Popular underwear brand Berlei Australia has been called out for cultural appropriation after selecting artwork by a non-Indigenous artist which featured Aboriginal symbolism.
Berlei ran the Pink Bra Project Design Awards in partnership with Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA). The competition asked Australian artists to submit an artwork which could feature on a lingerie set.
The winners, Nicole Onslow and Chloe Edwards, were announced on Tuesday.
Nicole Onslow, who is believed to be a non-Indigenous artist, has been called out for using Aboriginal symbolism in her design.
Yarli Creative founder and proud Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung and Gamilaroi woman Madison Connors called out Berlei and Onslow via Instagram for cultural appropriation.
Connors herself applied for the competition and spoke out after the winners were announced on Tuesday. She said whilst she understands she wasn’t selected, she was disappointed that one of the winning artists used “sacred Aboriginal symbolism … and no one confirmed or denied if she is Aboriginal”.
“I and many other Aboriginal artists are getting pretty tired of seeing non-Aboriginal people create artwork that is inspired by our art, similar to our art, using symbols which have actual meaning, history and representation and above all artworks copied from our art,” Connors wrote on Instagram.
“Aboriginal art can only be created and sold by Aboriginal artists. You will get sick from our Ancestors if you use it in your ‘style’ and say you were inspired — then proceed to profit off it.”
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Connors also posted to her Instagram story, saying she felt “shattered” seeing the appropriation.
“I actually really like Berlei bras, I have quite a number of them I really love them,” she said.
“The issue still stands that it is uncomfortable that Berlei has chosen a piece of artwork that incorporates Aboriginal symbolism into the design and the artist does not openly identify as Aboriginal nor has there been any clarification whether she is.”
She said cultural appropriation is rampant in Australia today.
“We still see a lot of non-Aboriginal people using our symbolism. Cultural appropriation is still amongst all industries, it is everywhere,” she said.
“There needs to be a stand on this kind of behaviour, there needs to be education, especially from top down. I think our Government really needs to stand behind Aboriginal voices and allow our voices to be heard when it comes to our culture and show recognition of the importance, the history, everything.
“Our country is still not listening.”
Berlei Australian posted via Instagram on Wednesday to say they were currently reading comments and concerns relating to the Pink Bra Project Design Awards.
“This was an innocent mistake and we’re dreadfully sorry for the misstep,” they wrote.
The brand followed the post with a formal statement of apology.
“The Berlei Team and the artist, Nicole Onslow, have removed the entry from the competition. It will not be used in any upcoming product designs or feature in any communications,” they wrote.
The brand said they had taken time to reflect on their choices.
“Each entry was judged virtually, and as such the Indigenous elements of this particular entry were overlooked. We did not confirm the cultural origins of their artworks before announcing the winners,” they said.
“We have confirmed this morning that this print was submitted by a non-Indigenous artist and used without appropriate credit to the Traditional Custodians of the lands in which we live, learn and work.
“This was a collective mistake by the artist and ourselves, and we both deeply apologise.”
The brand signed off acknowledging the situation as a point of reflection in their Reconciliation journey.
Connors responded to the apology via Instagram, creating an artwork specific for the event.
“It’s cultural appropriation if it’s ‘Aboriginal Inspired’. It’s cultural appropriation if it’s an ‘innocent mistake’. It’s cultural appropriation if you didn’t know. It’s cultural appropriation if you saw someone else do it who isn’t part of their culture,” she wrote.
“Who is tired of these battles? Who is tired of these same conversations? Who else can’t just ‘let it go’, ignore it and disregard it anymore?
“Wake up! It’s 2021.”
Connors also noted there has been enough conversation and public outcry in recent years for brands to identify and understand what cultural appropriation is.
“Yet still the apologies are not genuine, authentic or taking any accountability for actions and inactions,” she said.
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In regards to the company reflecting on the matter, Connors said on her Instagram story that she always thinks and believes that “there is growth in uncomfortable situations”.
By Rachael Knowles