Monday, March 1, 2010


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.


Gerrie said...

first of all thank you for the link to Kitty Kantilla. I love the spare landscape look of her pieces. I can see how they could influence one to pick up those marks and make them on fabric.

I am a big fan of hand stitching (mark making) on fabric and I love how you have made yours so intricate. I want to keep looking at the various stitches and patterns that you have created.

Kristin L said...

Once again Helen, you've posed an excellent question. Whether it's appropriate or not, I too would find it hard not to be inspired by all that art and incorporate some of it into my own work. I really like how you've interpreted what was originally paint into your medium: stitch. I would say yours is more inspiration than appropriation and either way it's a wonderful study of color and pattern.

Dale Anne said...

First, thanks for the link to Kitty Kantilla.
Second, her artwork is earth tones, and the stitching is not as involved as yours.
I don't think there was any stealing or copying going on here.
I would LOVE to see this piece up close and personal - GREAT JOB!!!

Dale Anne said...

I meant your stitching doesn't look anything like her dots or dashes.

Diane said...

What gorgeous stitching, Helen. The visual texture and gorgeous repetition are wonderful -- and really do convey the essences of Aboriginal art that are so appealing. I'm glad to see an immediate piece of your trip influencing your artwork in this! The questions you raise are good ones to consider as artists work with images and styles from other artists and cultures. Is good intention enough?

Terry said...

Helen, I think you have achieved "inspired by" as opposed to "stolen". Your piece shows elements of the aboriginal designs, but also reminds me of Japanese indigo work and Indonesian batik and other ethnic pieces. I am always fascinated by ethnic art and how many common themes run through so much of it. It must be that basic human desire to create comes from a common well regardless of our location. Beautiful piece. I kind of hope the patch that says "stolen" is removable! I would love to see this as an artistic expression without the message attached. But, then, it probably wouldn't be "Helen" then, would it?

Karen said...

I so look forward to your work because you always make me think and this piece is no exception. Your stitching is great, but more importantly, your message is spot on.

Greg Castillo said...

A beautiful quilt, and not at all 'stolen,' which involves attempting to pass work off as aboriginal when it isn't. Aboriginal art itself is a hybrid of traditions and contemporary innovations. I see your lovely work as a tribute!

Greg Castillo said...

A beautiful quilt, and not at all 'stolen,' which involves attempting to pass work off as aboriginal when it isn't. Aboriginal art itself is a hybrid of traditions and contemporary innovations. I see your lovely work as a tribute!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link- and I doubt whether you have "stolen" anything!

We have a number of artists here- both Black and White -who draw from the traditions of Africa and whose work is possibly very similar to that of aboriginal art- although they dont make too much use of the "traditional Aboriginal" dots you mentioned.

I dont believe that one can live on a continent like Africa or Australia without being heavily influenced by one's surroundings and both African and Australia have that feeling of being pared down to the bone.Take a look at Sally Scott's work and you will see what I mean.
Glenda in South AFrica

Terri Stegmiller said...

Wonderful! I really like the marks and the tiny added bit of colorful fabric. Another informative writing.

Nikki said...

Thank you for the link to Kitty Kantilla's work. From the thumbnail photos, I would have thought they were fabric and stitching. Only at the larger size could I see they were actually paintings. Although you have used a short dashed line, your patterns and color choices are very different. In no way would I say you have "stolen" her art.

I love the pattern, texture and line in this peice. The flow makes me want to look closer and explore.

Azreada said...

As soon as I saw your work I was reminded of Aboriginal art, however your taken on it is truly original. When looking at Kitty's work that you referenced, I too was struck with her paintings similarity to fabric and was surprised to see that many of them were painted on bark. A unique approach by both of you.

Deborah Boschert said...

I am also fascinated by the questions around copyright, inspiration, sampling, appropriation, etc. I really enjoyed reading about how this piece came about and your thoughts behind it. Of course, I love the hand stitching! I like those thin pieced, printed strips. They really organize the piece and give it just enough color!