But when the two winners were announced on Instagram on Wednesday, one of the designs immediately came under scrutiny for its use of Aboriginal symbols and motifs.
“I saw it straight away and my heart just sank,” Madison Connors, a Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung and Gamilaroi woman and the founder of Yarli Creative, who also entered the competition, told Inside Retail.
Connors was one of several people who commented on Berlei’s Instagram post about the design, noting its use of Aboriginal iconography and asking whether the artist was Aboriginal. Berlei later confirmed she was not.
In a formal statement posted on Instagram on Thursday, the brand apologised for what it called an “innocent mistake” and withdrew the design from the competition.
“Each entry was judged virtually, and as such, the Indigenous elements of this particular entry were overlooked. We did not confirm the origins of their artworks before announcing the winners,” Berlei wrote.
“This was a collective mistake by the artist and ourselves, and we both deeply apologise.”
Why is it cultural appropriation?
The use of Aboriginal symbols by non-Indigenous people is nothing new.
“It happens all the time,” Connors said. “There are brands that name their products Aboriginal names. There are people that don’t disclose the Aboriginal artwork being used on leggings and children’s clothes. That is a red flag because usually when there’s Aboriginal art involved, there’s an acknowledgement of the Aboriginal artist, and they have a creation story about what the symbols mean and who their community is.”
Since she posted about the Berlei incident on her Instagram account, Connors said she has received hundreds of messages and screenshots of other non-Aboriginal artists selling Aboriginal art. These people are “making a profit off culture” she said.
“There are hashtags that say ‘Aboriginal-inspired’. You can’t be Aboriginal-inspired.”
The dots and concentric circles used in Aboriginal art aren’t a style choice in the same way that short, thick brush strokes are used in Impressionist paintings, Connors said. These symbols represent important cultural concepts, such as a meeting place or water hole.
“Aboriginal art is a method of sharing – sharing knowledge, sharing culture, sharing something we are connected to as Aboriginal people and it’s innate. If you don’t have access to that knowledge, then you can’t mimic Aboriginal art and call it a style,” she said.
“It’s about knowledge sharing and it’s not something that can be copied.”
That’s what makes the use of Aboriginal symbols and motifs by non-Indigenous people cultural appropriation, Connors said.
Why is it still happening?
Connors is disappointed that cultural appropriation is still happening after the 2020 protests around racial justice, which prompted many Australian businesses to publicly acknowledge the country’s First Nations people as the traditional owners of the land, engage in cultural awareness training and start talking about reconciliation.
“We’re in 2021. It’s time to be knowledgeable, be educated and make sure your company has an understanding of the traditional owners of the land,” she said.
“Whether you’re an underwear company, or a coffee company, you need to do your due diligence in this space. You need to diversify your organisation, have different people within your organisation who represent all sorts, so you don’t have these issues.”
Berlei is one of over 1100 organisations in Australia that has a Reconciliation Action Plan. It is currently in the Reflect stage, which means it is scoping and developing relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders, deciding on its vision for reconciliation and exploring its sphere of influence, before committing to specific actions or initiatives, according to Reconciliation Australia.
The brand said on Instagram that it is “committed to doing things better” and that the design competition “serves as a valuable lesson” from which it will continue to learn and grow.
But Connors is paying close attention to what Berlei does, not what it says.
“It’s all good and well to have a Reconciliation Action Plan, but if there’s no action, then what’s the point? It’s just words on paper,” she said.