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The Message Stick – Respectfully incorporating First Nations art & culture.

first nations

In this issue of The Message Stick, Rebecca Wessels further enlightens us on how best to incorporate First Nations art and culture into commercial work in a sympathetic and respectful manner.

For tens of thousands of years, First Nations peoples commonly used message sticks as a way of communicating between different groups in Australia. For GSM, the concept of The Message Stick is that the stick will be passed from speaker to speaker to continue our discussion about First Nations culture and traditional knowledge. Our intention is for these discussions to provide some guidance and understanding of how we can apply First Nations culture respectfully and appropriately to what we do as creative thinkers, business owners and educators. By following this path, we have the opportunity to create a more culturally inclusive and enriched national identity.

Rebecca Wessels First Nations CultureIn GSM20 we talked with Rebecca Wessels, Peramangk & Ngarrindjeri, founder and CEO of Ochre Dawn Creative Industries, South Australia. Rebecca talked about celebrating First Nations art, culture and heritage within the workplaces and visual landscape of all Australians. In this issue of The Message Stick, Rebecca further enlightens us on how best to incorporate First Nations art and culture into commercial work in a sympathetic and respectful manner.

As Rebecca points out, to create a culturally respectful space, or to celebrate an organisation’s reconciliation journey, it is acceptable to use the artwork and language of First Nation’s people. However, there are ways to do and not to do this. Let’s explore them together.


first nationsFirst and foremost, when utilising First Nations artwork to celebrate the Reconciliation Action Plan, we strongly caution clients from utilising artwork in their brand, such as logos. This can be misleading if the organisation themselves is not a First Nations-owned business. You do not want to appear like a First Nations-owned business, when you are not. That being said, you are welcome to celebrate and showcase your commitment to Reconciliation through First Nations artwork on your digital and printed publications, as well as within your office environment.


This brings us to the question of what to consider when using cultural material. The number one priority is to ensure that we gain proper consent from the appropriate First Nations people. This means consulting widely with the First Nations communities, organisations and other stakeholders. It is also very important to ensure the artist you work with is First Nations. There are various ways to do this, whether by contacting the relevant community, First Nations experts or verifying the artist’s credentials.

The Artist

first nationsKey to your project is the artist and their work – and so respect for this needs to be shown. We can achieve this by ensuring we always credit the artist. Crediting them with their name, First Nations groups and ideally their bio and the narrative of the artwork. It is equally important that the artist also receives appropriate payment (including for applicable licenses and royalties – i.e. buying a canvas does not automatically give the purchaser the right to reproduce the artwork in any way, including commercial purposes).

The Artwork

first nations cultureOnce created, the artwork is ideally accompanied by a style guide. This sets clear and helpful guidelines for the marketing and communications teams as to how the artwork is intended to be used. It also shows that permission has been sought from the artist on the use of the artwork, be it through products, offices, vehicles or whatever it may be.

Other essential considerations to always make are to:

  • respect the integrity of the artwork – never alter the artwork during reproduction, unless the artist has given permission.
  • check the terms of the licences – if it’s only for a particular time period or for a particular purpose. Always seek permission from the artist for using it for other reasons or extended time periods.
  • ensure payment of appropriate licence or royalty fees, and discussion of copyright ownership with the artist.
  • avoid “free pitch” – First Nations artists are professionals and make a living from selling their works. These benefits flow back to First Nations communities and therefore we should never expect work without payment (e.g. artwork competitions).
  • when acknowledging artists and communities, check the correct spelling of names and places.


first nations cultureAnd finally, it is important to recognise that First Nations artists come from diverse backgrounds. Given there are hundreds of First Nations in this country, all with varying languages, traditions, and cultures. Their cultures are both living and evolving and are thus diverse in the mediums that they work with. These can range from painting to carving and jewellery, to writing and contemporary digital art.


first nationsRespect is integral to working with First nations people. For example, paying respect to the Traditional Owners of the land on which your office or offices sit. We can do this in a variety of ways. Whether it be by engaging a local artist or acknowledging Country through plaques or other signage.

GSM would like to thank Rebecca Wessels for providing her valuable insights for The Message Stick – For more information on Ochre Dawn – go to://

If you would like to continue this discussion on culture please contact

This article was originally published in GSM21. To read this and other great articles purchase this issue here.