There is much discussion on the Internet about the need to respect the copyright in other people's work. Certainly, a direct copy of another's design is reprehensible. However, when I was in Australia and since my return I have been reading a lot about Aboriginal art and considering where I felt it appropriate to draw the line between inspiration and appropriation which are two very different things.
Much Aboriginal art has its root deep in the spiritual and cultural heritage of the many Australian indigenous tribes. The art they draw for sale is linked to ceremonial art and to tales of their ancestors. Some sacred symbolism is reserved for the initiated and so cannot be shown, or if shown is disguised. There is a very real sense that certain designs or subject matters belong to given people withing the tribes and artists are limited by what is their subject matter according to inheritance and according to what their elders give them permission to portray. Direct breaches of copyrights have been successfully challenged in court.
However, it is less clear to what extent it is morally acceptable to appropriate the style or techniques of the art of another culture as your own. Are we to say for example that only indigenous Australians should paint with dots or cross hatching? Such work is very recognisably theirs, yet the impressionists used the same techniques in a different way.
Australian ice skaters Danielle O'Brian and Greg Merriman once performed an ice dance heavily influenced by the Aboriginal culture. They worked with the indigenous poulation at length and their interperation was accepted. More recently Russian skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin also performed in Aboriginal style costumes and were castigated for their inapproriate appropriate of indigenous culture. Of course, such objections become magnified when set against a history of a people's children never mind art being stolen. Today, there is particular concern about the incorrect portrayal of indigenous art in the art community as a whole where it may be judges by standards more appropriate to Western art and about the exploitation of artists and/ or the production of inferior work for the tourist strade from artists who are paid money, much needed for them and their families, to churn out lower quality work.
When at the new South Wales Gallery I turned a corner and was bowled over by a painting by Kitty Kantilla. I cannot show it to you becuase photography was prohibited but although it was paint it looked to me like a design for a stitch sampler. I spent a long time sitting on the floor infront of it sketching. Now that I have researched a bit more about this artist who was previously unknown to me, all her work inspires me the same way. I have been thinking hard about how to be inspired by it without stealing it. You can see some examples of her work here.
In the end I worked in different colours without referring back to the work so that I only had a vague recollected impression in my head. My marks in stitch are different to hers in paint and placed in different groupings? Did I steal her ideas? I don't think I crossed that unacceptable line and indeed as I stitched I reaslied that many viewers, who did not know much about Aboriginal Art might assume it was inspired by Indian kantha. But maybe others would consider my work too derivative for comfort, hence the question mark, which is meant to spark and continue a debate about what is and what is not acceptable.