The Ethics of Collaborative Relationships Around Aboriginal Art

How can an Nyoongar arts projects be run to benefit the Nyoongar culture? Ballardong Nyoongar artist Rohin Kickett discusses plans for The Nyoongar Artist Collective and explains the need for ethical frameworks to be developed around art projects and the expression of Nyoongar culture.

You are currently working to set up a gathering of Nyoongar artists to work together on a more ethical framework of engagement. Can you tell us about that?

At the moment a lot of collaborative art relationships are not working that well. We see a lot of our elders have been exploited for their knowledge and their culture. People come in and they befriend them and then they think they have the right to create artworks on the culture and use the language because they've got this relationship.

Within our community there's a pretty common understanding that our elders don't have that authority to give our culture away to a person who doesn't belong to our culture. They don't have that authority. They don't own the culture. They're a guardian of it. They're supposed to protect it, not give it away. That is a pretty common understanding within our community, but not necessarily with our elders. So that's something that we need to look at within this collective is to explore how do we do things for ourselves? How do we work with our own elders to ensure that cultural knowledge is managed ethically.

At the moment we don't have autonomy over our own projects or over our own industry. People from outside our culture are telling us what we should be doing within our industry. We need to have autonomy to do things our way. There's no system that can be given to us, we need to create our own. That's what the collective is all about, we need to find out how do we do things ethically within our own culture, within our own elders and our own artists.

So, when I go to do a project, it's going to be, elder engagement with Aboriginal artists, Aboriginal curators, Aboriginal workers, 100% on Nyoongar projects. That's the goal is to be able to do that. There's going to be a lot of mentoring on the way, because a lot of Nyoongar artists aren't experienced enough to really do it, but that's when we're going to have to reach out and build the right relationships to help us get there.

Work on The Nyoongar Artist Collective has commenced and so far the response has been really positive. I've been speaking to a lot of different councils, a lot of different people within the industry. There has been a lot of support so far and hopefully in the new financial year, we should be registering to become incorporated. Most people see the need for a more considered and ethical framework around artistic and cultural engagement.

Responding To Demand

The Nyoongar culture within the arts was ignored for a long time. Now all of a sudden it's very popular. We don't really have the artists to keep up with the demand. This level of demand can easily become an exploitative thing. The artists aren't mature and organised. There aren't frameworks in place to ensure that a project is ethically thought through. It's becoming a competitive thing where some artists are competing with other artists. Who wins a project depends on who will do it for the cheapest price. Often the artists who win these contracts will also be told what to paint as well, so there are problems at a few levels.

Changing The Mode of Expression of Interest

The public art system is a good example of how problems develop. Nyoongar projects are everywhere, public art is huge, but we don't have the artists who have built the right foundations to really enter that world properly. They have to team up with non-Aboriginal artists and it's all done within that very westernised academic system of expression of format. You have to submit a detailed expression of interest.

This type of presentation has never been part of Aboriginal culture. Even writing has never been part of our culture. I've been working with different consultants exploring how to create an expression of interest format that is actually culturally appropriate. Can a presentation be delivered visually and orally, rather than in the traditional written academic format?

Mentoring Artists

You will see a lot of non-Aboriginal artists who are called in to mentor Aboriginal artists. Those non-Aboriginal artists get more work because now they can work on Aboriginal projects. The Aboriginal artists may be paid considerably less than the non-Aboriginal artists for a work that is about Aboriginal culture.

A Collective Approach to Managing Art Projects

Aboriginal people are needing to upskill in terms of managing these projects. They're needing to upskill in terms of carrying the traditions and the culture forward. At the moment skills in both areas are pretty patchy. There's a need to come together and build the strength of the culture, along with the skills to engage. There's also a new framework needed for people to understand a collective approach to this work so that people aren't competing with each other. There is a need for a cooperative spirit, that helps people take things forward in a really considered way.

I'd like to see our artists experienced enough to be able to take on these projects, but it has to be culturally safe and culturally appropriate. There's a lot of work to be done and it's not going to just change overnight. We are talking about a long period of time. It's almost a generational change where we need to get artists up to scratch so they are experienced enough to be able to have autonomy over these projects and not have to be mentored through by a non-Aboriginal artist. These adjustments will take time and that is what will be the focus of The Nyoongar Artist Collective.

Top Featured Image: Rohin Kickett | Balidu #2 \ Jap 019837


Rohin Kickett - Beautiful Dead


Australia Council - First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts
Aboriginal Art Association of Australia - Code of Ethics & Business Practice
Arts Law - Artists in the Black Collaboration Toolkit – resources for use in Indigenous art projects

Rohin Kickett | Balidu #3 | Jap 019838
Rohin Kickett | Balidu #3 | Jap 019838