Views / Opinion

Forcing artists to think about appropriation important for reconciliation: Kabatay

Canada Council for the Arts calling for a bit of extra homework on appropriation can only make artists' work better — both for the sake of their art, and for Indigenous culture.

Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau's painting Androgyny in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Under new rules attempting to curb cultural appropriation of Indigenous artists, the Canada Council for the Arts is requiring artists applying for funding to demonstrate how they have safeguarded against the practice.

Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau's painting Androgyny in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Under new rules attempting to curb cultural appropriation of Indigenous artists, the Canada Council for the Arts is requiring artists applying for funding to demonstrate how they have safeguarded against the practice.

Art is a powerful thing. And with great power, comes great responsibility.

So when the Canada Council for the Arts announced last week it was safeguarding against cultural appropriation of Indigenous art, I was inspired.

Indigenous culture has been appropriated countless times, in many different artistic disciplines — not just visual arts.

Non-Indigenous artist Amanda PL was at the centre of one such controversy back in the spring when a Toronto gallery had planned to showcase her work, which was inspired by the Woodlands style made famous by Anishinabe artist Norval Morrisseau. The outrage prompted the gallery to cancel its plans.

Earlier this year, Canadian literary magazine Write caused a national stir when it published an opinion piece calling on people to embrace cultural appropriation — in an issue dedicated to the work of Indigenous writers. (The magazine apologized and the writer resigned.)

What’s interesting about the arts council’s strategy is the onus on artists to avoid culturally appropriating Indigenous artists or making art from a colonialist perspective.

As CEO and director Simon Brault and Steven Loft, director of its Indigenous program, wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed announcing the change, the council will “expect some indication that authentic and respectful efforts have been made to engage with the artists or other members of the Indigenous communities whose culture or protocols are incorporated in any project” seeking funding.

Forcing non-Indigenous artists to think about whether or not their work is appropriating Indigenous culture is an important exercise. It not only helps push for reconciliation and respects Indigenous Peoples, but it’s a way to make artists think through and challenge preconceived notions.

Of course some people won’t be happy. It could pose a challenge for artists, especially if they aren’t aware of the social, cultural, and historical forces that have shaped relationships with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. At the same time, this could be an opportunity for them to learn more about Indigenous culture and history.

As Loft told CBC News, “I don’t think artists should be scared. I think they should be excited, perhaps wary of what they’re doing, and that’s not a bad thing.”

The arts are important, in a general sense, not just for Indigenous Peoples.

Looking back, art has always been a way for people to get information, separate from institutional knowledge, like the media, and has the power to unite people in different ways.

When Barack Obama first ran for president, his message of hope rang loud and clear across the world. So did Shepard Fairey’s blue and beige poster of Obama emblazoned with the word.

Artists play an important role in society. Doing a bit of extra homework for the sake of their art and Indigenous culture will only make it better.

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