Marianne Morris | Artist

Living Life in Full Colour

When does Inspiration become Appropriation?

Amanda PL in front of her paintings, from the Hamilton Spectator.

Amanda PL in front of her paintings, from the Hamilton Spectator.

Last week in Toronto, the young painter Amanda PL, had her first solo art show canceled by her gallery because of backlash from the Native community, and concerns of cultural appropriation. It has been the main topic of conversation in local art circles and discussed at length by many of the people I follow online. Her work is in a style remarkably similar to that of Norval Morriseau’s, probably the one First Nations artist that is instantly recognizable by pretty much anyone in Canada. As pointed out by a few people, one image on her Instagram profile looks like a direct copy of a Haida painter’s work. She claims to love and honor the culture. Indigenous people cry appropriation.

The topic of cultural appropriation has interested me for years. Being of Metis background but not being raised with any exposure at all to that culture, I have long been curious about Indigenous art forms and have studied them at length. But my first inclination of how Indigenous people view non-native’s depictions of their culture came years ago when touring an art show with a native acquaintance. We were standing in front of a booth of romanticized, native on a horse, “noble savage” type paintings. She Lost. Her. Mind.

I was curious, so I started asking questions. The rant that followed was truly educational. I was directed to books written by Indigenous writers. Historians telling the story of the “Imaginary Indian“.  Tales of what it was like growing up native and female in contemporary Canada. A reiteration of at least a dozen ridiculous cultural stereotypes. It sparked an interest that has continued on for more than a decade, and every time I see something that seems even the tiniest bit wrong, I will read everything I can get my hands on.

Before this event, I had been working on a series of charcoal drawings depicting a figure intertwined in a background of symbols, some including masks drawn in a style similar to indigenous carvings I had seen. Afterward, I backed away from this, not knowing if what I was doing would fall into the category of inspiration or appropriation.

This incident in Toronto has surprised me. Not the backlash… I figured that would come if she got any kind of widespread exposure, in the event that she was not actually native. It was that neither the artist nor the gallery expected it. Both seemed to be caught completely off guard. Given the amount of exposure given to recent events such as the banning of hipster’s wearing warbonnets to festivals,  the Pharell magazine cover controversy, and the D-Squared blow up of their racistly titled “D-Squaw” fashion collection, you would figure they would have braced themselves for the onslaught. I suppose not everyone follows this stuff as closely as I do, but this is pretty mainstream stuff.

As an artist, I draw inspiration from various sources. I too love Norval Morriseau. I love most of the First Nations art, from the traditional to contemporary (seriously, check out Brian Jungen’s hockey bag totem poles or Jane Ash Poitras’ mixed media work for some great contemporary stuff). What I drew from Morriseau was his colour palette… the bright, pure colours I used in my music series came directly from studying his work. The subject matter came from my own life. When I look at those paintings I see my own soul, not his. Should I ever decide to create a body of work that draws heavily from a culture that is not my own, I will be sure to check in with the online community before I get too far into it. In most cases, all you have to do is ask, and people will happily tell you what they think.

8 Comments

  1. What a great read! I feel so bad for this young lady, she is so talented. I think the gallery was narrow minded.
    As a Native American, I would never have taken this approach. We need to embrace others, forget the skin color. Have we learned nothing the past several years. If the artist she was inspired by was blind or could not hear would the story be different.
    Thanks for your blog, I so enjoy your passion

    • I think it was an unfortunately public way to learn a lesson. She seems to be very young, and “self-taught”, so didn’t have the benefit of an experienced mentor explaining what is an appropriate way to utilize your inspiration. I hope she can bounce back and reinvent herself. She obviously has some skill as a painter.

  2. Sandra Jager

    May 1, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    I, too, am surprised that neither the artist nor the gallery expected the response they received. This has been a well-publicized issue in arts circles, as you say. It should have been anticipated.

    I’ve struggled with how to incorporate some aspects of our heritage into my own work, the issue being one of inspiration vs appropriation. Some cultures are much more sensitive to this than others. There is also a degree of ignorance of first-hand knowledge, since we were raised somewhat removed from the native world. Studying the artwork and imagery has a feeling of being very much on the outside looking in. We may have the family background, but are totally excluded from membership in this community.

    • I struggle as well… I don’t identify myself as a Métis artist since I have little first-hand knowledge of the culture. I don’t want to assume I am something just because of a vague blood tie.

  3. This was a great read, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I know that one of the greatest learning tools for me is to study the work of other artists and to use the work as reference. In saying that I am ALWAYS careful not to copy someone else’s work. I often use several references at one time and my final result is totally original and sort of a merger of ideas coming from several places. Sometimes I will refer to the composition from one painting, the colors from another and the painting technique from another. In the end nobody can say ‘that looks just like.’

    I can’t say that about the work this young artist created. It is an unfortunate way for her to learn this lesson. I hope she can overcome this and move forward.

  4. I’m not familiar with the specific examples given here, but I was actually thinking about this subject the other day/I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of “first peoples”/where humanity ultimately began/evolved/etc, and came to a few conclusions:

    1. The sharing of cultures should be encouraged, it’s how we begin to understand others/break down barriers/see “strangers/others” as “people/distant family/fellow human beings”.
    2. The trick is in how you approach these concepts & what your goal is when creating the art. If they are personal studies in shape/color/etc, then I see it as a safe exploration. However, the moment you try to turn a profit/boost your own fame from them, that’s where territory gets sticky = time to consult with the cultures in question.
    3. Middle ground seems to be a) make sure you’re not just copying someone’s style = a general arting rule that everyone should follow anyway, and b) reference it/use it as a way of teaching others about the culture you’re pulling from/spreading the desire for others to learn more about them. Again, research and communicate with representatives of the culture in question and perhaps, as examples, donate the profit to something that benefits their interests & mebbe even have some brochures or something printed up that can point to the original artists who inspired you, etc etc etc.

    Ultimately, respect is key.

    • Yes, yes, yes! I think Respect is what the FN people who have been active online are looking for. Some have quite eloquently pointed out why her work is a problem, but still, people don’t seem to get it. I get the impression this artist doesn’t think she has overstepped here. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses.

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