nations passed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2006 whereupon Article 31 states:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.
  2. In conjunction with indigenous peoples, States shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of these rights.

The debate about cultural appropriation is polarising. Some argue that authors have the right to invoke their imagination and exercise their intellectual freedom to create characters from various cultures and society. Others like Indigenous Australian visual artist and a Djanbung woman of the Bundjalung nation, Bronwyn Bancroft, invoke the belief that it is important to maintain cultural boundaries and prevent the further plunder of Aboriginal art.

Indeed, in a recent debate, award-winning Australian author Thomas Keneally reassessed his approach and treatment of the lead Aboriginal character in his Booker Prize-nominated novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972) in context with the latest views of cultural appropriation, and affirmed that:

We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder, as long as we treat them with cultural respect…

But that is as far as the controls of cultural appropriation should go. We should approach other cultures as if they are equal to ours, with affection and respect. If we move into them, if we write our characters from them, we should be fully informed.

Aboriginal author, illustrator and law academic Ambelin Kwaymullina (2015) talks about how Indigenous writers are troubled by representations of the Indigenous peoples around the globe by non-Indigenous authors for several reasons, one of which is that:

…they occupy the space where our voices might have spoken, crowding out our struggles and identities in favour of a version of Indigenous peoples that bears no relationship to Indigenous realities. I’ve sometimes had aspiring non-Indigenous writers tell me they want to write about Indigenous peoples to fill the ‘gap’ which exists because Indigenous voices are not speaking. My question to such writers is: are you certain we’re not speaking?

For Australia to continue having a unique and robust comics community that represents the core values of inclusiveness, diversity, authenticity, transparency, and respect we need to be mindful about how to portray Indigenous themes in our published works so we do not trample on the culture and heritage, as well as the rights, of our First Nations people.

So, here are some guidelines and tips on entering this domain:

  • Set your intention. Come from the inner perspective of the uninitiated and the ignorant, from the seeker who wants to learn, rather than from the perspective of arrogance and entitlement.
  • As a starting point, read and absorb the principles and protocols within these three essential publications: Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing and Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian visual arts published by the Australia Council for the Arts, as well as Guidelines for the ethical publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and research from those communities, published by Aboriginal Studies Press.
  • If your comics work contains an Aboriginal motif, character, storyline or other aspect in culture or history, then do your research across multiple sources and platforms—most importantly examine it from the Aboriginal perspective.
  • Avoid reproducing Indigenous artists’ works without consent and attribution, and highlight the source material.
  • Avoid copying or inventing Indigenous motifs or designs whether it be in the background or foreground of your comics artwork without thorough research, consultation and permission from cultural guardians.
  • Understand that Indigenous Australian culture and heritage, including art representations, is nuanced and differs across country and language group.
  • Consult and / or collaborate with an Indigenous cultural custodian or community in your research.
  • Obtain consent to publish material that may have been shared with you.
  • Be mindful of issues deemed secret and confidential, especially men’s business and women’s business.
  • Understand the issues behind oral storytelling traditions and copyright, attribution and control of intellectual property.
  • Utilise contracts that include recognition, protection, royalties and other legal matters if collaborating with an Aboriginal person, group or community.

Cultural appropriation is a complex and delicate issue. In order to avoid becoming a perpetrator, however innocent or covert or overt, be mindful rather than arbitrary in your approach. The takeaway is that if you choose to write about Indigenous characters or themes in your comics stories then honour protocols and best practice methodologies and approach your project with sensitivity and respect.

 

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

Australia Council for the Arts. (2007). Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian visual arts. (2nd Ed). Australia Council for the Arts: Strawberry Hills, NSW, Australia. Retrieved: 2 February 2018: http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/symphony/extension/richtext_redactor/getfile/?name=daaf1afd6d719315db5e5e174a1da961.pdf

Australia Council for the Arts. (2007). Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing. (2nd Ed). Australia Council for the Arts: Strawberry Hills, NSW, Australia. Retrieved 2 February 2018: http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/symphony/extension/richtext_redactor/getfile/?name=fc8a5cc73467cb405e8943ae14975da7.pdf

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2015). Guidelines for the ethical publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strais Islander authors and research from those communities. Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, ACT, Australia. Retrieved on 2 February 2018: http://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/asp/ethical-publishing-guidelines.pdf

Damien Carrick. (29 June 2010). Wading into the Wandjina controversy. ABC Radio Network. Retrieved 3 February 2018: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lawreport/wading-into-the-wandjina-controversy/3032658

Angelina Hurley. (29 November 2017). Indigenous cultural appropriation: what not to do. The Guardian. Retrieved 3 February 2018: https://theconversation.com/indigenous-cultural-appropriation-what-not-to-do-86679

Jens Korff. (31 August 2014). What are Wandjinas? Creative Spirits Info. Retrieved 3 February 2018: https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/arts/what-are-wandjinas

Kwaymullina, Ambelin. (4 May 2015). ‘We Need Diverse Books Because’: An Indigenous perspective on diversity in young adult and children’s literature in Australia. The Wheeler Centre. Retrieved 17 February 2018: https://www.wheelercentre.com/notes/we-need-diverse-books-because-an-indigenous-perspective-on-diversity-in-young-adult-and-children-s-literature-in-australia

United Nations. (2006). UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Australian Human Rights Commission. Retrieved: 2 February 2018: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/un-declaration-rights-indigenous-peoples-1

Walsh, John. (25 July 2000). The scandalous outing of Eddie Burrup. Independent. Retrieved on 2 February 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/the-scandalous-outing-of-eddie-burrup-734163.html

Wikipedia. (Last edited: 29 January 2018), Cultural appropriation. Wikipedia. Retrieved: 3 February 2018: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation

Zhou, Naaman. (Last modified: 20 September 2017). Thomas Keneally ‘Cultural appropriation is dangerous’. The Guardian. Retrieved on 2 February 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/08/thomas-keneally-cultural-appropriation-is-dangerous

Further Reading About Indigenous Australian Comics

Hirst, Roslyn. (4 August 2015). Indigenous Australians in Comics: A look at how graphic depictions of Indigenous Australians have changed over time. National Library of Australia. Retrieved on 5 February 2018: https://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/fringe-publishing/2015/07/30/aboriginal-australians-torres-strait-islanders-and-comics

Pearson, Luke. (16 January 2017). The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal representation in comic books and capes. SBS. Retrieved on 5 February 2018: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/01/10/wombat-kaptn-koori-aboriginal-representation-comic-books-and-capes

© Julie Ditrich, 2018

About Julie Ditrich

Julie Ditrich
Julie Ditrich is a contributing writer to the Australian Comics Journal, as well as the founder and CEO of Comics Mastermind™, an Australian-based professional development service that provides support to evolving comics creators who want to transition from hobbyists to professional and connect powerfully with their readers.

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