‘How can NFTs promote and preserve Indigenous art?’
Written by Molly Perry-Clark and James Cottam
Fake Indigenous Art
Art forgery is no new phenomenon. But the counterfeiting of work produced by Indigenous artists violates much more than just the creators’ intellectual property.
“Indigenous culture is clearly part of the Australian tourism brand to lure people to the country and we can also see that Indigenous art and motifs are used extensively” explains Dr. Anne Poelina, an Indigenous Australian academic. “The participation of this branding either benefiting Indigenous businesses or open to participation in the branding process seems to be neglected.”
George MacDonald, of Simon Fraser University estimates that the value of Aboriginal art sold in Vancouver alone is around $100 million and that approximately 1,600 people depend on these sales for their livelihoods.
Issues around inauthentic indigenous art have become so widespread that the Arts Law Foundation of Australia estimates that as much as 80 percent of all ‘Indigenous’ products available in stores are actually fakes. The AtBC (Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC) also found that 80 percent of ‘Aboriginal’ products sold in Canada were inauthentic and questioned to what extent the remaining 20 percent sufficiently remunerated or involved First Nations artists.
“Sadly, what happens now in the market is that there’s so many non-Indigenous businesses and organisations and artists that are realizing that there’s such a popularity within Indigenous art and culture. And they want to jump into that market,” says John Smith Gumbula, an artist and Senior Cultural Ambassador for the Indigenous First Nations People of Queensland, Australia. “They’re not speaking to representatives of the communities. They’re not talking to cultural ambassadors. They’re not speaking to Indigenous cultural advisors or people from the communities. They’re creating things just for the money.”
In an attempt to crack down on these practices, the Australian Federal Court issued a $2.3M AUD penalty to wholesaler Birubi Art Pty Ldt in 2019, after they falsely claimed that their products, which were produced in Indonesia and subsequently sold to numerous retail outlets across Australia, were ‘Authentic Indigenous art’. “This penalty sends a strong message to anyone considering selling fake Australian Aboriginal style art as the genuine article” said Australian government spokesperson Sarah Court following the outcome of the court case. Not only did the company’s actions deceive consumers, she says, but “the misleading conduct has the potential to undermine the integrity of the industry and reduce opportunities for Australian Aboriginal peoples.” While the threat that fake Indigenous art poses to consumer rights and livelihoods of First Nations People is undoubtedly serious, this type of counterfeiting affects indigenous communities at a much deeper level.
The creation and distribution of inauthentic Indigenous art undermines the ancient ancestral narratives that underpin it and endorses the misappropriation and caricaturising of Indigenous culture. “All of the artworks [are] all mimicked. It’s all copy.” says John Smith Gumbula, when asked to comment on the nature of bogus indigenous artworks. “They’ve taken bits and pieces of Indigenous art and even pre-colonial imagery… which is really an offence. It’s not a proper representation of Indigenous culture.”
The Papunya First Nations community recently fell victim to the improper representation of indigenous culture, when a fake piece of Indigenous art, painted in the Papunya style by a white British female artist, was used as a set prop in the popular Netflix series After Life. The chief executive of the Indigenous Art Code described the painting, which was condemned by the Papunya community, as “cultural theft”. For the affected indigenous communities, the style and subject matter of the painting had deep significance. “We see it as that’s our history, that’s our connection to who we are,” said community artist Linda Anderson Jonggarda. The community also said that the story which inspired the painting’s subject matter involves men and “men’s business”, and it was an inappropriate piece to be painted by a woman. The artist in question had no connection to indigenous culture and no understanding of the artwork’s underlying messages, making it a prime example of artistic and cultural appropriation.
Art often plays a crucial role within Indigenous communities. The AtBC states that “there is very little that is more important to the wellbeing of Aborigjnal peoples than the protection of their inherent designs and artworks.”
In Australia, art acts as a medium for preserving culture where ancestral stories are told and passed through generations through works of art. Its sale often acts as a vital source of income and the range of impacts that can occur when fake Indigenous art is made and sold can be devastating.
Dreamtime spirituality and storytelling underpins most Australian Indigenous art and these ancestral stories are often tens of thousands of years old, having been passed down Indigenous lineages for generations. “Authentic indigenous art practices [are] a cultural conduit, physically and spiritually connecting dreaming narratives of our ancestors, in modern and traditional imagery,” says John Smith Gumbula of his art. “A very important process for me is paying my respects to my elders, and those old people before me that have passed on, and my father. That the gifts that they’ve given me, the cultural gifts and that journey, I’m the custodian for that.”
The Rise of NFTs
In recent years, the world has borne witness to the unstoppable rise of blockchain technologies, particularly in the form of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). These tokens are unique, non-replicable and tradable pieces of code which represent digital creative works. The frenzied trading of NFTs in recent years has led to enormous growth in this industry, with some celebrities and other wealthy collectors willing to pay vast sums of money in order to own an intangible creative asset.
The use of NFTs in company branding has also been seen with a long list of firms having created their own NFTs in recent months. These include Coca-Cola, whose NFT credentials have showcased the company as innovative and forward-thinking, and have helped lay the groundwork for adapting to an NFT- and metaverse-centric future world. Other household names entering into the NFT space include Pizza Hut and Pringles, which demonstrates the colossal impact that NFTs have had on the world in such a short period of time. The benefit NFT’s can bring in both an economic sense and for a branding sense can be seen from Adidas who raised $22 million in sales from a drop of 30,000 NFT’s. They tied these NFT’s to future physical merchandise releases which promoted the NFT’s further and led to them being sold out within a matter of hours leading to Adidas to confirm future NFT endeavours. This showcases why more and more brands are beginning to explore uses of NFT’s following the huge growth of this market.
At first glance, this phenomenon could not be further removed from the culture and values held by most Indigenous communities across the globe. But what if this new cutting-edge technology could present a new, invaluable opportunity for Indigenous communities and could help them win the fight against fake Indigenous art?
NFTs meet the Indigenous Art World
The intrinsically unique nature of each NFT means that the authenticity and origin of a piece of digital art is able to be verified on the blockchain, elucidating its potential in solving many of the problems presented by the counterfeit Indigenous art industry. The minting and trading of NFT-based Indigenous art might not just support these artists and communities economically, but crucially, it could help with the preservation and promotion of Indigenous culture around the world.
The opening up of additional revenue streams for Indigenous artists would bring a wide range of benefits to Indigenous artists and communities, including greater independence and improved access to political and economic resources. The financial empowerment from new NFT-based revenue streams could also allow these communities greater preparedness and resilience to external shocks, such as pandemics or the effects of climate change.
For example, the Indigenous-run Nashulai Maasai Conservancy in Kenya, saw visitor numbers collapse during 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its decimation of the tourism industry. 90 percent of Maasai employment is dependent on the tourism industry which led to many families struggling to afford food and other basic necessities. These types of economic shocks can have long lasting impacts and have the potential to trap families and communities in a cycle of poverty. Therefore, it is important to take action to diversify incomes to increase the resilience of Indigenous communities. The Nashulai Maasai Conservancy have already begun using NFTs, in collaboration with Zimbabwean digital artist Vintage MozArt, in order to raise additional funds for their conservation efforts. This initiative demonstrates the real-world impacts and capabilities that NFT technologies can offer when harnessed by Indigenous communities.
Alongside the support for conservation efforts demonstrated here NFT’s can also support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). For example, NFT’s can support Article 31 of the UNDRIP which is that indigenous people have “the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage”. The
control over intellectual property/creative design is one of the core values that NFTs and blockchain technology is built on showing how NFT’s can support UNDRIP. Furthermore, it can also support Article 11 which is the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures. This shows the wide-ranging potential impacts of using NFT’s to support indigenous art around the world.
Using NFTs to showcase Indigenous art could also open a window into wider Indigenous culture, encouraging the rest of the world to apply many Indigenous ways of thinking into their own and allowing the spiritual beliefs intrinsic to Indigenous art to be celebrated and preserved for many generations to come. Lindsay “Swooping Hawk” Kretschmer, an Indigenous leader in Toronto, explains that while no two Indigenous cultures are the same, they do share “some common values and world views”. He indicates that wider society must learn to show care and compassion to all living beings and respect our “first mother”, the Earth. “We endeavour to try by walking softly for those future generations yet to arrive,” he says, “so they do not have to be the caretakers of a mess we leave behind.” John Smith Gumbula agrees. “We don’t own the land, Mother Earth…it is our cultural birth right, it is part of us, we are custodians… we are part of the biodiversity.”
The implementation of ideas such as these into wider society would undoubtedly bring about positive changes in the way we live our lives and the interactions we have with the natural world. By protecting and promoting Indigenous culture through art and novel technologies, the wider world will become more exposed to ideas around responsible land stewardship and reconnecting with nature, ultimately leading to the development of a more sustainable future for society.
Already, we can see how Indigenous NFT marketplaces have been put into practice. Real-world examples include BrasilNFT and Oduwa Sky Blue , which demonstrate how NFT and Metaverse technologies complement the Indigenous art industry. These marketplaces often have similar goals overall, aiming to preserve Indigenous culture, educate the wider public and empower Indigenous artists. NFT technology has already begun its role in making a positive impact on the world, through tackling fake Indigenous art and helping to promote Indigenous culture to the wider world. Furthermore, by using the strengths of NFT and blockchain technology to connect indigenous groups based on their shared interests and then to share this with the wider world opening up opportunities with the so called “unknown unknowns”. This is as it is difficult to accurately predict the future outcomes that could come from the sharing of culture throughout the world.
However, it should also be noted that there are still challenges associated with the use of NFTs as advocated for previously. For example, the environmental impact of crypto and NFTs are often correctly cited; any negative environmental impact is extremely detrimental to Indigenous communities as they often have close relationships with nature and are some of the groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To ensure that the relationship between NFTs and Indigenous peoples bring solely positive impacts, there are certain steps that can be taken. For example, certain Blockchain platforms, such as Stacks, use a significantly less energy-intensive method to mine cryptocurrency.
Other initiatives such as Impact Scope lessen Blockchain’s negative environmental impact, as they allow crypto companies the means to offset their carbon emissions. Recent advances in business and technology show us that NFTs can be created and operated in a much less energy-intensive way, offering the aforementioned cultural and economic benefits, while limiting their impact to the environment.
There are further challenges involved in the implementation of NFTs within the Indigenous art world. Many opportunistic firms observe the growth of NFTs and Indigenous art markets and want to cash in, with little intention of making a positive difference to the Indigenous communities they are purporting to help. “Indigenous people didn’t monetize the world, we didn’t monetize our culture or arts to control, and to steal, and take the resources from her beauty, to be rich.” says John Smith Gumbula. “They’re like a bunch of wild wolves out there trying to get into and attack everything,” he says of unscrupulous businesses hoping to exploit Indigenous culture and make a quick buck off of the current NFT craze. “It’s supposed to be decentralized and [give] opportunities for artists and people to grow… We’re supposed to be getting away from that corporate hierarchy structure of things, but sadly that is also happening within the blockchain space.”
It is clear that if society does not begin to appreciate the intrinsic value of Indigenous art, culture and storytelling, even the newest innovations and technologies will ultimately fall victim to post-colonial forms of exploitation, appropriation and cultural theft. Only a system which has integrity and authenticity at its core can fully leverage the untapped ethical value contained within NFT and blockchain technology.
Indigenous art theft not only has major economic consequences but most importantly it has serious cultural repercussions for Indigenous communities around the world. John Smith Gumbula argues that this is now “seriously jeopardising” the livelihoods of Indigenous artists and is an issue that “affects all Indigenous people”. This fake Indigenous art is a serious threat to the preservation and promotion of Indigenous culture showing why solutions need to be implemented. This article has argued that making use of the huge growth of NFTs could bring substantial cultural benefits alongside supporting livelihoods and other associated benefits to Indigenous communities.
“NFTs are another form of creative expression, a medium, a technology ecosystem canvas that we, together can make change” says John Smith Gumbula. “It shall be a positive impact for our families, our children, their children, and generations to come. Technology tools, and indigenous art for good, is in my heart, and my vision for positive change.”
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It is with great honour that we wish to respectfully acknowledge our Elders of this Ancient Country of Past, Present & Future and all Indigenous people of our Mother Earth, who are the traditional custodians of all States, Territories, Towns, Cities, Communities where we live and work. We humbly acknowledge all First Nations People and their continuing Cultural Heritage, and Sacred connection to Land, Sea, Sky, Country, and all living things.
Cultural Ambassador | Founder IndigeNFT
John Smith Gumbula — WakkaWakka|GurangGurang|Yolngu