Sorry, cultural freedom trumps religious control

So, the Wandjina controversy.

Now, I’m a little bit late on this, because it only came up on my podcast USB drive today, but I doubt it’s been resolved in the two months since. I also doubt it’s all that politically sensible for me to raise the subject, given that I am undoubtedly (as with the Uluru climb debate) going to be on the opposite side as most of my usual allies on this site – hell, looking at the comments to the Law Report episode linked to above, it appears that Andrew Bolt weighed in at the time, and although we’ll have come to it from completely contrary perspectives on the plight of indigenous Australians, we’ll likely have come to a similar conclusion in relation to this specific issue, something which disturbs me greatly and in relation to which the only comfort is the “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” aphorism – but I’m going to do it anyway, because I think there’s a lot of confusion and muddled thinking on the issue.

In essence, it’s about the outrage of an indigenous community and its supporters towards a non-indigenous gallery owner commissioning a work somewhat inaccurately representing an image sacred to them.

And the idea that perhaps our copyright law should be amended so that this sort of free expression by the artist who dared not to be born into a community which permits itself to represent this image becomes somehow prohibited. Maybe we could make copyright even more restrictive than it already is! Maybe we could give special copyright rights to ethnic groups, and your right to reproduce or enjoy them is determined by a blood sample. Perhaps we could extend copyright terms from the already absurd 70 years after the artist’s death to 70,000 years after the artist’s death. Perhaps we could just lock up all intellectual property forever in an unrecoverably entangled mess that results in vast masses of human culture and development being permanently lost.

You might guess that I’m not a big fan of this approach.

I’m also not a great supporter of the idea that anyone gets to limit another’s right to freedom of religion. That it’s anybody’s business what religion, or what religious expression, Vesna Tenodi chooses to engage in. Obviously she has no right to pretend that her sculpture is endorsed by groups who don’t approve of it, and if she’s making that kind of claim (or implying it) then indeed it may well be deceptive and misleading conduct and something about which the Trade Practices Act might relate. But otherwise – it is absurd for someone to declare that they “own” an idea created tens of thousands of years before they were born. Or that that it is “theft” to use such an image (frankly, the corporate copyright industry has a lot to answer for trying to mix copyright infringement up with the very specific concept of “theft”, which involves permanently depriving someone of something tangible, something quite different from what occurs when something is copied).

As for the “making it up to them” argument, such as expressed by Jenny Wright from the Mowanjum Arts and Cultural Centre:

I think one part of me would say, Vesna we’ve taken everything from these people, we’ve taken their land, we’ve taken their language, we’ve destroyed their culture. Are we going to take their religion too? It just seems to me, and I know I’m making a very strong statement here, but I do feel this in my heart, that it just seems to me that that’s so grossly unfair, and as an Australian I think you should feel ashamed of yourself, seriously. Appropriation of absolutely everything. Is there nothing left of these people that we won’t take?

Well, Jenny, how about, instead of compounding our errors by taking rights from another group of people, we work to assist indigenous Australians to overcome the disadvantage to which we’ve consigned them? There are concrete things we can do to counter the very specific and real problems individual indigenous people face, without taking away someone else’s free expression. What you’re proposing here just adds another set of victims to the ones we’ve already created.

It is indeed very true that our country, on our behalf, has spent the last two and a quarter centuries treating indigenous people appallingly. We dispossessed them. We tore apart their families. We took their land. We set them in a position of unmatched disadvantage in our community, and owe it to them to restore that balance. It was right for us as a country to apologise for what we as a country did. And it is right for us to provide services and funds and effort to work to undo the ongoing effects of those two and a quarter centuries on indigenous people living today.

But that does not mean building resentment by doing stupid things like applying indigenous law to people who do not choose to be part of it. We have a binding legal system in this country, and it’s one enacted by the governments (approximately) democratically elected by (approximately) all of us. It (except in locations where administrators of that system have gotten away with acting above the law) treats all of us equally, regardless of race or gender. There are no reasonable grounds for a competing “legal” system which does distinguish against people on the grounds of race and gender to be imposed on anyone. Declaring something “contrary to indigenous law” is not a debate-ending point, and nor should it be.

It also does not mean building resentment by granting absurd over-the-top rights to people as if crimes committed against their ancestors were committed against them, personally. They weren’t. There are ongoing effects as a result of those crimes, but that’s not the same thing. We as a country have certainly established a system in which most of us as non-indigenous Australians are beneficiaries of our parents’ privilege, and they of theirs, all the way back to those who actually committed the offences against our indigenous brethren – and accordingly we certainly owe the disadvantaged assistance to make up for that which they were unfairly denied as a result of our system. But assistance to overcome disadvantage does not require anything like race-based control over our common human heritage. And just as that includes the cultural achievements of the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, ancient Romans… it also includes those of ancient Australians.

I’m sorry, but I cannot go along with those who would seek to limit other people’s freedom of expression on the basis of their religious sensibilities. Whatever the religion. Whatever our country has done in the past to its practitioners.

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17 responses to “Sorry, cultural freedom trumps religious control

  1. Don’t worry Jeremy, no pile on this time ;)

    I don’t think there is much doubt that freedom of artistic expression is the relevant principle in this case. It’s a world away from the Uluru climb issue IMHO, and, if I may be granted a little dig, I find the Mowanjum position more akin to the ‘climbers rights’ pov, which I reject.

  2. Wisdom Like Silence

    Speaking of religious works, http://www.penny-arcade.com/2010/8/30/. The Bible ONLINE.

  3. I’m assuming this is you making this comment at the original link:

    [Nobody "owns" ancient artifacts. ]

    Well actually they do. It (the artifact) is either owned by the people who always own it or by the people who found them.

    We aren’t talking about an artifact tho.

    Its an image.

    As far as intellectual property goes, under indigenous law then there are severe penalties for the sort of theft you can’t see happening, but then again we ended that indigenous law hundreds of years ago when it turned out it didn’t actually exist.

    Usually in our culture if someone appropriates a trademark its frowned upon. Artists can get away with it cos they are commenting on it in some way.

    Obviously the people doing this fake Wandjina stuff have nothing like that to go with. They have no valid comment to make on Wandjina cos they obviously have no clue about what it means and no real relationship to it.

    Under our law thats fine. Under indigenous law it isn’t and if they get sung or something and die horribly in car accidents as a result then I think that is a fair outcome.

    [Well, Jenny, how about, instead of compounding our errors by taking rights from another group of people, we work to assist indigenous Australians to overcome the disadvantage to which we’ve consigned them?]

    As far as indigenous people are concerned one of the rights they have lost has to do with control of culture and this is another example of that theft of rights and culture. In many cases their spirituality is the only thing they have left from pre invasion days. This is a part of their identity.

    As one blackfella told me years ago: “They stole and wrecked everything we had ‘cept our religion. Now they want to steal and wreck that too.”

    Thats what these new age arseclowns in the Blue Mountains are doing. Vesna Tenodi is an idiot in reality especially wrt to her attitude to indigenous people, from what I understand she holds the local blackfellas in contempt. Then again she seems to have form for stealing and bastardising non western forms of spirituality ala SRI and “Changing Images of Man”. Anan Do my big fat foot.

    Yeah you are right from the POV of Australian Law right now.

    Of course as an artist she has the right to do whatever the hell she wants.

    As far as reality goes tho she is the worst sort of thief, a spiritual tourist who pinches what they want from other peoples sacred meaning and then procedes to debase it. Wandjina is a powerful spirit tho. Things will probably go badly for her now.

    “But assistance to overcome disadvantage does not require anything like race-based control over our common human heritage.”

    The thing you are missing is that this lady is deliberately debasing a current living heritage. This isn’t ancient history, wandjina are still repainted now in the Kimberly, under the same cermonial strictures as they have been for the last however many thousand years.

    She writes crap like this:

    http://www.modrogorje.com/wanjina_faq.html

    As far as the Kimberly people are concerned (and yes I know, cos I know people from the Kimberly mobs,) she is pissing on their belief system.

    Anyway as you said in our system they have no protection.

    I find it sad and disappointing that someone who claims to have learned from Chen Xiaowang is a party to this.

  4. As far as reality goes tho she is the worst sort of thief, a spiritual tourist who pinches what they want from other peoples sacred meaning and then procedes to debase it.

    I dunno – I reckon violent home invaders are probably a worse form of thief.

    Jules – I wonder if you’d voice the same objection if christian icons were being debased in the art of non-christians.

    Freedom of artistic expression is far more valuable to our society than the protection of irrational cultural restrictions and prejudices. That principle applies no matter which culture is projecting the irrational prejudice – we don’t get to pick and choose based on our personal preferences.

  5. Violent home invaders are just thugs. Violence might be worse for the individuals suffering it, but new age arsewipes can go and get fucked.

    All religions should be respected, until they do something worthy of disrespect. I dunno what was so great about Pisschrist, but that whole Last Temptation of Christ fuss was garbage. I haven’t seen either, tho I’ve seen pics of the fiirst one. (The second one is a movie, I know.)

    I totally understand why the Sisters of Perpetual indulgence took the attitude and stance they did, and the same with DKs back in the 80s. Thats political action, and in those cases the Christians they were the ones in powerful positions. Hardly the same situation here.

    You’ll find I’ve defended Christians, specifically Catholics here before, despite the fact that I’m not one, and I don’t think hanging shit on Christians for the sake of it, even as artistic expression, cuts it. The cases I mentioned above (DKs, and Perpetual Sisters) were in a fight, and the rules are different then.

    I don’t think anyone here is in a position to judge how rational or irrational the spiritual and religious beliefs of the Kimberly are, seeing as none of us live there or are familiar with it to a level where we could comment.

    However this is more than just art. This is an attempt to appropriate spiritual power, and that might not seem like anything to all you rationalists, but to us crazies its quite full on. Its not just about artistic expression. Its claiming something that isn’t true, and its using it to gain a financial benefit.

    If we were living in traditional times she would be in a lot of trouble for breaking actual laws of the time.

    We’re not so I’m just whinging.

    However … in a sense Wandjina is a trademark. Its something people identify with. In modern marketing terms its a brand. This is a violation of that trademark. Its also an identity, so its a form of identity theft.

    She is doing this to supposedly provide new age spiritual credentials, and lets face it the only reason people do that is money.

    Kimberly people have already had the violent home invasion. Shes making a mockery of what they had left. (Not in the satirical sense. She is debasing it, and then claiming she isn’t.)

    The image itself wouldn’t matter. She can paint alien ghostie heads till the sky falls. She can even copy them outright. BFD.

    She is claiming that they are Wandjina when they aren’t cos she doesn’t know what she is talking about.

    She is also claiming she has the authority and right to speak about Wandjina business. She doesn’t have this authority. She has no possible way of coming within cooee of ever having it.

    Thats what the objection here is too, tho that may not be clear to you lot. Its the name Wandjina, and the claim to speak for Wandjina that really is the issue.

    The images themselves wouldn’t raise an eyebrow without the word Wandjina.

    I spose I didn’t make that clear before.

    http://a.imageshack.us/img839/8773/500xdickpaintings.jpg

    Thats a similar bunch of images from somewhere in North America.

    The image and the archetype isn’t unique to those people up there in the Kimberly. The term Wandjina, and its associated values and meanings are and thats what the objection is to.

    If she just painted the image called it something else and made up her own stories about it that would be cool.

    She names it when something he has no right to then tries to speak on behalf of it.

  6. “…names it something she has no right to then tries…”

  7. All religions should be respected, until they do something worthy of disrespect.

    Or, alternatively, this is a free country and we are under no obligation to respect anything at all – especially irrational superstitions. You know – that crazy notion of secular democracy.

    I can’t be bothered reading the rest of your thousand word justification for elevating the sanctity of Aboriginal religious icons above those of other religions, but I’m sure I’m not missing out on anything particularly insightful.

    You are clearly applying a double standard based on nothing more than your subjective personal preference for Aboriginal spirituality.

  8. OK short version.

    She can paint any image she wants.

    BFD

    The difference between what she paints and what she claims about her paintings is the issue. She claims to be representing something she has no right to represent.

    I dunno who you voted for, or who won your seat in the latest federal election, but if someone else comes along and claims to be the rightful member and your allocated representative and you have never heard of them, well no doubt your response would be similar to the people in the Kimberly.

    Thats the issue here. Not that she painted some ghost headed alien thing. People do that all the time.

    “Or, alternatively, this is a free country and we are under no obligation to respect anything at all – especially irrational superstitions. You know – that crazy notion of secular democracy.”

    We are humans so there is this obligation to respect other people. At least for a start.

    You claim its an irrational superstition, but you are wrong about that. Thats your business. Its a belief system and system of government that has been in operation for thousands of years and still should hold legal sway over that part of the world. The fact that it doesn’t is an injustice our secular democracy isn’t capable of dealing with.

    Not that secular democracy is that great a thing anyway. It hasn’t done much to curb AGW for example, and its not doing a great deal to protect my actual freedom. It impinges on it actually.

    You are applying your own double standard based on your subjective personal preference for secular democracy, and for hanging shit on whatever you deem to be irrational.

    And in indigenous Australia there is no difference between the politcal and the spiritual. Failing to recognise that is just more of the same colonialist bullshit thats gone on since day one. Of course I wouldn’t expect someone so stuck in a colonialist mindset to get that, but maybe you will one day.

    I doubt it tho. You fundies are all the same.

  9. She can paint any image she wants.

    Fantastic – we’re back in agreement!

    We are humans so there is this obligation to respect other people.

    Oh, we’re out of synch again.

    No offence jules, but I’m under no obligation to respect you or anyone else. It’s entirely legitimate to see respect as something that’s earned, rather than a right to which you’re entitled. This ‘obligation’ you are asserting is nothing more than your personal worldview.

    You claim its an irrational superstition, but you are wrong about that.

    No I’m not. Above you predicted that the artist would probably be hit by a car because she had created a banned image. It don’t get much more irrational than that my friend!!

    And in indigenous Australia there is no difference between the politcal and the spiritual.

    Yeah but in the real world there is. It’s called ‘separation of church and state’ and it’s widely accepted as one of the most positive steps humanity has ever taken in terms of our freedom, prosperity, education, health and access to justice.

    The Aboriginal people would also benefit greatly from this principle (in all of the above areas) if it weren’t for useful idiots like you arguing to keep them in the cultural dark ages.

  10. Splatterbottom

    She claims to be representing something she has no right to represent.

    Get fucked. You have no right to tell her what she can and can’t do.

    I’ve defended Christians, specifically Catholics here before

    Who needs that. Keep your wanking hands to yourself.

    There are none so selfish as those that they won’t share their gods. If people get offended by the free expression of others they should learn to control their feelings better and show some basic respect for the liberty of others. They have no right to shut other people up.

  11. Wisdom Like Silence

    Hear hear SB.

    Now say something despicable, I feel unclean.

  12. “There are none so selfish as those that they won’t share their gods.”

    It is an interesting phenomenon. Usually, people are far TOO eager to share their gods.

  13. Splatterbottom

    Yes, they sometimes share but only on their terms, in a tightly controlled way that gives them power to coerce your behaviour. This is often all about adding to their power rather than about the enlightenment that may follow your personal exploration of the relevant mysteries.

  14. SB.

    “Get fucked. You have no right to tell her what she can and can’t do.”

    No I don’t. But the people in the Kimberly do and I’m just repeating that.

    “There are none so selfish as those that they won’t share their gods.”

    Don’t be silly. All gods are the deranged products of someone’s ego. But in Australia right now claiming to speak on behalf of indigenous ones without actually having earned the right is bullshit. I’m sure if she’d asked they might have been prepared to share, but that person has a history of not asking telling. The usual paternalistic colonialist bullshit. Speaking of which…

    mondo

    “Yeah but in the real world there is. It’s called ‘separation of church and state’ and it’s widely accepted as one of the most positive steps humanity has ever taken in terms of our freedom, prosperity, education, health and access to justice.

    The Aboriginal people would also benefit greatly from this principle (in all of the above areas) if it weren’t for useful idiots like you arguing to keep them in the cultural dark ages.”

    The seperation of church and state only applies here cos of the misapplication of terra nullius. In case you’d forgotten. But thats alright cos you whiteys know best anyway. I’m sure things were shit before colonisation made them better.

    Thats why things are bad for indigenous australians, being so culturally Dark Agish and all that. Its no wonder they live the way the do. Not assimilating, even after all of the efforts of the last 220 years. You’re right, as soon as those Kimberly clowns adopt that principle (sep’n of church and state) everything will be roses. Thanks for enlightening me.

    “No offence jules, but I’m under no obligation to respect you or anyone else.”

    None taken (at anything you’ve said actually.) No. You’re not. Perhaps I see things differently. People can earn my respect or my disrespect. I start from a position where if I don’t know someone I treat them with respect. It seems obvious to me that people who don’t are immature or angry at their mum or something.

    I really hope she doesn’t get hit by a car btw. I’m sure there are other things that are more appropriate.

    Anyway I never laid any claim to being rational. Existence is irrational and its fundamentalism to expect otherwise. (Its also fundamentalism not to read an argument cos you’re already sure what it says and it can’t possibly be right. But thats your business.)

  15. “But in Australia right now claiming to speak on behalf of indigenous ones without actually having earned the right is bullshit.”

    She’s claiming to speak on behalf of indigenous Australians? Where?

    “I’m sure if she’d asked they might have been prepared to share, but that person has a history of not asking telling.”

    She asked and they said no. And then she thought, wait, you can’t exclude me, and did it anyway.

  16. As a basic principle she has the right to paint whatever she wants ands talk about it in whatever way she wants.

    Though it’s a pity to see the prinicple used for such nuttiness.

    But that’s freedom.

  17. “She’s claiming to speak on behalf of indigenous Australians? Where?”

    No she isn’t I got that wrong. She is actually claiming to speak on behalf of Wandjina, but only some people have that right – she doesn’t.

    Here:

    http://www.modrogorje.com/wanjina_faq.html

    “No, I don’t. I do not speak for Aboriginal people. I speak for Wanjinas, to the Aboriginal people.”

    I’m sure they are very thankful.

    So you’re right she doesn’t speak for them – she lectures to aboriginal people about how they should live their lives.

    (Although technically in the appropriate time and place speaking for Wandjina and speaking for certain blackfellas is the same thing.)

    “She asked and they said no. And then she thought, wait, you can’t exclude me, and did it anyway.”

    Hey if you want to learn about something someone else knows how would you do it? You would ask yeah?

    Then if they said no I don’t want to teach you, what would you do. (Maybe you aren’t qualified. They’d know being the ones who teach the subject. Claim to have that knowledge anyway and go ahead?

    I tried to get into law and medicine but didn’t make it. Maybe I should follow her example. They said no at the schools, but I thought “you can’t exclude me” and went ahead and did it anyway.

    But she didn’t do “it” anyway. She doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about for a start. She has just decided the word Wandjina sounds cool and she is gonna use it to market her crap. So she made up a load of absolute bollocks.

    “What you do need to do is to listen to your conscience and look into your own heart. If you know your intention is pure, if you wish to contribute to spiritual survival of the world through participating in the revival of the best of Aboriginal spirituality, you are doing the right thing.”

    There is no “aboriginal spirituality”. What there is are belief systems built from certain people living in certain places for fucking ages. They apply to those people in those places and are a fundamental part of those peoples identity.

    In this specific case she has seen an image that looks cool and has an interesting name, changed the image (and the name) then made all these statements about it that are so far removed from the reality that they should be meaningless. However if people around the world see her site they might mistake her crap for what the people in the Kimberly actually believe.

    That might not mean much to the people reading here but it means heaps to them over there.

    A friend of mine once said (and it may have even been in specific response to this artist actually): “Its (“spirituality”) the only thing we have left and they want to steal that too.”

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