NAVA Code of Practice: An ethical framework for working with First Nations artists and communities

The newly-added First Nations section in NAVA’s revised Code of Practice offers a critical ethical framework for implementing industry good practice.

Image: Opening night of 𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘥𝘭𝘺/𝘚𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘥/𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘩 curated by Steven Ross, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative, Sydney, February 2022. Photo by Sharon Hickey.

ID: Photo of an exhibition opening night with a group of people seated and standing facing towards a presentation off-photo. Several colourful posters and art works are featured on the floor and walls, and four textile art works are hanging from the ceiling.

While the financial and cultural value of First Nations artwork is often recognised in government national policy and strategy, Australia has yet to implement the necessary comprehensive policy and law that protects artists from unethical practices, such as the unauthorised use of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP). Targeted legislative and regulatory reform is crucially needed to support self-determination for First Nations people and inform the ethical conduct of business for organisations and individuals working with First Nations artists and communities.

The newly-added First Nations section in NAVA’s revised Code of Practice for Visual Arts, Craft and Design (the Code) offers a critical ethical framework for implementing industry good practice. Written by Stephanie Parkin, Quandamooka woman of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and Co-Founder and Principal Solicitor of Parallax Legal, this addition to the Code falls under the new Principles, Ethics and Rights section, which puts forward good practice recommendations for progressive social change that reflects the sector’s growing concern with issues of justice, inclusion and representation.

Revised through extensive consultation and a collaborative methodology, the Code states that it is the obligation of the organisation or individual to reflect on why they wish to engage with a First Nations artist and to recognise the unequal power dynamics that are underpinned by Australia’s colonial history. While there are many challenges surrounding exploitative financial and business arrangements that are specific to being an artist, these circumstances are also informed by an underlying colonial framework that continues to impact First Nations artists and people across the country. Many First Nations artists still struggle with issues of fair pay and copyright, including the use of their ICIP, while ineffective Australian consumer law enables continuing cultural exploitation through the proliferation of inauthentic Indigenous arts and crafts in the souvenir market. 

A key element highlighted in the Code is understanding that First Nations communities have the right to self-determination, i.e. the right to enforce their own engagement and cultural protocols. This includes the rights to not be discriminated against, to enjoy culture, lands and waters, to be economically self-sufficient, and to be involved in all decision-making processes that impact First Nations artists and communities. The Code notes that self-determination can also be referred to as an ‘ongoing process of choice’ to ensure that communities are able to meet their social, cultural and economic needs. 

Dr Terri Janke of Terri Janke and Company, a leading Indigenous law firm that was one of the organisations responsible for reviewing the Code, identifies ‘the right to own and control Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (self-determination)’ as one of the rights that Aboriginal people sought to have instated. For Janke, self-determination is the key concept relating to ICIP rights, as she believes that First Nations people have the right to own, control, and manage their own ICIP, including maintaining and supporting cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems, and social organisation. Those working with First Nations artists must take a collaborative approach that supports self-determination, even if this means shifting the project envisioned. 

In the Code, Parkin stresses that, ‘this section and others do not replace your own engagement with First Nations people. Organisations or individuals wishing to engage First Nations artists will therefore need to do work prior to engaging with an artist or community.’ The general principles of the Code are not rules or instructions, but rather guidelines that are subject to the specifical cultural protocols of relevant First Nations communities. Arts workers and organisations are encouraged to speak to First Nations people, consultants or appropriate cultural authorities at each stage of the project, ensuring that these conversations are appropriately remunerated. It is essential to invest in building genuine relationships with First Nations artists and communities, allowing time and space for those communities to direct the way in which the engagement or collaboration proceeds – or doesn’t.

The Code of Practice is a valuable living document that opens up space for the material growth and development of a stronger, more equitable arts sector – one that values the ethical and self-reflective conduct of business between First Nations artists, organisations and individuals, and prioritises self-determination and inclusion.