Cultural Appropriation and Art


Spiritual Awakening ~ 40 x 16″ oil on canvas wrap

Recently I had an eye opening experience to the prejudice and pettiness of those thinking they are the bastions of protecting the first nation culture.

As most of you know by now, I am what is considered “Metis”. A term that has been used derogatorily in the not to distant past and only now seems to be gaining a certain amount of respect however low on the totem pole ~ no pun intended of course.

I entered an Art Show and delivered 3 paintings to the gallery.

As I was unwrapping my painting depicting a Raven with a Haida Symbol in the background which is pictured above, “Hey you can’t enter that painting unless you are Native. Then she looked at me and questioned “are you Native?”. Embarrassed and shocked, I replied “yes”. I am proud of the fact that I can trace my native roots back to the 17 hundreds. I believe this makes me much more Canadian than a lot of people here, but I am not about to get into the logistics of my ancestry with a complete stranger in a public space.

The first nation culture states that as long as an image or a symbol is used with respect and reverence there is not an issue.

So why are some people so hot on being the cultural watch dogs for the 1st nation? Like  the person I encountered in this gallery why do some people feel it is their right to be rude with the justification that they are guarding a culture? I find them a bit like fundamentalist Christians, self righteous and unwilling to see the big picture. Although she did apologise the damage was done. I made no issue of it at that time as it was something that needed to be thought about before acting

Now I understand the theory behind cultural appropriation but where and how do we draw the line?

Do we ask every person who paints 1st nations motifs in their work whether they are native?

Should they have a 1st nations passport with the nation and % of native blood stamped in it?

And by not allowing Metis to paint and hang their art work with native motifs and 1st nations images in them not a form of racism?

Do we stop painting Chinese calligraphy because we are not Chinese? Do we stop creating works of art with Celtic symbols because we are not Celts?

Should musicians’ only be able to play music from their own culture?

I am perplexed about this dilemma. I have asked the gallery in question to bring this issue to a public forum and I am hoping they follow thru.

I would love some feedback on this subject  from those who read this and have perhaps encountered the same situation.

8 comments to Cultural Appropriation and Art

  • Aw Elissa, NOT all Fundamental Christians are this way. There are lots of good people who very much care about the First Nations people and appreciate their cultural heritage. My ancestory goes back to sharing many kindnesses with them, and being a very supportive and loyal friend. That hasn’t changed over the years. We all need to be careful and to look at where those prejudices stem from. I respect you as an artist and have been happy to know you as a Facebook friend. Wishing you much success. Pretty painting by the way!

  • Val

    Boy- I am glad to find someone else who doesn’t nod their head and tug their forelock. I believe this is just another victim stance; an opportunity to demonstrate outrage and stamp her little foot and cry “colonialism”. Art by its very nature is appropriation. Actually life is appropriation, but since this is a racist stance aimed at shaming non-natives it only applies to white people or people who look white. No one is asking that I stop my Chinese brushwork lessons, or quit doing origami or raku, and I may continue painting Russian icons. I can write a fictional account of most anything, but not native spirituality or magic. And heavens above, you won’t find me twerking or rapping, so I will only take appropriation so far!

    Check this out

  • Lucy Coates

    I can’t say that I have encountered such a situation Elissa, though from an outsider looking in on your dilemma it looks as though the gallery in question initially felt they wanted to help Native Canadians/ First Nation by ensuring there original art work style wasn’t copied by just any one to cash in on.
    The gallery now seems to be almost going with a positive discrimination policy that in my view never helps anybody.
    As a visitor to Canada a lot of the arts and crafts you see and can purchase dose have the First Nation/native Canadian motifs on, to know it has been created by a person from First Nation descent, for me gives the item more authenticity.
    Art and culture are both wonderful soul lifting and beautiful things to be created and enjoyed by every one freely.
    As ever “spiritual awakening” is both beautiful and a powerful image, I don’t think I would describe it as pretty.

    • I meant the use of color, bringing tranquility to the eye and highlighting the Raven’s mystical qualities. To me it was pretty as a result of the simplicity yet complex nature of the piece. There is a great course I recommend everyone take Elissa, by the Provincial Health Services of BC. It’s called Indigenous Cultural Safety, which speaks about the racial discrimination that still exists. We can end discrimination and having knowledge is key.

    • Lisa

      Thanks Lucy for your input I hope you don’t mind me posting it on FB. It is always good to get an “outsiders” point of view

  • Louisa

    Hi Elissa!
    I doubt that the gallery you mention really understands what “real” art is! It is an expression of the artist’s interior world of imagination and is in the form of symbols and images that come from there. Nothing at all to do with race or nationality or ethnicity! I agree with your opinions on this. It is an increasing complex issue, but we are all ONE in the great scheme of things. As Rumi said: “The differences are just illusion and vanity. Sunlight looks a little different on this wall than it does on that wall and a lot different on this other one, but it is still one light.”
    Very nice painting, by the way!

    • Lisa

      Thanks for your feedback Louisa ~ I am getting a lot of feedback and hope to shine a spotlight on this problem