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?


  1. Cultural Appropriation is one of the goofiest ideas every.

    Cultures evovle partially through the exchange of ideas, multicultural societies can function without it as it isolate various groups from each other, causing multiculturalism to devolve into what I call museum piece multiculturalism, a static unevovling form of multiculturalism.

    I prefer multiculturalism as an ecosystem, with the best ideas reproducing and surviving and the worst dying off, with cultural appropriation leading to new ideas interacting and combining with a cultures preexisting ideas to create things that, are new and exciting.

    1. "I prefer multiculturalism as an ecosystem, with the best ideas reproducing and surviving and the worst dying off, with cultural appropriation leading to new ideas interacting and combining with a cultures preexisting ideas to create things that, are new and exciting."

      You're right, this one needs to die off. Although to say that a culture's art that has been around since time immemorial (proven by archaeologists) needs to be changed in order to be new and exciting again comes across as ignorant and a little genocidal.

      Check yourself.

    2. Thank you for the comment Gyor, I agree with how you view the importance of cultures mixing their styles.

      My main take on writing this post, is to define a line that allows people to appreciate other cultures and build bridges, without being a direct member of that cultural group.

    3. Thank you Toronto Artist,

      Your comment and opinion are also valid, it follows the notion that reinventing something already classic, is in essence destroying it for the purpose of making it relevant in modern times and that too is wrong.

      Am I close in my interpretation of your response?

  2. Your comparison of Italian fast food to a culture that has been historically disenfranchised is really disgusting.

    There are so many things wrong with what Amanda PL is doing (and how she approached this entire situation), beginning with the fact that the work itself isn't original. Some of the works are straight copies of actual First Nation artists, while others are really poorly done imitations of symbols she has no concept or knowledge of being a white woman. I understand the work she is drawn to, but to claim she added her own twist to make it "hers" is appalling.

    Many (and I mean many) Indigenous and Aboriginal artists have reached out to her, with both constructive and evaluated criticism to try and enlighten and open a dialogue as to why what she's doing is offensive and disrespectful. As of yet Amanda has had no interest in opening a dialogue about her work (strange, I thought that's what art was about) and fully intends as quoted to continue making woodland style paintings despite all the "hate" and "censorship".

    To profit off of a Culture that has been oppressed and ignored, while claiming to be the VICTIM in this scenario... The real victims in all of this are the First Nations/Indigenous/Aboriginal people who fail to get recognition and who's stories go untold. Her white fragility is showing and she's already dug her own grave for her art career before it even took off. Between this and her inability to be apologetic about her actions (Even though she studied Art History as well as has a Bachelor of Education), there is no saving face. It's unfortunate she isn't willing to accept what people are saying and take a step back to re-evaluate her practice.

    I mean, her racist youtube impersonation has kind of been the nail in the coffin in showing us what kind of person she really is.


    1. Thank you for your response Unknown.

      I agree with you that my comparison is disgusting, because in reality the fact that anyone's culture can be mass produced and pushed into a profit oriented direction is disgusting.

      I did not previously know of the attempts made by Indigenous artists towards Amanda,which does change the situation entirely.

      CBC made the story appear as if this woman was producing this art without any negative interaction from the community until her show was cancelled, which is where the victimization arrived.

      I do question though...had she been a woman of colour or a man, would this scenario had played out the same?

      You mention her white fragility and that is an interesting take on how cultural appropriation is used pertaining to attempts made in art.

      Beyonce comes to mind regarding her music video with ColdPlay, which took place in India and had her portraying a Goddess.

      Thank you for your response and the links to back it up.

  3. .. I shot reference photos in Toronto for an 'artist' who's motivation and themes were entirely driven by his interest in Norval Morrisseau. An entire warehouse loft filled with large scale panels and stacks of smaller work. I can't recall his name or much of the work.. He did tell me a fascinating anecdote about driving Norval in his late years to New York City & back.. stuff about Norval the shaman, during the trip

    It does seem Ms PL has attained notoriety.. somewhat like Margaret Wente. Would be interesting to know how sales are going, or if the artist's work includes any text on the back, explaining the work. How obvious her 'signature' is on the work. She has an interesting last name.. never seen one like it. Has anyone asked what it means?

    1. Those are valid statements Salamander. The media unfortunately did not mention any reference to text being incorporated with her pieces.

      Her last name is interesting and at first I was under the impression that she may have had a connection to the Indigenous community.

      Had she created her last name as a stage name however, for that reason and actually avoided contact with the community, this is where her story would change.

      I often wonder though, can art truly be of impact, if it does not contain some form of notoriety, either through acclaimed recognition or by influencing discussion on topics such as the one we are commenting on?

      Thank you for your input!