In defence of free artistic expression
Outrage against Amanda PL’s work has its basis in gut reactions, not in critical thinking
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.