Dollar Dave’ and the Reserve Bank: a tale of art, theft and human rights

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Changeover Day when Australia swapped from pounds to the new decimal currency. But the “C” in Changeover Day might equally stand for Copyright Day, for it marks the first Aboriginal copyright dispute.

In February 1966, Adelaide’s Advertiser newspaper revealed that the Reserve Bank had not sought permission from the celebrated Arnhem Land artist David Malangi when it reproduced his work on the new A$1 note.

Andrews reproduced much of the detail of the photographed painting for the new dollar design, which was not acknowledged.

Between April 1963 and February 1966, the Reserve Bank somehow forgot Malangi’s identity – seemingly a straightforward breach of his copyright.

However, things were not straightforward. In 1963, like most of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal population, David Malangi was a ward.

The Commonwealth’s Director of Welfare, Harry Giese, was the guardian of his estate and the trustee of his property. Malangi couldn’t buy or sell goods worth more than ten pounds without the Director or a welfare officer’s consent.

No person could purchase a painting or drawing from a ward except through an “approved institution” or with the Director’s consent.

Under section 25 of the Welfare Ordinance, the copyright in Malangi’s work was owned by the Director as trustee for the ward.

Australian $1 note paper back. CLICK TO ENLARGE. Reserve Bank of Australia.

Australian $1 note paper front. CLICK TO ENLARGE. Reserve Bank of Australia.

In order to buy Malangi’s painting, Kupka needed the “understanding co-operation” of the Welfare Branch, as well as the Methodist Mission at Milingimbi.

When Kupka returned to Darwin with his “first great collection from Arnhem Land” in 1963, he brought his pieces to the Methodist Overseas Mission storeroom in Darwin’s Knuckey Street. He then displayed them to the representatives of the Welfare Branch to show them what he was taking away.

Why this bureaucracy? The official answer was that it was designed to combat rip-offs of Aboriginal art. Through the 1950s and 1960s, there was a lively black market trade in Aboriginal objects or “relics,” bark paintings, “churinga” of stone and wood, and even human skulls.

Missions ran a lucrative trade in Aboriginal art, with most artists receiving a tiny portion of the profits. In 1965, a Legislative Councillor alleged that the work in “native artifacts” was the “most lucrative business in the Northern Territory,” being one that was not affected by drought.

Independent Aboriginal artists like Yirawala had to smuggle their paintings from their home mission to independent galleries.

According to Sandra Holmes, who ran such a gallery in Darwin, the authorities at Croker Island sold Yirawala’s paintings to interstate and international dealers against the artist’s express wishes and to his great distress.

Recognising Malangi

When it became aware of the story about Malangi, the Department of Territories in Canberra wrote – not to Malangi himself, but to the Northern Territory Administrator. It stated its willingness to,

pay the ruling price for Malangi’s work plus a fee to establish the right to reproduce them in any form in which we desire.

The Reverend Marcel Spengler, the Superintendent at Milingimbi, politely asserted Malangi’s rights. In a letter in March 1966, he asked for a royalty, adding that:

We have not been able to house Malangi and his family in a substantial cottage, and it is a good idea for an aboriginal from this area to be independent in the matter of housing.

With extreme caution, the Reserve Bank wrote that it would “acknowledge” Malangi’s contribution, adding that “Malangi’s role is not comparable with that of any other artist concerned in the design of the new notes but this would not preclude us from making an appropriate payment to him”.

Letter discussing David Milangi’s payment. CLICK TO ENLARGE. Australian Archives Canberra, author provided.

By the time the Bank sent a cheque for A$1,000, the Welfare Ordinance had been repealed.

This didn’t prevent the money from going to the Northern Territory Administrator, who paid it into a trust account “pending a suitable occasion on which the artist could be presented with a ‘personal token’.”

The government could no longer legally hold Malangi’s money in a trust account or dictate to him how he should spend it. The legal controls that had existed over his work were undoubtedly well-intentioned. However, their effect was to facilitate official rip-offs and prevent artists from doing anything about them.

Acknowledging a wrong

There was a post-script. In the Dry Season of 1968, almost a year after Dr Coombs’ presentation, Malangi indicated his intention to come to Darwin to make a reciprocal presentation of his own.

Such a presentation would be consistent with Aboriginal law, with the idea that each party gives the other something to right a wrong.

For example, in 2003, a group of Yolngu men from north-east Arnhem Land traveled to Darwin to conduct a “wiki” ceremony at the Northern Territory Supreme Court.

This was a reconciliation for the famous Tuckiar case, in which a white police officer, Albert McColl, was speared at Caledon Bay in 1933. The McColl family traveled to Darwin and met Tuckiar’s descendants – an example of things being settled the proper way.

Malangi went to Darwin and stayed at Bagot Aboriginal Community under its superintendent’s benevolent gaze. A meeting was arranged with Dr Coombs for Tuesday, 4 June.

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