UN expert to Rodarte: Hands off Aboriginal culture

rodarte FW1213/getty via daylife
In writing about Rodarte’s Fall 2011 show in February last year and specifically, about the casting of Alice Springs-based model Melissa Johannsen, frockwriter noted, “When the Mulleavy sisters were dreaming up their Fall 2011 collection with the Great American Plains in mind, chances are there weren't any pictures of Australia’s Red Centre on their mood board”. Twelve months on, coincidentally, what inspired Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the designer siblings behind the New York-based label, for their Fall 2012 range? “Australia!” and “the rugged outback”, they told reporters backstage in New York last month, in spite of the fact that neither has ever visited Australia. The inspiration “came out of nowhere”, according to the Mulleavys. No, it did not, says Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian lawyer who is the head of the University of NSW Indigenous Law Centre and an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). UPDATED: The Mulleavys claim the prints were licensed, but they still won't reveal the identity of the artist/s (see below). 

rodarte FW1213/getty via daylife
Davis, the first indigenous Australian to have been elected to any UN position, contacted frockwriter on Tuesday saying that she finds the collection’s Aboriginal prints "offensive" and that she has referred the matter to The National Congress of Australia’s First People.

“It is completely insensitive to Aboriginal art and spirituality and land and how they are inextricably linked" Davis told frockwriter on Tuesday. "The sisters admit they have ever been to Australia, so they must have had ‘inspiration’ from books, images, web or Aboriginal art, including 60,000 year old rock art – a clan’s songlines, story, life and very essence, with responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to land and kin”.


How do we know that Laura and Kate Mulleavy did not in fact develop the Aboriginal prints in collaboration with indigenous Australian artists? Over the past three days frockwriter has had several communications with Rodarte's New York-based press office Black Frame, with as yet no formal response from the Mulleavys.
 

UPDATE 16/03 11.30AM: Overnight, US fashion blog Fashionista picked up this story and managed to procure a statement from Rodarte. Here it is:
“We deeply respect and admire the work of other artists. Through the appropriate channels, we licensed the Aboriginal artwork that influenced prints in our collection. As a result, the artists will share in proceeds of the pieces inspired by their work.” 
For the record, frockwriter sent three separate emails to Rodarte's PR rep, Brian Phillips, asking if Rodarte had developed the Aboriginal prints in the Fall 2012 collection in collaboration with any local indigenous artists. We also asked for the details of the artists. No answer was forthcoming. In a fourth email to Phillips, we have asked that since the Mulleavys are now on record that they licensed the artworks - with, however, still no specific details of the artists, who have moral rights in terms of correct attribution - could they please provide these details.  

UPDATE 16/03 9.37PM: Jeremy Eccles at Aboriginal Art News reports that the artist behind Rodarte's Fall 2012 Aboriginal prints is the late Benny Tjangala, from Alice Springs-based Papunya Tula Artists. The license was reportedly organised through the Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.   

UPDATE 17/03 9.30AM: Still no response from Rodarte's PR agency - which bears the rather ironic name of Black Frame - with any details of the artist/s in question. One conclusion to be drawn from this is that Kate and Laura Mulleavy did not want anyone to know the identities of the artists in the supply chain for their Fall 2012 collection. Which does seem a little at odds with their statement that they respect artists - a statement that was only issued once the story found itself in the public domain. 

Megan Davis, meanwhile, has added the following commentary. She told frockwriter:
"There is a long history of misappropriation of important Aboriginal artworks and cultural material, which has been subsequently used in inappropriate ways, and against this backdrop, I welcome Rodarte's confirmation of their support for Aboriginal art and artists through the licensing of their work. Rodarte did not confirm the licensing of any artwork, (despite repeated requests by Patty Huntington), until my comments yesterday. Until then, when asked about the inspiration for the collection, they were on the public record as stating that their collection "came out of nowhere" My concern, shared by Clem Bastow and others, was expressed in the context of that specific comment. 

It was not out of 'nowhere' but, in part, the work of Benny Tjangala from Papunya Tula. There have been many successful collaborations between designers and Aboriginal artists that have provided a public profile and financial benefit to Aboriginal artists for use of their work. We look forward to seeing the appropriate recognition of this artist and region when this particular Rodarte collection is pictured. Such a joint effort adds to the cultural value of the collection and provides a chance for relationship building and skills transfer".


In not one review of the collection in the US or Australian press, however, many of which include backstage interviews with the designers, was any mention made of any local collaborations (Australian writer Clem Bastow did mention the collection in a general piece about fashion's predilection towards cultural borrowing, but there was no further information about the collection's specifics).

“We know that these particular expressions, the rock art and dot paintings, are part of a religious Aboriginal system of knowledge and that there are cultural responsibilities for the protection and use of those images as well as custodial obligations” said Davis.

If the designs had been straight-out copies, things would be simpler. 

Considerable litigation has been initiated in Australia over the past 20 years regarding the commercialisation of indigenous artwork on products such as T-shirts, carpets, even a commemorative $10 bank note issued by the Reserve Bank of Australia, with the courts finding in favour of the artists more often than not. The subject of traditional knowledge has also come under scrutiny, with a book by anthropologist Charles Mountford restricted from sale in the northern territory because it was found to have misappropriated secret and sacred information.

Still, it’s the issue of the appropriation of indigenous cultural expression without consultation that most disturbs Davis and indeed many at at international law level, she reports. To this end, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is currently drafting three texts to become binding Treaties on the matters of traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions (which Davis notes would be most relevant in this case) and genetic resources.

“With your lawyer’s hat on, you can say that it doesn’t breach any particular legal standard, but I find it surprising that there’s been no collaboration" said Davis. "For someone who works at the UN and is often in New York, the thought of seeing women walking around in this particular ready-to-wear collection sickens me. Because it is my culture and it is where I come from. I appreciate that we live in a postmodern culture, where people do take inspiration from particular areas and it is a complex area of law. But as an Aboriginal lawyer I found the designs offensive. What I find more offensive is that one doesn’t enter into a cultural protocol with a particular [indigenous] group, particularly when you keep in mind the abject poverty that a lot of these groups live in in mostly remote Australia".

There have been numerous examples of commercial collaborations with indigenous Australian artists, the best-known arguably the current staff uniforms for Australia's national air carrier Qantas, which include ties, dresses and other garments designed by Peter Morrissey, using the 'Wirriyarra' print created by Adelaide-based collective Balarinji Designs.
qantas uniforms, designed by peter morrissey/ballaringi - via news.com.au
It would not be the first time that an American fashion company had found itself embroiled in controversy over indigenous cultural issues. 

In 1999, the Pauktuutit Inuit Womens’ Association of Canada accused Donna Karan of cultural theft after one of Karan’s buyers travelled to remote Arctic communities looking for inspiration for an upcoming Karan collection and purchased a number of traditional garments.

Far more recently, Urban Outfitters came under fire from the Navajo Nation over the US retail chain's Navajo-inspired Fall collection. After first issuing a cease and desist letter, last month Navajo Nation commenced legal action against Urban Outfitters for trademark infringement and violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.




kate (L) and laura mulleavy/w magazine
It is especially surprising that the Mulleavys would not be extra mindful of any potential cultural sensitivity issues, given the brouhaha that erupted over the inspiration for their Fall 2010 collection two years ago.

Rodarte’s Fall 2010 collection was inspired by a Mexican road trip and specifically, the border factory town of Ciudad Juárez, of all places. The fact that the latter happens to be the epicentre of the Mexican drug war, in which some 50,000 people have been murdered over the past six years, appeared to have been lost not only on the Mulleavys, but also on the reviews by major American fashion critics at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Style.com and others, all of whom wrote the collection up without mentioning the war. 

And then there was beauty giant MAC, which chose this specific collection as the departure point for a joint venture with Rodarte, developing some nail polishes which it called "Juárez" and "Factory". The blogosphere erupted – led by The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman, who noted how tasteless the concept was, given that thousands of women aged 12-20 are estimated to have been raped and murdered en route to and from Juárez's low wage export assembly plants.

Following a public apology and an offer to donate partial proceeds to Juárez victims, MAC eventually pulled the plug on the collaboration.