Step inside a gift shop in Australia. Feast your eyes on the following
If you step outside the gift shop, and look to the skies, you may be lucky
enough to see a Qantas jet flying past, with almost every inch covered in a
lurid Aboriginal design. And if you like to watch car racing, you may get to
see the BMW touring car decked out in a complete Western Desert style
These are all examples of Aboriginalia, and they represent a rather strange
moment in the way non-Aboriginal people relate to
Firstly, Aboriginalia is popular. It would be hard to find a single home anywhere in Australia that did not have one item of Aboriginalia within it. This point will be disputed by many, but the sheer ubiquity of Aboriginalia has meant that non-Aboriginal people hardly notice it even when it is staring them in the face.
However attitudes to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture are not
universally positive within Australia, and negative
attitudes are fairly common. The strongest strand of Australian thinking
towards Aboriginality, however, is the desire not to think about it at all.
The past policy of assimilation was designed around this – it was hoped
that assimilation would breed the colour out, and that
Aboriginal people would eventually be "absorbed" into the Australian
"mainstream". This way the troubling aspects of the European invasion of
Australia and subsequent disposession of Aboriginal people would not have
to be faced.
So if Australians don't want to think about Aboriginal issues, why are they
adorning themselves and their houses with Aboriginal designs?
Is it a case of repressed guilt resurfacing in a
novel way? Does it reflect the stirrings of a genuine appreciation for
Aboriginal designs and Aboriginal culture? Or does it reflect the final stage
of colonisation in which, having taken all the land, the only things left to take are the trappings of the "culture"?
There is no obvious answer here, although Aboriginal reactions to
Aboriginalia are interesting. These are diverse, but if there is a common
thread it is the insistence that Aboriginal people be in control of their
cultural heritage, and that it only be commercialised under their own terms.
In the case of Aboriginalia, this happens only occasionally, but when it
does happen it is generally regarded as beneficial to all involved – Aboriginal
people share their culture (and profit from it) in a way that is acceptable to
them, while the mostly non-Aboriginal businesses using the Aboriginal designs
benefit from the increased credibility of their Aboriginalia.
However in most cases, Aboriginalia is either designed by non-Aboriginal
people, or is simply copied without permission (sometimes with token
modifications) from Aboriginal artworks. This has led to a number of
copyright infringement cases brought by Aboriginal artists, the most famous one being the case of a rug maker reproducing an Aboriginal design on a rug.
Further problems arise in cases where an Aboriginal design is intimately integrated with Aboriginal spirituality/mythology, and is "owned" on behalf of the tribe by certain important people. It can be deeply troubling to the "owners" of these designs to see them reproduced in unauthorised ways.
More details can be found at the "House of Aboriginality" Project at