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.