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Arts André Alexis: The complex issues within cultural appropriation and art

To begin with, a recent situation: Visions Gallery in Toronto recently cancelled an exhibit by an artist who calls herself Amanda PL. The problem, it seems, is that Amanda PL has used elements in her painting that resemble elements in the paintings of Norval Morrisseau and the "Woodland School" of Indigenous artists. After receiving complaints – we don't know from whom – that PL's work is an act of cultural appropriation, the gallery cancelled her solo exhibit.

And then another situation: Hal Niedzviecki, after telling us that he doesn't believe in "cultural appropriation" and informing us about how Indigenous writers work – hint: they don't write "what they know" – proposes a so-called Appropriation Prize for best work of "appropriation" – that is, fiction written from the perspective of a culture or race to which the author does not belong. This is an idea so bewilderingly silly that you can't help wondering if Niedzviecki is dull or, like Swift of A Modest Proposal, beyond measure in his brilliance.

I'm not an expert on the matter, but it seems that "cultural appropriation" means, in the case of Amanda PL, that Morrisseau's work, being that of an Indigenous artist, has a context and content that PL – who is not Indigenous – does not understand. She has, therefore, no right to take these elements out of their context and use them without regard to their meaning in Indigenous culture.

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There are levels of irony at play, in all this. To begin with, Norval Morrisseau was himself criticized for using sacred symbols in his work. He was accused of debasing them. There is a consistency, here, but how strange that some of the condemnation of PL would necessarily be a condemnation of Morrisseau, too. Morrisseau defended his work on the grounds that his painting, showing the sacred in a different context as it did, gave renewed power to the sacred by allowing another vantage on it, by restoring its strangeness. The images and symbols are not important in themselves. Their power fades or even dies. The renewal of their power is one of the byproducts of art. Morrisseau himself used Christian symbols with Indigenous ones. In so doing, he could point to what both traditions venerate: the things beyond words and signs.

That's not to say that it's impossible to misuse sacred symbols. It clearly is possible. The wanton display of sacred objects – or the display of an "Eskimo" skeleton in a museum – is despicable because it refuses to acknowledge that things from other cultures can have deep meaning the way things in our culture do, that things in other cultures can be sacred, that they are more than curious and that human remains are not just worthy of dignity but deserving of it. This will seem obvious to most people, I imagine. As it will seem obvious that none who truly thought of Qisuk as human – as opposed to a "specimen" – would have countenanced a display of his skeleton in the American Museum of Natural History.

The problem with cultural appropriation is in the use of humans or human artifacts as if they were instruments, there to say what we choose to have them say. But, to my mind, some of the recent talk about Morrisseau's work also has the feel of a reduction. What's most unsettling about the veneration of Norval Morrisseau is that it does not allow the work of an artist (Morrisseau) to be fully part of the common stream (visual art). It reduces Morrisseau's work to one of its aspects: the use of sacred symbols, the illustration of sacred narratives. But Morrisseau and the other members of the Woodland School were artists. It isn't the Woodland Church or the Woodland Cult. They were influenced by European work. The abstract paintings of Benjamin Chee Chee, for instance, are the work of a painter working in a medium that he knows intimately. To deny this aspect of Morrisseau or Chee Chee is to make them servants of the sacred rather than renewers of it. Priests, in other words. Which they were not. It sometimes feels as if the words "cultural appropriation" have been used to create a straightjacket for Indigenous artists: a straightjacket similar to the ones for which "black artists" or "gay artists" – name your minority – are fitted.

It's not difficult to understand the impulse to preserve for Indigenous use signs and symbols that have Indigenous origins and specific meanings within Indigenous spirituality. But if Indigenous spirituality is valuable to humans – as opposed to valuable only to a specific and small group of humans – what's served by this hiving off, this making unavailable? Cui bono, as the Latin has it: who benefits from this exclusivity?

I'm not suggesting there's no good answer to that question. On the other hand, some of the reactions to Amanda PL's work – and the justifications of those reactions – have been bizarre. The idea, for instance, that a white artist (Amanda PL) influenced by an Indigenous artist (Norval Morrisseau) is effecting some sort of "cultural genocide" – words actually used – is not just over the top. It's contrary to common sense. The most influential and living spiritual doctrines we know are precisely those that are widely disseminated and interpreted in the widest variety of ways. To imagine Indigenous-American spirituality as common is not to imagine it dead. It's to imagine it as vivid as Christianity or Buddhism. The same can be said of "culture." Films and music from the U.S. – which disseminate American values – have massive influence not because they are kept from other cultures. But because they have been ruthlessly exported and exploited – exploited by Americans, yes, but also by those who take American music and film in unique directions.

This is, I guess, as good a place to talk about Hal Niedzviecki as any. A few days ago, Niedzviecki editor of Write magazine, a publication of the Writers' Union of Canada, wrote an editorial in which he suggested that there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. To me, the piece seemed, first of all, arrogant. It wasn't arrogant because it suggested that cultural appropriation does not exist. It was arrogant because it lumped all Indigenous writing together and then asserted that many Indigenous writers do not write "what they know" but, rather, "what they don't know." The assertion that, say, Eden Robinson, Thomas King and Tomson Highway – to choose three interesting writers at random – are at all similar in their procedures is a flagrant display of the reductionism I spoke of earlier.

Niedzviecki's editorial drew exactly the kind of response you'd imagine. People were outraged. There then followed the usual response. Niedzviecki resigned his editorial post and wrote an apology for his words. He thus became the usual kind of martyr for "free speech" aficionados. And, now, an "Appropriation Prize" is being funded in Niedzviecki's honour. The amusing thing – if you find any of this even remotely amusing – is that if you take the idea behind an "appropriation prize" seriously, a prize jury will regularly have to enact the arrogance Niedzviecki showed in the first place. Who, for instance, gets to judge if a white writer's black character is "faithful"? Who gets to judge if a black writer's Caucasian character is faithful to "real Caucasians"?

All of these ideas – those brought on by the PL exhibit and Niedzviecki's resignation – feel more urgent, to me, lately, because I have been wrestling with some of them in my own work. I'm a writer of fiction who is obsessed with the idea of place. In the novel I'm currently writing, I have tried to give voice to the Canadian forest – well, Ontario scrub, anyway. Naturally, I wondered if I had the right to use the names of Indigenous gods in my work. It seemed to me that the land I love had been travelled – its mysteries named – hundreds of years before me, that at some point an Indigenous artist had looked on a (cleaner, less cemented) version of our landscape and listened for its voice. Why should I have to refer to Judeo-Christian gods or Greek gods – gods who are strange to my land – when speaking of the holy? Do I have the right to speak the sacred names of those whose names are part of the language I speak – Toronto, Ottawa, Saskatchewan. Our most beautiful names come from those who've been here longest.

I decided not to use the names and gods because, in the end, I wasn't at ease with them. Certainly I was less familiar with them than I am with the Greek pantheon, say. The culture of the people who first named the land isn't taught to me. I don't know their religions. I wish I did know them. I wish I had been taught them. And, in fact, I feel at times as if I have been excluded – by white culture not Indigenous culture – from a birthright. Or is it my "birthright?" To what extent do I have common cause with the people of the nations who walked the land before me, those who were the first to walk the land?

I don't know the answers to these questions, of course. I ask them respectfully and with a proper place cleared within to hold the answers. I can't help feeling, though, that as we celebrate Canada 150, we have devised an idea – "cultural appropriation" – that runs the risk of hiding Indigenous Canadian culture, not preserving it. We are effecting, through kindness, the kind of exclusion that the first Europeans effected through violence.

André Alexis is the author of Fifteen Dogs, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015, and The Hidden Keys, which was recently nominated for the Trillium Book Award, among other books.

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