indigenous art

Controversy: Is this art cultural appropriation?

Amanda PL, handout photo

A Toronto gallery has cancelled an exhibit over criticism the artist is inappropriately “borrowing” from spiritually significant indigenous art. The Visions Gallery, where work by Amanda PL was scheduled, said the gallery was “immediately criticized” when the show was announced, and within 24 hours the event was cancelled.

Spirit Bear, from Amanda PL’s Behance site.

The controversy flows from the fact that Amanda PL is non-indigenous and paints in the style of the Woodland school of art.  She acknowledges her style is similar to Anishnaabe artist Norval Morrisseau’s work, which features bright colours separated by black lines and abstract figures. (Toronto Star story here)

An example of Morrisseau’s work, from a page of his painting on Coghlan Art

Chief Lady Bird (Nancy King), a Toronto-based Anishnaabe artist, called Amanda PL’s work cultural appropriation. The gallery consulted the indigenous leader after protests about the upcoming show erupted.

Amanda PL work on

“From my point of view, authentic indigenous art comes from a place of our experiences, our personal narratives,” Chief Lady Bird told the Toronto Star. “The thing about the type of work that she’s creating is it’s heavily rooted in traditional ideals and different teachings and it’s considered sacred.”

Amanda PL – Blue Lobster from her blog

Amanda PL said she was hurt by the backlash.

“I’m not doing the art to hurt the community, I appreciate the community,” she told The Star. “I try as much as possible to learn as much as I can, read their stories, their myths.”


19 replies »

  1. Amanda does absolutely beautiful work and these complainers should feel complimented that she paints in the primitive style. The primitive styles are not just “their” style. I feel the complaints were cruel and uncalled for.


    • Imagine you and your family lived your life on your lands for thousands of years. Things happened, things were learned. Entire legacies of knowledge were embedded in your language, in your stories, and in the way that you learned how to relate with life. Then, you are invaded by people who perceived you as wild monsters, and their language treats you that way too, but you couldn’t know that because at the beginning of contact everything had to be learned from scratch. The invaders came with their own teachings that taught them that they had the right to take everything from you. This concept confuses you because you are not yet familiar with this level of disrespect, but over time you are taught that this is because you are considered worthless to them, a nuisance. In fact, you are considered only valuable to them in service of their goals and objectives, but they would rather not have to actually work with you or deal with you because they think that their knowledge system is superior, and your knowledge system and beliefs are heresy and a waste of time. They think this way because their way of thinking was shaped in violence and absolute power, and it was a common belief, a divine belief, that they were somehow the best, even though they behaved in the ways of irrational nightmares that create torment in your dreams. Fast forward 2 or 3 centuries. Their children find the sacred teachings that have been preserved – (through the cultural genocide systematically and intense theft enacted on your people for generations) – beautiful. This child, now this artist, may feel this intense disconnect to the sacred beauty of the world and desire to use your ancestors’ dreams to reconnect to it. But this artist may not know how to ask. So they do the work, they study, they do their best, and they realize, they don’t want to do anything else. So they need support, so they sell the images from the teachings of your ancestors, without making a strong enough connection to the people or communities in which these dreams came from, and this artist starts to take without asking so they can live off of the work they find so incredibly fulfilling. However, your people work collectively. They make collective agreements and communicate them. They do the work of their ancestors and continue to cultivate the sacred relationships from which the original images were dreamt. They are hurt, collectively, by this artist who has made no effort to cultivate a relationship with them or to even offer or attempted to reciprocate directly. That takes a lot of courage to do, to go and meet people and ask them questions, to ask them permission, because this artist may hear what they don’t want to hear, which is, to stop making this art because it’s theft. Theft on multiple levels: spiritual, material, emotional, and intellectual. But, it’s hard to understand this all if you haven’t had a chance to really listen to what the messages of the outcries are. Please take a moment to consider the messages in the outcries, as they make sense if you can open your ability to empathize and perceive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much for your commentary on this divisive issue. Such a heartfelt and explanatory response. That post reflected what was going on in 2017 and as you know, there is now just beginning to be much more widespread understanding of appropriation (and other issues relating to First Nations and Indigenous peoples.) I sincerely appreciate it when thoughtful people like you put their comments into writing like this.


  2. Hi I’m a printmaker and we talk about this all the time -do we have the right to create work with for example Indian dieties taken out of context . This woman artist is then pushing the image further. My belief is Amanda PL may be really interested in these images but when they are able to say her images mimic someone else’s then she hasn’t pushed them into a new realm yet. She’s still a kid give her twenty years of painting and then lets talk. I actually loved the colors of her work but they did remind me of Indian art you can even see in Minnesota.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments, very astute. This is such a big issue right now. Many more examples have emerged (at least up here in Canada) since I posted this. It’s something that will obviously continue to engage artists and observers.


  3. This is such a tough one! The right of an artist to follow their inspiration wherever it takes them vs the right of peoples who have suffered terribly from white policies through the decades and who have been denied the right to practice their arts (ceremonies, singing, dancing, mask-making all banned at one time). The gallery should have foreseen this – what a shame they didn’t consult with indigenous leaders and artists first. What would have been interesting would have been to twin Amanda PL’s work with the work of a couple of as-yet-unknown indigenous artists. Then have a session to discuss the issue of appropriation and explain differences in artistic sensibilities and vision. That would have given the new indigenous artists visibility too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tough is absolutely right. The gallery did consult afterward, and agreed with you they should have done it first. I like your suggestions that they could have arranged the show to have emerging indigenous artists along with Amanda PL’s work. Thank you for the very useful comment.


  4. Her work is beautiful. People constantly talk about a world of love, peace and understanding but that can never happen if we refuse to share and let other people in. This artist seems to be respectful and her work has it’s own voice. Hoarding knowledge and stories/lore/myths will never make us one people, all it will do is divide us and keep us apart. Tradition is important but so is sharing. Story keepers are important and definitely need to keep the stories alive and well. I’m sorry to see this happening. It seems as if a conversation between the artist and the people who are affronted by her lovely work might be called for. There are so many things kept from others by people for reasons we can’t understand. Instead of welcoming her, they distain her and by doing so, reveal something about themselves. If her heart is in the right place, I don’t understand the kind of thinking that is taking place.

    Is this different than a gallery refusing to show work about Chicago by a non native? I am a native Chicagoan and I know the stories of the city and its people. I AM the people, when it comes to this place but different view points open new windows and we each see the stories in a different way. The city is enhanced through new stories and versions of the stories while taking nothing away from what is, or was. We are all natives in some way but nothing is lost by embracing others who show us something loving and beautiful. I just don’t get it. Fear. Fear of loss. A culture afraid of disappearing. Understandable, but to keep it alive perhaps it’s not a bad idea to open the doors to those with vision who happened to be born someplace else. Nothing is original. Everything has been done before. Everything is copied from someone, somewhere. Everything has it’s own story to tell. I’m sure I don’t understand but I do know that secrets and things are kept from people…things that could enlighten and help others and to me, that’s always a very sad thing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • thank you hitandrun1964 for that completely valid perspective, extremely well expressed. Especially the part about everything is copied from somewhere. I’ve been curating these art posts for a long time now, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve read an artist statement referencing how they’ve created a work in the style of someone else, perhaps embellishing it or changing or developing it as they go. Even so, you’re also expressing the other side of the issue, when you mention a culture disappearing. Both are valid, and that’s why discussing it all is so very important. Thank you for weighing in. Very much appreciated.


  5. This is a very interesting article.
    I had never heard the term “cultural appropriation” before this. Although I think openly about all of the arts, I can understand the First Nations sensitivity on this issue. They have been treated poorly at best since our forefathers arrived. It seems almost everything has been taken from them, and now their art. It makes my stomach churn.
    Still, I see the controversy has given a young unknown artist a spotlight (good or bad) she may not have otherwise seen for many years.
    I think Amanda should learn more about our First Nations than just their art, stories and myths, which are wonderful.
    Sigh! Anyway, I hope you like the Jackson Beardy mural I posted to thank you for Kids’ Month. I hope I haven’t done anything offensive here. I thought it was a fab post, now i wonder?

    Liked by 2 people

    • As usual Resa, your passion and acuity are right on target. I respect you for expressing a valid, widely held view on this issue, a completely righteous opinion to hold. This question, this artist, are very small but legitimate parts of a larger set of issues that play out in so many ways — in the negative reaction of many First Nations people to the 150th Anniversary, in the interpretive works of artists like Kent Monkman’s stunning Shame and Prejudice, even in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The key word you used is the correct one – sensitivity, which the Visions Gallery expressed in its response. We all need to be sensitive to the rights of anyone, not just indigenous peoples, to determine independently how their culture should be protected.


  6. As an artist, the whole political furor about what is appropriation and what is not is very disturbing. I believe if someone is drawn to and inspired by a style of art, regardless of the source, then go for it, explore it, and share it. It’s only disrespectful if it’s plagiarized or deliberately hurtful to that culture. Art is about intent. As someone once said, “ASt should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. At the very least, Amanda PL’s art has started some good discussions, often heated, about this subject.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for that extremely thoughtful comment. I’m mostly with you on this, in that it’s a good discussion. If you read her artist statements, she acknowledges the influences and talks about trying to honour and respect the cultural traditions. But the gallery’s response, and that of some of the Anishnaabe artists and cultural leaders, is confluent with today’s sensitivities, political or not. Big issue, worth considering at the least.

      Liked by 1 person

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