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Is our heritage being stolen?

13 March 2012, 07:11

An open letter to the Ministers of Trade and Industry and Arts and Culture.

We have seen the textile and clothing industry totally decimated by cheap clothing imports from China.  I can understand that this is a product of mass produced items which are price sensitive and the volumes required to service a nation are massive, so it was a given that competition would be hard.  Manufacturing in all spheres has dropped but now the Chinese have been for a while, muscling into a new area that is effecting many small businesses and artists all over the globe and now especially in South Africa.

Artists in any country represent and reflect a nation. The works produced are part of the national heritage.  In the past few months more than 20 galleries have closed their doors just in the Johannesburg region alone.  But what we have seen is, shops and galleries and I say gallery in the loosest term possible bringing container loads of mass produced copied pictures and selling them at prices that local artists cannot even compete with.  Material costs are more than finished Chinese pictures.  I cannot call them artworks because they are done on a mass scale. 

I have received emails from Chinese companies offering to reproduce any picture you send them.  There are certain so called galleries and individuals in Gauteng that have done just that.  They go into true galleries and take a cell phone picture send it off to China and then get back oil painted pictures resembling a style of a local artist.  The original artist now cannot even compete.   

To give you an idea of Chinese art production, I had recently read a couple of articles in the de Spiegel and New York Times.  These studios are likened to sweatshops. A painter can produce anywhere up to 30 pictures per day. There are 10 000 of these copy painters producing pictures in a single region of Southern China.  The average painter earns approximately R3.00 per picture copied.  That works out to be a whopping R90.00 per day. 

These copies are then sold at less than R100.00 per picture depending on quantities ordered.  They are landing in South Africa for less than our raw material costs.

According to a New York Times article Artist groups are questioning whether these works infringe on copyright laws.  Wal-Mart has opted not to stock Chinese work for this reason.  I sincerely hope Wal-Mart continues this practice in the South African market. 

I realise that this is a complex issue and how do we regulate this market.  We can try educating the population but this is an almost impossible job as price still plays a factor and how does the average person tell the difference between fake and real South African art.  One of the ways is that each gallery holds a CV of the artist and one can reference the artist.  This is a problem for the side of the road young black artists whose work cannot be referenced.  Do we name and shame businesses that import this fake art in the hope that people reject these pictures.  The likelihood is that will also not work.  Tourists come here and purchase what they think is local art but was actually produced in China. 

I feel that imported Chinese mass produced fake pictures is in anti competitive practice that needs to be reviewed and taxed to come into line with local cost structures.  Legislation is what is required.    Our artists and businesses are being affected and we need to act now to prevent what happened to our clothing and textile industry.

Your support would be greatly appreciated.

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