Alice Springs, Australia A bright-eyed child's smiling face displaying the "spirit of Australia." Tumbling boomerangs symbolizing the limbs of an Olympic athlete. Thousands of colored dots on canvas mapping the nation's vast, dry interior -- spiritually as well as geographically.
The distinctive artforms of Aborigines have become some of Australia's strongest icons, from billboard ads for major corporations to the official logo of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Their work is found in museums around the world.
But Australia's record on its treatment of indigenous artists and the millenia-old culture that underpins their work is stained by exploitation and disrespect.
Exploitation and greed
Since the introduction of modern art materials to a group of Aborigine artists in the 1970s prompted a renaissance, Aboriginal art has grown to become perhaps Australia's most important cultural export.
Certainly it's one of the most popular -- Aboriginal images now rival Crocodile Dundee and kangaroos as symbols of Australia overseas.
But the surge in popularity has given rise to unscrupulous dealers and manufacturers who are interested in cash, not culture. They have taken advantage of Aborigines, who often live in isolated communities in Australia's vast desert or the tropical north.
Artists whose paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars have been paid in cans of beer. Ancient taboos have been broken by companies that reproduce sacred totems on dish towels and underwear. Allegations of fakery abound.
"For far too long many non-indigenous people have exploited indigenous culture through the production of Aboriginal art and cultural products not of Aboriginal origin," says the National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Assn., a nongovernment group created to combat the problem.
As the Sydney Olympics approach, "this not only compromises Aboriginal cultural values, but also Australia's international identity and integrity in the tourism market," the group says.
Early this year, the association launched a national system giving approved producers permission to use a special authenticity label -- a guarantee to buyers as well as a safeguard for artists. It is too early to measure the effectiveness of the system, its proponents say.
Aborigine art in the style known as "Western Desert" -- characterized by tiny dots in bright colors forming stylized depictions of Dreamtime stories -- hangs in galleries and private collections around the world.
Similarly, the "X-ray style" from northern Australia -- depicting kangaroo, barramundi fish and other animals in ochre on slabs of straightened eucalyptus bark -- can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at Sotheby's and Christies' art auctions.
More affordable are the millions of artifacts sold daily at tourist stores across Australia, from the upmarket Sydney shop where President Clinton bought a boomerang in 1996 to trinket stores in airport terminals.
There are carved animals, spears, digeridus -- hollowed-out tree branches that make a rich drone when blown through correctly -- printed T-shirts, scarves and socks.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission estimates the industry is now worth around 200 million Australian dollars a year, or about $118 million. Overseas sales account for 70 percent of the total.
Artists are rarely the biggest beneficiaries. In a 1997 study, the commission found that as little as a quarter of the money reached the artists. The rest went to gallery owners, dealers and other middlemen.
Call to action
In the Outback, artists are responding by getting organized -- hiring business advisers, forming collectives, getting on the Internet.
"Community art centers are owned by the artists so they have control and the returns are going back to the artists," said Katie Yeowart, director of Desart, an umbrella group that represents around 4,000 artists across more than 30 small communities in three states.
One of those groups is Jukurrpa Artists Corp., an Alice Springs-based workshop and gallery founded in 1986 by four women and now representing around 600 artists.
When Sydney Olympics organizers wanted Aboriginal designs for a series of collectable pins, rather than approach artists directly, they talked to Desart, which put them in contact with Bessie Liddle, one of Jukurrpa's founders.
"They asked me to do some designs for them," said Liddle, resting briefly from her latest painting, based on patterns traditionally painted on women's bodies for ceremonies. "I said, 'It looks easy; I'll do it.'
"I made a boomerang for them. Then I made a waterhole. Then a person's tracks coming into a waterhole. The story is my country's story, where the women sit around the waterhole, freshwater," said Liddle.
Three of her seven designs have been made into official limited-edition pins for the Summer Games.
Paying the price
Protecting artists' rights is about culture as well as income.
"Aboriginal art is all about stories -- it's not just artists making a buck," said Desart's development adviser, Tim Rollason. "Each painting depicts a story or part of the culture. Artists get in trouble in the community if they don't protect that story -- it's shame for them."
Perhaps more sensitive to scandal, the Sydney Games Organizing Committee appointed a special advisory panel on Aboriginal matters.
"We have had our ups and downs, but they have done fairly well for the most part," said the advisory committee's chairwoman, Lowitja O'Donohue, a respected Aborigine elder.
Others have a patchier record.
Qantas, the nation's biggest airline, has spent an estimated $6 million on promotions based around Aborigines in the past six years, including painting two of its Boeing 747s in bright Aboriginal designs.
It got some bad publicity earlier this year when the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a smiling Aboriginal girl featured widely in Qantas ads bearing the slogan "spirit of Australia" was living in squalor, eight years after the photograph was taken.
The airline had sought permission to use the photo and paid the woman several thousand dollars for its use, but critics questioned whether that was enough.