My thoughts about appropriation

Okay, this won’t cover ALL my thoughts, but I want to share what’s on my mind right now about ‘appropriation’.

In the arts-world, appropriation is when someone copies another artist’s content or style and claims it as their own original work. We see this quite a bit as Indigenous artists; folks who have no artistic background whatsoever, and non-Indigenous artists who must have run right out of original ideas see how popular Indigenous art forms and styles are, so they copy it in hopes of sparking or re-sparking their practice (and oftentimes, in hopes of making some ‘easy money’).

There are a few problems with this — first of all, as an artist — a real artist — a key part of being able to call yourself an artist is having a strong a sense of professionalism and a commitment to originality. This isn’t just my opinion, it’s something we actually talked about quite a bit when I was attending Emily Carr University of Art & Design.  I remember hearing very similar ‘personal standards of professionalism’ from other students who came from various countries around the world. It was something we all agreed was central to our respective practices.

Professionalism means NOT copying other artists’ work…not only is that unprofessional, it will actually have an opposite effect if anyone happens to notice that you’ve copied the work of another artist.  It may also cause you to be excluded from art exhibitions and/or other professional arts opportunities. It’s akin to plagiarism in professional writing, once people see you in that light, it’s hard to make your way back.

Making & maintaining a commitment to originality is one of the greatest challenges we face as artists…it’s hard work, and I get it that some folks don’t want to work hard (I have days like that too), but it doesn’t mean you get lazy and just copy the original ideas of someone else.

Being an artist isn’t easy work…you can go days, months, sometimes years without an original idea, but remaining an artist is a calling, and if you are true to yourself and the very idea of ‘art’, you’ll keep working at it, and inevitably will create something completely new. When you feel like you’ve completely hit the proverbial wall, seek out mentors, take a workshop, get more training…do something that will spark that magic inside of you…develop that artist inside of you…it will require you to dig deep within yourself, and the result will be hugely rewarding. But if you’re not willing to go there, then take a break from art and do something else until you’re willing to dig deep.

That’s another part of what I mean when I say that being an artist isn’t easy work, creating original artwork really is, in my humble opinion, a life’s journey that you MUST be willing to take. It’s joyful, yet sometimes excruciating; it’s playful, yet sometimes frustrating; sometimes it’ll rip your heart to shreds, but in the next moment will fill your soul in such a way that you instantly forget the painful path you traveled to get there.

In our Indigenous artistic traditions, artists were very highly regarded professionals. They were considered very special and extremely gifted, and were called upon and commissioned very much like today’s professional artists.  However, our traditional arts structures were largely obliterated through policy-warfare from the time of contact with lost travelers from other lands, to present day.

To the lost travelers who became settlers on our lands, our art was not viewed as ‘art’; it became propagandized as ‘primitive’ and ‘artifact’, dismissed as uncivilized and savage. Yet at the same time, our most unique works were being stolen (aka ‘collected’ or ‘accessioned into museum and private collections’) as samples from a dying race. Because of this, our Indigenous art forms continued to be dismissed and disregarded by the ‘art world’ as truly unique artistic forms of expression, and this continued until about the 1960’s.

Unfortunately, another result was that the general public (around the world), continued to be fed the propaganda, and because there didn’t seem to be any laws against copying artifacts from a dying race, some folks decided to start replicating our unique art forms to make a quick buck.  This practice of copying artifacts actually started back in the 1800’s, and the mindset has continued to today.

The bottom line facts are this:

Indigenous art forms were always original to the Indigenous people who first created them.

Each Indigenous group had a unique style, which was further stylized by each artist.

The forms and shapes in most Indigenous artistic traditions originated from the land; those forms and shapes do not appear in any other ancient culture anywhere around the world (for example, ovoids and ‘U’-shapes, and indeed, that which we call ‘formline’ does not appear ANYWHERE in the world at any point in ancient history).

Indigenous art forms are part of what is now called ‘Intellectual Property’ and this is protected under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In Canada, visual artists who create original works automatically have copyright over their work for the duration of their life and fifty years after their death. This includes Indigenous artists.

There is no such thing as ‘only copying a small percentage of an artwork’ to ‘technically avoid copyright infringement.’

While there are only a handful of legal cases regarding copyright infringement of Indigenous designs, the precedent is very much on the books…but let’s face it, we shouldn’t have to sue people for copying, stealing, and infringing on our ancient artistic practices.

As I’ve said in response to some of the recent news articles where non-Indigenous artists claim to be simply ‘inspired by’ Indigenous art, or ‘reconciling’ by copying, or ‘honoring our native people’, or ‘keeping it alive on our behalf’…you’ve got it all wrong and need to dig a LOT deeper and seek out opportunities to educate yourself.

Yes, there has been a long history of propaganda against Indigenous people; and yes, unfortunately, we continue to be marginalized on so many levels, but the truth is being told, so listen, learn, become informed, and I guarantee, if you unlearn what you believe to be true, the original idea will ultimately find you.



Author: Lou-ann Neel

Kwakwaka'wakw artist, arts administrator/manager, community arts advocate & all-round arts enthusiast!

3 thoughts on “My thoughts about appropriation”

  1. Reblogged this on LOU-ANN NEEL STUDIO and commented:

    This continues to be a topic near and dear to my heart, not only as an artist, but as a First Nations person working diligently to have OUR voices heard. So I decided to re-post, and will be writing more in 2018 about “The Epidemic of Appropriation”.


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