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JackJumpers' Indigenous artist fights claims over disputed design

Andrew Mathieson -

The Tasmanian Aboriginal artist whose basketball jersey was pulled from an NBL game days ahead of this year's Indigenous round has sought to clarify his cultural position and artistic standing after his design caused a furore among some.

Tasmania JackJumpers, who hosted Brisbane Bullets on Saturday in Launceston, were the only one of 10 NBL sides not to wear an Indigenous design to mark the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples to the sport.

The controversy that forced players to revert to one of their regular strips on match day stemmed from complaints to the club from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre over dot art in the motif they claimed misrepresented Palawa-pakana artistic techniques and was not a part of the Lutrawita story.

The criticism has since floored the artist, Reuben Oates, following the remarks of Palawa man Rulla Kelly-Mansell, speaking on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, publicly stating the use of dots were "highly offensive" in the state.

"Historical records do demonstrate a history of using dots in traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal culture," Oates told National Indigenous Times.

"It's worth considering the extent to which this argument should be grounded in tradition.

"Traditionally, our ancestors lived in bark huts, hunted for their food, and spoke different languages. However, tradition evolves with contemporary influence.

"I'd like to express that I've never claimed my use of dots is a traditional practice. While I draw inspiration from Tasmanian traditions and culture, my art is purely my contemporary expression and interpretation.

"Artists should be free to express themselves in ways that resonate with them."

Oates added that dot art is not restricted to the design of mainland mobs and that "my artistic practice is a legal and respectful practice".

The banned jersey featured its Jack Jumper mascot – and moniker – of a ferocious and venomous ant almost indigenous to Tasmania, over a circular series of green and gold dots with the state's Palawa name Lutrawita emblazoned.

Criticism also targeted the Tasmania JackJumpers for picking Oates' design which the club said was "based on his own ancestral claim".

Oates is reportedly seventh great grandson to tribal warrior, Chief Mannalargenna, of the Plangermaireener clan in the Ben Lomond tribal area of north-eastern Tasmania.

The club, which joined the NBL in the 2021-22 season, admitted the board has not at any time during its brief existence sought Aboriginal advice from invited consultants on design in line with traditional Tasmanian culture.

The JackJumpers will tick off on future Indigenous jerseys, but will no longer appoint the next Aboriginal artists directly.

"The JackJumpers have consistently employed a similar selection process for the past two years, facing no apparent hindrances," Oates said.

"Notably, the 2021 Indigenous jersey design featured dots. This leads me to question why my design received a distinct response.

"It felt like a personal affront and the unfolding of these events were both hurtful and offensive."

Oates felt the response from Tasmania Aboriginal Centre members who criticised the club has "undervalued" and "overlooked" his expertise and role as an Indigenous cultural advisor and artist.

Oates added that he never intended to provoke but instead celebrate a source of First Nations pride among Indigenous and non-Indigenous basketball fans of the club.

"I have never been a person of division," he said.

"I have always believed in the offering of kindness and understanding. I have steered clear of engaging in divisive politics throughout my 20-plus year career as an artist.

"I have always focused on creative expression rather than seeking out protests."

While most Tasmanian Aboriginals identify their heritage under Palawa mobs, it is generally accepted that there are 48 historical Indigenous clans - including the Plangermaireener belonging to Oates - from nine regions on the island, all with their own distinct folklore from one another.

Oates accepts that not every Indigenous Tasmanian will accept the same oral history and shared interpretation of culture, but felt the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre does not have the right to dictate the customs and traditions for all.

"We must remember how all of this began: I was publicly accused of plagiarism and cultural misappropriation," he said.

"The decision to withdraw the jerseys should never have been made. The JackJumpers were influenced by a vocal interpretation.

"Division emerges when the voices of a few are mistaken for the voices of many. There shouldn't be such a divide within our Tasmanian Indigenous community.

"This separation arises when differing interpretations aren't accepted, which is true on both sides. Our modern culture is a reinvention, built from fragments of the past.

"Truth is, there's no real argument here – all voices should be heard and celebrated together and not torn down."

The scrapping of the jersey opened up a debate on Aboriginal lore – knowledge on matters dealing with stories, beliefs and spirituality – in deciding what part is true of Tasmanian history and culture passed down generations from traditional custodians.

Oates said numerous Indigenous organisations and corporations from across the nation reached out and backed the design of the Huon Valley artist.

"While I wouldn't refuse the idea of a collaboration with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre... our differences make it difficult to find common ground," he said.

Oates said he never intended to provoke but rather to celebrate the source of pride among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous basketball fans of the JackJumpers.

The club said it stands by his work and also insisted it will continue to engage with Oates on future projects.

The JackJumpers reportedly told retailers to take their stock of the jersey off clothes racks – after hundreds were already sold.

The order from the club has robbed Oates of an income stream, but there are reports that some stores in Launceston and Burnie are still selling the replicas.

"Considering the recent controversy surrounding the Indigenous round jerseys, it's not a matter of if the uniforms will be reinstated, it's a matter of when," Oates said.

"To my knowledge, there are no legal restrictions in place to prohibit the sale or use of the uniforms merely because of criticism.

"I'm a true believer that this situation could be a revolution for our whole community here in Tasmania. This division needs to end."


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