Saturday, 29 April 2017

Cultural Appropriation of Indigenous Art?

Today, CBC showcased a story about a Toronto artist, who had her show cancelled, over an allegation that her work is actually a form of cultural appropriation.

Amanda PL is the artist in question and defends that her work is inspired by the art style of famous indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau. For those who do not know of him, his art was famous in the 1960's for its depiction of animals, people and nature. Below is a few samples of some of his more beautiful pieces in my opinion.

Norval Morrisseau

Norval Morrisseau

The art is undeniably beautiful, as it depicts not only indigenous acts, but also tells a story with every piece. However, can we truly accuse another artist of cultural genocide or appropriation, simply because they are impacted by an art form?

I mean, I understand how cultural appropriation can be extremely harmful, especially when it is taken and mass produced for profit, as we have seen in the past with various indigenous garb via famous fashion outlets. To take a piece of a culture and bastardize it, in my opinion, would be to mass produce it as your own with little to no history on where it came from or its impact.

Below, you can see a piece from Amanda PL's showcase, which directly depicts an influence from Norval Morrisseau's own work. She says she was impressed by his work, when she was in Thunder Bay and decided to honour his work with her own take on his art form.

Amanda Pl

The saying with art is that good artist borrow, while great artists steal, but can the adoption of an art form really be compared to the mass production and dilution of cultural theft?

Let's use my heritage as an example to further defend my opinion. I am of Italian descent and while Italian's were not treated in the same manner as Indigenous people in Canada, we also received a lot of hate and systemic violence against us. Our culture, specifically our food, has become a staple in many households and also the main focus of many fast chains, who mass produce cheap versions of famous dishes, that often are not even healthy for you and call it Italian, even though they are the farthest thing from a Mediterranean diet, let alone authentic Italian.

This should be text book Cultural Appropriation
Example 2 of mass produced garbage

While these examples are commonly found in society, no one really bats an eye to them as being offensive, even though they are the farthest thing from authentic Italian culture and in some respects, directly insult it.

I do not believe we should easily throw around the label of cultural appropriation, when it comes to a persons expression via art. While I do not personally know Amanda Pl, I feel as if her expression in art form, showcases her own emotions and voice and in doing so, honours the original intent from Norval Morrisseau's intended art. I feel Norval would take her expression via his art form as an honour as well, since she is continuing something he made famous, even if her stories are not told from the perspective of an Indigenous person.

To censor Amanda, is to set a dangerous precedent that many argue is helping to fuel the rise of right wing, protectionist and xenophobic people and politicians. If we continue to label anyone racist or accuse them of cultural genocide, because they are expressing their own voice through a style similar to another cultures own expression, does not everyone stand guilty to some extent?

An Indigenous person may actively enjoy eating at an Italian inspired fast food place, but am I right to judge them as being a perpetrator of cultural genocide? Can I look to someone who performs an art form like Leonardo DaVinci or Michelangelo and wag my finger?

The simple answer is no, because they are choosing to express themselves in honour of something that has touched them on a deeper level.

Art is not here for some, but for everyone and it not only tells a story, but also expresses emotion through words, pictures and song.

As we all share this special medium and allow our voices to be heard through it, can we not honour each other by adopting elements of art that resonate with us?

Amanda does not deny being inspired by Norval Morrisseau and she is not mass producing variations of his art in a disrespectful or profit oriented way, in fact she may be expressing it in a way that forces people to learn more about the art form and derive a greater respect for something that they may not have known much about before. They may now be forced to interact more with Indigenous people, who also practice a similar art form and as such enlighten themselves to its true story and the emotions it invokes in them.

What do you think? Cultural Appropriation in art or honour through the expression of an art form?