In de­fence of free artis­tic ex­pres­sion

Out­rage against Amanda PL’s work has its ba­sis in gut re­ac­tions, not in crit­i­cal think­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LAURA FURSTER Laura Furster is an in­de­pen­dent fine artist, art in­struc­tor, lit­er­ary writer, and jour­nal­ist liv­ing in down­town Hamil­ton. She can be found on Face­book/Twit­ter/In­sta­gram, and at Con­tact: laura.furster@out­ hell

Toronto artist Amanda PL has been ac­cused of ap­pro­pri­at­ing in­dige­nous cul­ture in her art­work, fol­low­ing which Vi­sions Gallery can­celled her sched­uled ex­hibit. There is no doubt that her paint­ings are mod­elled af­ter the Wood­lands style of art, which she read­ily ad­mits. But, does the moral quandary of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion trump artis­tic free­dom, or should artists be un­re­stricted in realms of cul­tural ex­plo­ration?

On the ra­dio re­cently, an in­dige­nous spokesper­son ex­plained that it was wrong for PL to cre­ate art in­spired by in­dige­nous artists be­cause, as a white woman, she is not con­nected to the his­tory and tra­di­tions that ini­tially in­formed their cre­ative pur­suits, and there­fore her art cheap­ens their ef­forts. PL’s ac­tions have been re­ferred to as cul­tural geno­cide.

Pop­u­lar­ized in the 1960s by Abo­rig­i­nal-Cana­dian artist Nor­val Mor­ris­seau, the Wood­lands style is just that: a style. Just like Cu­bism, or Im­pres­sion­ism, it is a type of paint­ing that was cre­ated and ex­plored in a cer­tain era, by sev­eral artists. While I un­der­stand that as a marginal­ized group that has by all ac­counts been abused it may not sit well in the minds of our in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion that a white artist is bor­row­ing ideas from their canon, these re­ac­tive feel­ings do not ne­ces­si­tate wrong­do­ing on the part of this young Toronto artist.

Be­fore I con­tinue, I would like to ad­dress the con­cern of pla­gia­rism. PL out­right states that she was in­spired by the Wood­lands style. She ed­u­cated her­self on this school of art, and sub­se­quently cre­ated her own work. I find it com­mon in in­stances of so­cial out­rage for peo­ple to con­fuse mul­ti­ple ar­gu­ments, and this is a clas­sic ex­am­ple. PL has been ac­cused of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, and of copy­ing the work of other artists, but as she did not claim to be the in­no­va­tor of Wood­lands art, there is no ar­gu­ment for pla­gia­rism to be found here. The only ques­tion that can be rea­son­ably asked is whether or not a white artist should be free to ex­plore an in­dige­nous art form.

Acts of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion can cer­tainly be dis­taste­ful, but un­like don­ning a feath­ered head­dress, cre­at­ing paint­ings pas­sion­ately in­spired by a school of art, re­gard­less of where that school orig­i­nates, is not an act of tak­ing away from that cul­ture. Fol­low­ing af­ter other artists does not de­tract from what has al­ready been done, be­cause art by its very na­ture is about giv­ing — giv­ing beauty, ideas, and so­cial en­rich­ment. PL was moved to delve into the his­tory and lore that ini­tially spawned Wood­lands paint­ings decades ago, and to add to that body of work.

Per­haps much like cur­rently ex­hib­ited in­dige­nous artist Robert David­son was when he de­cided to ex­plore his Haida her­itage. You can find his work at the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton. David­son re­searched the tra­di­tions of Haida cul­ture in bring­ing about the Haida school of art’s re­nais­sance. Yes, David­son is of Haida an­ces­try, but he, too, ac­cord­ing to the bi­og­ra­phy page of his book, “Ea­gle Trans­form­ing,” had to ed­u­cate him­self in pre­par­ing to cre­ate his art. I would not en­deav­our to un­der­play the great amount of harm done to in­dige­nous cul­tures in North Amer­ica through time, but deny­ing oth­ers the free­dom to ex­plore and en­joy the rich and fas­ci­nat­ing meth­ods, sto­ries, and knowl­edge con­tained in the his­to­ries of these cul­tures seems to me quite con­tra­dic­tory and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to the de­sire to be re­spected. Telling a young, blos­som­ing artist that she is not wel­come to be in­ter­ested in and in­spired by Wood­lands art will not heal any wounds, and only serves to re­in­force an “us vs. them” men­tal­ity.

It takes only a light amount of Wikipedia pe­rus­ing to dis­cover that Mor­ris­seau him­self even­tu­ally moved away from the artis­tic move­ment he ini­ti­ated and to­ward a style in­spired by Chris­tian­ity. Plenty of Chris­tians have been per­se­cuted through­out his­tory, too. It seems to me that there is no sound ar­gu­ment to be made against PL. As is of­ten the case, this out­rage has its ba­sis in gut re­ac­tions, not in crit­i­cal think­ing. Let me be clear: these are quite un­der­stand­able gut re­ac­tions, but must we tip­toe around his­tor­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties when the ap­par­ent crime in ques­tion in­volves a young painter merely work­ing in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of great artists be­fore her, to gift so­ci­ety and her peers with the prod­uct of her pas­sion? Is the very fact of her be­ing white jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sti­fling what seems to me a pos­i­tive artis­tic ex­plo­ration? I know that opin­ions on this topic will be just as di­vided as the many vi­brant cul­tures that com­prise our coun­try con­tinue to be.


Amanda PL, in­spired by the Wood­lands style, ed­u­cated her­self and cre­ated her own work.

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