November 24, 2017 / 11:31 AM / a year ago

Arty mailbags deliver indigenous land rights message in Australia

MUMBAI, Nov 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A festival of aboriginal art in Australia has drawn attention for an exhibit of repurposed mailbags that highlight the continuing struggle by indigenous people to protect their land rights.

The two canvas mailbags hanging on a traditional spear, with images and words by Mumu Mike Williams and Sammy Dodd, feature at Tarnanthi, a festival of aboriginal art in the city of Adelaide which runs through January 2018.

“These are land rights paintings,” Williams says of the work in the festival catalogue.

The paintings “are about ownership. Government always want to say that something belongs to them ... but I’m saying ‘wiya (no), this belongs to Anangu (aboriginal groups), to the traditional owners’ ... We’ll always fight to protect our land.”

Studies show that indigenous people protect about half the world’s land surface, but have formally recognised ownership of just over 10 percent.

Australia, along with other wealthy nations including the United States, lags behind Latin American and African nations when it comes to laws protecting indigenous land rights, according to an analysis last year of an online global map of land ownership.

While native titles recognise indigenous rights to certain parcels of land in the country, tensions between the competing interests of indigenous landholders, pastoral leaseholders and businesses, particularly miners, are common.

Williams is a “custodian of culture for his community ... actively working to have his and his community’s situation heard by the state and federal government,” said Nici Cumpston, artistic director of the Tarnanthi festival.

The art work features maps of Australia, and words in both English and Williams’ native Pitjantjatjara, cleverly subverting Australia Post’s warning on the mailbags: “Theft or misuse of this bag is a criminal offence — penalties apply.”

“Williams has been advocating for equality and land rights for a long time,” said Dallas Gold, founder of Raft Artspace gallery in Alice Springs, which focuses on indigenous work.

The mailbags “seem to make the message even more powerful ... as they become both objects of art that have presence, and an act of defiance as bags to carry messages are repurposed to carry a more poignant one,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit to see more stories.)

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