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Aboriginal flags (Australia)

Last modified: 2015-06-27 by ian macdonald
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[Aboriginal flag] image by Christopher Vance


See also:


The Aboriginal Flag

The aboriginal flag is "per fess sable and gules, a rondel or", in English, it's a yellow circle (the sun) on a horizontally divided field of black (the night sky) and red (the red earth, presumably this was from a group of Northern Territory aboriginals, there's not a lot of that ochre ground here in Tasmania...).
Bernard Booth

An alternative explanation is that black represents the skin color of the people, red the land, and the yellow disc represents the sun. It is a very common mistake to display the flag upside down. However, various references, from both government and non-government sources, always show the flag black above red.
Miles Li, 16 July 1999

There has never been any definite symbolism given to the colours by the flag's supposed designer, Harold Thomas. There are several different interpretations; black has been said to symbolise Aboriginal skin and the night sky. Red can either be the red desert earth of the Aboriginal blood spilt over the last 200 or so years.
David Cohen, 11 September 2000

The judgment of the copyright dispute contains a comprehensive history of the development of the flag design, including explanations of the colours.
Bill Anderson, 21 January 2001

From the copyright case judgment at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/federal_ct/1997/215.html,

He said that at one stage he had the black on the bottom and the red on top. But he thought that that was too obviously a balanced picture. He added:
I wanted to make it unsettling. In normal circumstances you'd have the darker colour at the bottom and the lighter colour on top and that would be visibly appropriate for anybody looking at it. It wouldn't unsettle you. To give a shock to the viewer to have it on top had a dual purpose, was to unsettle... The other factor why I had it on top was the Aboriginal people walk on top of the land. It's an obvious fact as well. So it had - that was the reason why the black was on top was visibly unsettling and because of how I was trained at art school, not to make things too obvious but to have a bit of a shock but also to say that the people walk on the land.
So it isn't flown inverted in line with a traditional flag practice, but it was inverted in the design process as an artistic choice (making a vaguely similar statement anyway).
Jonathan Dixon, 4 November 2010

Aboriginal Flag - Ratio 1:2
[Aboriginal flag in ratio 1:2] image by Miles Li, 8 October 2011

The ratio 2:3 is uncommon in Australia; hence the flag also appears in the usual 1:2 ratio.
Miles Li, 6 March 2007


Copyright Implications

The following is a press release from Australian flag manufacturer Carroll and Richardson, who hold the exclusive licence for the making of Aboriginal flags - a licence granted by the copyright holder, Harold Thomas.

Dear General Manager,

In April 1997 the Federal Court of Australia declared Harold Joseph Thomas to be the author of the artistic work known as "the Aboriginal flag." Mr Thomas, an indigenous artist, designed the flag in 1971 and it has become the symbol of Australia's indigenous people.

Mr Thomas made the decision to award an exclusive licence for the manufacture and marketing of Aboriginal flags, banners and bunting to Carroll and Richardson Flags.

Since 1998, Carroll and Richardson Flags have been advising flag manufacturers not to infringe the Harold Thomas copyright, however some flagmakers have chosen to ignore repeated warnings about infringement and have continued to manufacture and sell Aboriginal flags and banners. Proceedings have been issued against these companies in the Federal Court of Australia, seeking costs and damages.

As a possible purchaser of Aboriginal flags it is important for you to be aware of infringing flags, banners, bunting, and handwaver flags that may be under your control. These items may be in store in your organisation or on a purchasing list with the responsible individuals within your organisation. Aboriginal flag products not manufactured by Carroll and Richardson Flags should be returned to the point of purchase as they could breach Mr Thomas' copyright.

If you wish to purchase Aboriginal flags, banners and bunting for display purposes or for flagpoles, you can do so by contacting Carroll and Richardson Flags direct, or by contacting the Government Info Shop in any capital city within Australia. The addresses of these stores can be found on the website at www.flags2000.com.au. In the Quick Navigation Menu, click on Flags of Australia and scroll down to Australian Stockists.

Flags that have a white 'header' at the left side, or flags that do not show the Carroll and Richardson label could be infringing the copyright held by Mr Harold Thomas.

Yours faithfully,
Barry Richardson,
Managing Director,
Carroll and Richardson

contributed by David Cohen, 11 December 2001

 I would like to add some detail pertaining to the Australian Aboriginal flag. As youre probably aware the image of the flag is copyright to the designer, Mr Harold Thomas. As correctly listed here, a company by the name of Carroll & Richardson obtained the copyright license for the flag, however their license is limited specifically to flags and bunting.

Birubi Art Pty Ltd, has since 2005, been the sole copyright license holder for souvenir items bearing the flag image, excluding those items specifically listed to Carroll & Richardson:

In January of 2005 the Aboriginal flag copyright holder Mr Harold Thomas awarded an exclusive license to produce items bearing the image of the Australian Aboriginal flag to Birubi Art Pty Ltd. (http://www.birubiart.com).  The license covers souvenir and educational items outside of the exclusive license attributed to Carroll and Richardson Flags.

Mr Thomas, Birubi Art, and Carroll and Richardson, are each making efforts to track down and eradicate copyright infringing product offered by unscrupulous operators. These efforts have resulted in companies and individuals being proceeded against in the Federal Court of Australia, with the copyright owner and license holder seeking both damages and costs."

Ben Wooster, 29 January 2014
Managing Director
Birubi Art Pty Ltd

As an example of the application of this copyright, http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/oh-dear-google-flagged-over-logo-dispute-20100126-mvhd.html reported that a child designed an Australia-themed Google logo for Australia Day, which included the Aboriginal flag. Harold Thomas, designer of the flag, didn't want it being used by corporations, and since he holds the copyright, he declined permission to use the flag.
David Kendall, 26 January 2010


Aboriginal Map Flag variation

[Aboriginal flag variation] image by Dylan Crawfoot

Seen on the news today, Aboriginal protesters in Canberra were flying this variation of the Aboriginal flag while police tried to remove them from outside Federal Parliament House.
Dylan Crawfoot, 11 February 1999


1972 Aboriginal protest flag

[1972 Aboriginal flag variant] image by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 30 Sep 2008

The Australian newspaper on Tuesday (15 June) carried a January 1972 photo from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside parliament house in Canberra. It showed this variation of the Aboriginal flag (which was first flown at around this time) featuring what looks like a spear design. There is no accompanying explanation of the flag, and while the photo is in B/W, I'm assuming the standard black, red, gold colours of the Aboriginal flag.
Dylan Crawfoot 16 June 1999

The spearhead flag was an entry in a national competition [see below] The field was black over ochre-yellow, and the symbols on it were white. The barbed spear (which was couped at the base) represented the European invasion of the Australian continent on 26 January 1788. The four surrounding symbols (which were somewhat thicker than shown in the illustration and rounded at the ends rather than cut straight across) represented "Aboriginal elders discussing the invasion".
Adrian J. Oudeman, 27 November 1999


History of the Aboriginal flag

On 26 February 1979 I received a communication from Ambrose Golden-Brown, an aboriginal educator and a member of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy established outside Parliament House, Canberra in 1972, which remained there until forcibly closed in 1977. The following is substantially based on Ambrose Golden-Brown's letter.

Three flags were flown at the Embassy:

  1. A horizontal tricolor red/black/green.
  2. A red-over-black bicolor with a yellow disk, as described by Bernard Booth, and
  3. The spearhead "1972 variant" - in fact a separate design.

The red/black/green flag was not explained by Ambrose Golden-Brown, but it identical to the African-American flag, and no doubt was derived from it. Protest activism was new to Australian Aboriginals in 1972 and African-American protest provided the obvious model.

The black-over-red flag with the disk was designed by Harold Thomas and submitted in a national competition (details of the competition?). The letter from Ambrose Golden-Brown describes the disk as representing both the sun and the land, and its colour as ochre (one of the basic pigments in Aboriginal painting - however in practice the disk is always a bright chrome yellow). The black represents Aboriginal people. The red is for blood.

The spearhead flag was a separate entry in the same competition. The flag with the disk has superseded other designs and is now officially recognised as the Aboriginal flag by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The colour symbolism understood at the Embassy in 1972 is not necessarily current, and I have heard both of the alternative interpretations reported by Bernard Booth and Miles Li.
Adrian J. Oudeman, 27 November 1999


Use in a "national flag"

[Aboriginal canton flag] image by Antonio Martins, 22 Jan 2006

A curious development in the last 20 years has been the use by Australian radicals and republicans - who commonly share an anti-British stance towards Australian history - of the Australian national flag with the British flag in the canton replaced by the Aboriginal black, red and gold flag. This variant is occasionally flown in political demonstrations and depicted on car stickers.
Adrian J. Oudeman, 27 November 1999