Canada needs a law protecting Indigenous art from appropriation

The U.S. and Australia have legislation protecting Indigenous art forms and symbols, so why not follow their lead?
Photo: A painting by Anishnaabe artist Norval Morriseau. Credit: daryl_mitchell.

Evidence in the strange case of Amanda PL vs. Norval Morrisseau seems to compel a verdict of guilty (as charged), but a new Canadian law may be required to get to the root of the issue.

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The United States and Australia have laws that protect various Indigenous art forms and symbols from appropriation by people and corporations, by prohibiting the misrepresentation of artwork as made by an Indigenous person and granting communal title to Aboriginal artwork, respectively. Is this something Indigenous artists in Canada need to champion? Or is success on that front as unlikely as the chances that Justin Trudeau and his cronies will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People?

Meanwhile, in the court of settler opinion, the right of Amanda PL, a non-Indigenous artist, to operate in absolute freedom is the card that trumps (a word I use deliberately) Indigenous artists’ deep concerns about cultural appropriation and plagiarism.

It grates like a two-day growth of stubble against the kissable cheek of Indigenous art and artists.

In our upside-down world, a prominent Indigenous man, Senator Murray Sinclair, has likewise trumpeted PL’s “freedom of expression” as desirable. During an online debate over the artist’s rights, some of the senator’s supporters hailed his defence of PL as an example of reconciliation in action.

Let the Western European art model crumble

Since a Toronto gallery cancelled PL’s “Woodlands style” exhibit, I have ruminated on the ethos of freedom in the Western European art tradition. It grates like a two-day growth of stubble against the kissable cheek of Indigenous art and artists. This applies particularly to Anishinaabe artists as well as Morrisseau’s family.

The latter are, rightly so, members of a closed club. Indigenous art deserves to be produced and propagated by Indigenous artists. Can you imagine 12-year-old girls of German descent standing face-to-face practising Inuit throat singing? In the realm of painting, I believe that the people whose ancestors are buried and whose stories are rooted in the world of the Woodlands style attributed to Anishnaabe artist Norval Morrisseau own the right to paint in that style.

Yet Amanda PL has defended herself and her art, telling CBC, “This just happens to be the style that I’m drawn towards at this time. This is how I choose to express myself and this is how I choose to continue to paint.”

She doesn’t seem to get that selling wannabe Norval Morrisseau work in a gallery is problematic. The charges of cultural appropriation and plagiarism falling at her feet leave her undeterred, even as a post on Instagram showed her trying to pass off art from Haida artists as her own.

The gallery owners in Toronto who responded to Indigenous artists’ calls that Amanda PL’s exhibit not be hung seem to get it. Gallery co-owner Tony McGee recently said, “We made the decision because we woke up — and woke up quickly.”

Some of those backing Senator Sinclair’s perspective gushed about how a melding of cultural perspectives represents the essence of reconciliation in Canada.

I congratulate McGee and gallery co-owner Francisco Castro Lostalo for rejecting cultural appropriation. More settler Canadians need to wake up to the fact that an artist’s freedom of expression does not allow descendants of colonizers to meddle in the spiritual and cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples and the art that may spring from those traditions, as Morrisseau’s work does.

Even so, an ingrained idea of artistic freedom almost forces good little colonizers to defend PL’s right to make art of any kind. They fear that if one artist has less than unfettered freedom, the entire edifice of Western European art will crumble.

And what exactly is the world of Western European art? I’d say it’s a lucrative, elite model designed to generate money and status for galleries and auction houses. Artists can starve while wealthy people get richer buying and selling art. Like settler colonialism, this model has transplanted itself nicely in North American soil during the last five centuries. Its roots are set deep in the same psychology that saw Turtle Island as terra nullius — a blank canvas waiting to be painted on.

What’s different in 21st-century Canada is that Indigenous artists aren’t playing by the rules defined by Western European art traditions. In honour of Norval Morrisseau — especially in honour of this Anishinabe giant — they have shut down non-Indigenous folks such as PL who think it’s okay to appropriate his style for profit.

Refusing the reconciliation gambit

A day after news of PL’s cancelled exhibit emerged, Senator Murray Sinclair wrote the following on his Facebook page:

I note the hysterical reaction of some people to this young non-Indigenous artist's effort to learn and showcase Woodlands Art. She clearly appreciates and is inspired by Norval Morrisseau and I for one applaud her for directing her talent in that way…. The gallery owners deserve criticism for throwing her under the bus when they received public comment. I encourage her to continue. I hope she becomes the teacher of others about this style. I wish everyone painted like Norval and knew the teachings behind them.

More than 100 people commented on the senator’s post. Many applauded his opinion and went on to describe Amanda PL’s right to make art as an example of reconciliation. An equal number (myself included) respectfully disagreed with his views.

An irreconcilable Indian cannot exist in a system of reconciliation.

The Facebook crowd opposed to PL uncovered a video of her and a male friend making racist jokes. Their video conversation was replete with the word “ch-nks” to describe people of Asian ancestry. At one point in the video, PL lifted her friend’s outer eyelids, urging him to “ch-nk it up!” The video disappeared from YouTube, but has since reappeared on another user’s channel.

Some of those backing Senator Sinclair’s perspective gushed about how a melding of cultural perspectives represents the essence of reconciliation in Canada — all thanks to good-hearted settler folk like PL who admire and adopt Indigenous art forms.

It was a bit surreal. I had no idea that reconciliation could possibly include reverse assimilation, where settlers become like Indigenous people. But then, I’m not a big fan of reconciliation, period. Nor it seems are singer-songwriter and poet Tara Williamson and artist and professor David Garneau, whose work Williamson refers to in a recent essay called “Canada’s Vanishing Point: Reconciliation and the Erasure of Indian Personhood.”

In the Canadian imagination, Indigenous peoples are visible (exist) only in so far as they interact with settlers. Not only does this go against the spirit of the Two Row Wampum Treaty of 1613—that we will occupy separate canoes, one path shall not interfere with the other—but it denies a separate, Indigenous identity. Garneau asserts the existence of “irreconcilable spaces of aboriginality” that have existed since time immemorial and do not rely on perspectives or relationships outside of themselves.

This is where some Indigenous artists may find themselves parting company with the Western European art tradition that espouses freedom of artistic expression as an absolute value. It is certainly where I reject, for example, what University of British Columbia professor Liane Gabora wrote in defence of Amanda PL:

“The creative impulse may draw inspiration from cultural traditions but it is not delimited by ethnicity. We are naturally able to draw upon anything at our disposal, anything we happen to stumble on that strikes a chord or resonates or affects us in some way, to work with as raw materials in creative process….

Creative inspiration defies the labels and distinctions that humans use to categorize themselves.”

Being able to “naturally draw upon anything at our disposal, anything we happen to stumble upon,” sounds a lot like colonialism’s ethos of terra nullius. It’s a way of being in the world that applies to conquistadors, but I doubt it applies to Indigenous artists who choose to represent the stories, lakes, spirits, birds, fish and people that they know and care about. Such artists steep themselves in and reflect a culture and spiritual life that has somehow survived — perhaps because it predates — the Doctrine of Discovery.

How can settler Canadians claim the “right” to do anything remotely like this culturally created art? And how can their intrusion into these spheres of Indigenous experience represent reconciliation? It takes a certain warped perspective to even conceive of this. Williamson’s essay describes what that perspective looks like.

For reconciliation to be effective as conceived, we must be willing to reconcile, willing to hear apologies, willing to share our trauma with others, willing to heal and willing to forgive. I emphasize willingness because it exposes another point of erasure. What happens to the irreconcilable Indian? The one who is angry, resentful, outspoken and critical of the process?

An irreconcilable Indian cannot exist in a system of reconciliation. There is no space for her. She is either completely erased or she is condemned for not existing in the newest Aboriginal-friendly space created by her oppressors.

I believe the “Aboriginal-friendly space” created by oppressors is populated by those defending Amanda PL’s right to artistic expression.

And there oughta be a law against that.

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