“Is it genuine?” The impact of trendy PR cultural awareness on Indigenous creatives

Elizabeth Close is a professional Indigenous creative. A contemporary Aboriginal artist and muralist, Close is an Anangu woman from the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara language groups.

She uses art to express her concept of connection to country and the connection Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders feel to their land, often weaving social themes around loss of culture and disconnection into her artworks.

Her artwork has drawn international acclaim and with over 20 large scale murals across Adelaide, most South Australians are familiar with her work.

Therefore when Close broke the news on social media that the Adelaide 36ers had attempted to exploit her, it rightfully made headlines across the country.

After the artist was contacted and her services requested, Close met with the Sixers and sent them a quote for her work.

With a two-week turnaround and vector format already above usual requirements of an artist, Close was stunned when management back flipped and offered her contra – non-monetary compensation in the form of game-day tickets and other benefits – in return for her work.

Unwilling to budge on their offer citing insufficient space in their budget, Close went public and shed light on two main issues at play.

“There’s the whole issue around not paying creatives for their professional services,” says Close.

“But then there’s also this added layer of irony of wanting to use your Aboriginal Round jersey to signal your commitment to reconciliation, then exploiting an Aboriginal artist to do it.

“I don’t think they really thought that one through. Maybe they were wanting to use it as a kind of PR stunt, as opposed to a genuine and meaningful signal.”

Failure to compensate artists correctly is nothing new in the industry. Big businesses will often use their high-profile status in order to pay those they subcontract in exposure and contra.

“There are added layers of complexity because it was an Aboriginal jersey and they’ve asked an Aboriginal, but this is a practice that affects creatives across the board,” says the artist.

“When you’re a large organisation and you’re engaging someone for a professional service and then asking for a quote, then you probably should pay for it.

“If the 36ers had just checked, the third thing that would come up on Google is the time I called Qantas out for doing something similar.”

Close’s incident with the airline occurred when the organisation approached her to paint ‘totems’ and their corresponding ‘Aboriginal words’ on crockery for NAIDOC Week in 2017.

Aside from engaging Close in a culturally ignorant project outside of her field of expertise, Qantas – whose CEO Alan Joyce took home a realised pay of $23.9 million for the 2018 financial year – approached her to work for ‘exposure’.

Close already volunteers her time and talent in spades.

Recently, the Adelaide-based artist has donated artwork for the Nunga Footy Carnival and a local kindergarten, painted murals for another kindergarten and painted a giant two metre dog bowl to raise money for the Guide Dogs Association. Close also regularly runs activities and workshops for local schools and for the Blackwood Reconciliation Group, and is currently painting boots for NFL and Denver Broncos star Adam Gotsis to auction for charity as a part of the My Cause My Cleats initiative.

“I do stuff like that all the time. But I do it on my own terms and not for huge corporations and organisations,” says Close.

Looking back at these situations, the intentions of both Qantas and the 36ers were positive in wanting to engage with and recognise Indigenous talent and art.

But exploiting Indigenous artists in order to procure an image of cultural awareness is an irony that misses the mark entirely.

And this treatment of artists is not exclusive to Close either.

“Every creative I know has had this happen in some way or another, but Aboriginal artists have certainly shared similar experiences where they’ve been absolutely exploited by organisations that ought to know better, because this keeps coming up and we’re not learning from it,” says Close.

“We really have to ask ourselves, why are we doing this? If you’re doing it for a PR stunt then don’t bother, because it’s not meaningful, it’s just lip service.”

Criticism also surrounds the NBL’s hesitance to introduce an Indigenous Round, after the Illawarra Hawks took the initiative and donned a special edition Indigenous jersey for a match in December last year.

The NBL’s original press release on the matter was titled NBL to celebrate Indigenous history, later changed after NBA star Patty Mills questioned the headline, clarifying that this was Illawarra’s initiative and not the league’s.

Close questioned the authenticity of this season’s inaugural Indigenous Round, asking, “are you doing it because you’re genuine or because it’s a trendy thing to do that all codes are doing?”

Although there are no instant solutions to the underlying issue at hand, the least organisations could do is invest in a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

Described on Reconciliation Australia’s website as “turning good intentions into positive actions”, formulating a RAP would establish structures to formally commit to reconciliation in practical ways.

Organisations with RAPs have higher trust, lower prejudice and value cultural diversity and relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The proof is in the pudding for Close, who was consulted by the Adelaide Thunderbirds to design their dress for Super Netball’s Indigenous Round earlier this year.

The Thunderbirds, a smaller organisation with far less global reach than the 36ers, paid Close for her work.

Amongst the myriad of reasons why the netball club would have paid for this art lies their Reconciliation Action Plan.

Close holds hope that RAPs soon become an industry standard.

“I’m really hoping that organisations that may be working on a RAP can look at [my situation] and say, ‘what can we do to ensure that this isn’t just a document that lives on a shelf, that this isn’t just a PR stunt.’ ‘What can we do to actually make sure that this is meaningful and that we as an organisation are committing ourselves to further action.’

“I hope that [my situation] is a conversation starter and that organisations, if they are engaging in Aboriginal artists or an Aboriginal person for a role, they ensure that they’re paying for it if they’re expecting a professional service.”

Cultural training and action plans will continue to benefit Indigenous creatives seeking professional careers without the potholes of working for tight-fisted corporations.

But until the day this practice ends, Indigenous creatives will continue to be hindered by organisations believing their own hype, not understanding that their trendy shows of ‘cultural awareness’ affect little to no real change in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Image by Rachael Sharman