I was recently asked by a friend in the States to contribute to an article she was writing about typical international souvenirs.
“Australia’s an easy one” I told her – “boomerangs and didgeridoos – I’ll send you a few words and a photo”.
A short time later I realised that neither item had made it on to our packing list for our trip around Australia, so the opportunity to snap a quick photo was not as easy as I thought.
After calling a good friend who lives in FNQ and works in indigenous tourism, a short conversation made me realise that the question of Australian souvenirs isn’t an easy one at all.
“The market is flooded with fake products” he told me.
If you’ve ever visited Australia as a tourist then you’ll know the absolute necessity of bringing home a didgeridoo or boomerang as a memento of your stay.
Souvenirs are brought home as a reminder of a trip, as a way to stay connected to a country or place you’ve visited and loved, to bring a part of the culture home with you and to support local industry.
Chances are though that if you’ve ever purchased a piece of indigenous art in Australia then you’ve supported an overseas export business rather than the local community and artist that you thought.
‘Indigenous souvenir’ is sadly an oxymoron in the majority of shops in tourist hotspots around Australia. According to the Arts Law Centre of Australia , over 85% of artworks have been found to either be fake or to have been copied without proper credit or royalty. This is an estimated loss of $20 million dollars annually, money that could greatly benefit artists and communities across the country. NITV recently reported that fake boomerangs had even been spotted for sale at Canberra airport.
How do we solve the problem if even the nation’s political capital has dropped the bullroarer so fantastically? Despite a parliamentary enquiry and federal court action by the ACCC, not much positive movement has been seen to protect the creative and cultural rights of the world’s oldest living culture. The problem can be seen as far back as 2008 when mass wholesale of indigenous artworks began to be creep in.
Gondwana vs Goliath
Creative rights are battling with trade agreements – where the banning of a certain product could jeopardise open passageways of free trade. You can’t help but wonder how the underdog of aboriginal artists can face the Goliath of international commerce and come out ahead.
Cairns and Tropical North Queensland is a hub for award winning indigenous tourism. When we visited Rainforestation Nature Park in the village of Kuranda just outside Cairns, we loved the Pamagirri Aboriginal experience where we were invited to try our hand at boomerang throwing. Our Pamagirri guide Howard Underwood made it look simple as he skillfully returned his boomerang. Boomerang throwing is an age old skill, embedded within the aboriginal culture and linked to survival and spirituality. When it came to our turn it was lucky that they had protective netting around the practise area. Not one of the 20 participants managed a successful throw, with more ending up on the roof or trees than anywhere near where they started. Fortunately the dancers at Rainforestation are also skilled crafters of boomerangs – a ready source of more when the tourists lose another one over the fence. Despite our complete lack of success with authentic boomerangs during the demo, we would definitely have even less chance with a fake. Ironically labelled ‘returning boomerangs’, they are neither made of traditional materials, nor the correct shape to ever come back.
This is where Rainforestation is unique. As well as being a hotspot for indigenous tourism, Cairns is also one of the worst places to find fakes – with every $2 shop and souvenir stand touting cheap bamboo boomerangs as authentic. Rainforestation sells only indigineous items made by their First Nation people’s dancers, or the items sold are certified so all royalties go to the artists. Rainforestation Retail Manager has been buying and selling authentic art for years and has the below tips for making sure you are getting indigenous and not imported.
What to Look For
Almost impossible for the beginner and tourist to know – fake indigineous products are copied so well that it is incredibly hard sometimes to tell the difference. Quite often authentic artworks will be duplicated and mass produced so what you think is legit is actually a cheap copy. There are several telling factors that can give you a clue to imported goods – a genuine piece of art will be handmade and raw – any kind of elaborate packaging would point to an import. You can also check the small print – quite often you’ll find ‘made in China’ written on the item – but be careful as this isn’t a blanket rule. Even products made in Australia can lack authenticity. Another glaring indicator is price. If you see a ‘genuine’ boomerang for $4.99 you can be absolutely certain it’s a fake. Quality, handmade original boomerangs will retail anywhere between $30-$40.
What to Ask
There is no sure way to look at a souvenir and be sure it is genuine. What can give you a much better idea is to talk to the seller and find out the item’s story. Ask who the artist is, what is their language group and where they come from. Find out the story of the work and when it was produced. If a retailer can give you all this information you can be more certain that you are getting the real deal.
Where to Buy
One way to be absolutely certain that you are buying authentic is to go to the source and purchase directly from the artist. The Pamagirri Dancers at Rainforestation hand paint items for sale in the shop – meaning you can meet the artists and can be assured that royalties are being paid for any items you buy. Similarly around Australia you can find artists selling their own work or galleries dedicated to genuine art. You can also look for dealers who have signed up to the voluntary ‘Indigenous Art Code‘ – a system created to preserve and promote ethical trading in indigenous art. Members of the Code can display a certificate confirming ethical practises and genuine artworks. The Code was developed by the industry and works closely with the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) who have also created a Consumer Rights Fact Sheet on Indigenous Art and Craft which you can download for more info.
Consumer knowledge equals consumer power. Although it still looks like any kind of legislation or government intervention is a long way off, we can still make a difference by spreading the word and supporting local artists and communities.
Despite probably never being able to master the boomerang throw, by the choices of purchase that you make you have the power to make sure the dollars you spend find their way back to the rightful owners.
Authentic indigenous products have been priced out of the market by the sheer volume of fake produce being wholesaled in to the country and sold in discount stores.
So just remember – if the price of indigenous art looks like a steal – then it probably is.