Kent Monkman, The Scream, 2017, 84” x 126”, Acrylic on Canvas
Kent Monkman, The Scream, 2017, 84” x 126”, Acrylic on Canvas

The price of cultural appropriation

Investigation by Charlotte Groult


“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so: the Appropriation Prize,1” is how Hal Niedzviecki opened his editorial for Write magazine, published in spring 2017 by the Writer’s Union of Canada. In only a few days, his statements sparked debate in the country’s press, and even beyond the Canadian literary scene. Cited and re-tweeted to exhaustion, the expression “cultural appropriation” is governed by a fluctuating and disturbing logic steeped in principles of property and legitimacy in art, and of imagination and free creativity. Critics of the concept believe that it agitates the spectrum of censorship and political correctness. And yet, because it inspires these very divisions, cultural appropriation also highlights the tensions running through a given society.

[ 1 ]

Write Magazine, volume 45 numéro 1, printemps 2017.

[ 2 ]

Susan Scafidi, Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2005.

[ 3 ]


[ 4 ]

Richard Fung, « Working through appropriation », FUSE SUMMER 1993, V. XVI n 5+6, 16-24.

[ 5 ]

M. NourbeSe Philip, « The Disappearing Debate », in Blank: Essays and Interviews, Bookthug, Toronto, 2017.

[ 6 ]

Déclaration du premier ministre Justin Trudeau à l’occasion de la Journée canadienne du multiculturalisme, Ottawa, 27 juin 2017.

[ 8 ]

« Honorer la vérité, réconcilier pour l’avenir », Sommaire du rapport final de la Commission de vérité et réconciliation du Canada, Commission de vérité et réconciliation du Canada, 2015.

[ 9 ]

Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road, Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2005. Traduit en français par Hughes Leroy et publié en 2008 par Albin Michel sous le titre Le Chemin des âmes.

[ 10 ]

Jorge Barrera, « Author Joseph Boyden’s shape-shifting Indigenous identity », Aboriginal People Television Network, 23 décembre 2016.–joseph–boydens–shape–shifting–indigenous–identity/

[ 11 ]
[ 12 ]

Eric Andrew-Gee, « The Making of Joseph Boyden », The Globe and Mail, 4 août 2017.

[ 13 ]

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, « Can the Subaltern Speak? », in Cary Nelson, Lawrence Grossberg (ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 1988. Traduit en français par Jérôme Vidal et publié en 2006 par les Éditions Amsterdam sous le titre Les Subalternes peuvent–elles parler ?

[ 14 ]

M. NourbeSe Philip, op. cit..

[ 15 ]

Minh-Ha T. Pham, « Pour un discours inapproprié d’appropriation culturelle », Tumultes 2017/1 (n° 48), p. 117-125.–tumultes–2017–1–p–117.htm

[ 16 ]


[ 17 ]

Lee Maracle, My Conversations with Canadians, BookThug, Toronto, 2017.

[ 18 ]

Richard Fung, op. cit..

[ 19 ]

À l’image notamment de l’absorption symbolique, à la fois esthétique et politique, de la modernité européenne que prônait le poète brésilien Oswald de Andrade dans son Manifeste anthropophage (BlackJack Éditions, Paris, 2011) publié pour la première fois en 1928.

[ 20 ]

Jordan Abel, Injun, Talonbooks, Vancouver, 2016.

[ 21 ]

« Poet Jordan Abel used scissors to deconstruct racism in western novels », CBC Radio, 8 février 2018.

[ 22 ]

Bruce Whiteman, « Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel on indigeneity, appropriation, and art », Macleans, 14 juin 2017.

[ 23 ]

M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2008.

[ 24 ]

M. NourbeSe Philip, « Discourse on the Logic of Language », in She Tries Her Tongue – Her Silence Softly Breaks, Casa de las Américas, La Havane, 1988 (pour la première édition).

[ 25 ]

« Kent Monkman: The Sexuality of Miss Chief », Mason Journal, 26 mars 2012.

[ 26 ]

Kent Monkman, in Love is Love Exhibit, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, 2017.

[ 27 ]

Ingrid Luquet–Gad, « L’art face à l’appropriation culturelle », 02, numéro 83, automne 2017.

Born in the post-colonial studies classrooms of the USA, cultural appropriation1 is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.2” It is “most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.3

Hal Niedzviecki adheres to a discursive tradition that presents the history of art as a succession of fertile exchanges. This history, however, does not follow a linear narrative exempt of conflict. “Using the voice, sound, image, dance, or stories of another: it can represent sharing or exploitation, mutual learning or silencing, collaboration or unfair gain, and, more often than not, both aspects simultaneously,4” summarizes video artist Richard Fung. A blanket rejection of this concept or the contrary, condemning any act of appropriation without possibility of appeal, will erase this complexity. “Art does not exist in a vacuum5” and does not emerge from an empty space. Most importantly, one must take into consideration its specific historical, political and social environment.

The country’s 150th anniversary

2017 was a pivotal year in Canada: as the country celebrated 150 years since confederation, it was also an occasion to re-examine the national narrative in a new light; that of the history of its minorities, in particular its indigenous populations.

For nearly half a century, the official federal discourse inscribed Canadian identity within a celebration of a fertile and open multiculturalism. This rhetoric was initially launched in response to the identitarian demands of the francophone population and the Quiet Revolution of Québec. Today it embodies the country’s motto and how the Canadian state and one part of society tell their story. “Multiculturalism,” declared Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in June 2017, “is at the heart of Canada’s heritage and identity.6

The history of the numerous minorities that make up the country’s population, as well as their place at the heart of Canadian society, nevertheless spans a multiple reality. In addition to the minorities recognized as “visible” under Canadian law, of which the three main ones are, in terms of numbers, Chinese, Asian and Black communities, there are the so-called “indigenous” populations: Peoples who preceded the arrival of English and French colonists in the 16th century, representing about 5,6 % of the Canadian population7. In Canada today, these peoples fall under the institutional and administrative umbrella of “Indigenous”, which could itself be sub-divided into three distinct groups: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. For over two centuries, these groups have suffered violent assimilationist policies, of which the Indian residential school system represents one of the most traumatic aspects.

Starting in the 1870s and until 1996, over 150 000 indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools in order to integrate them into the rest of Canadian society and “kill the Indian in the child8”. After six years of work, during which nearly 7 000 victims and persons involved were heard, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded that a veritable “cultural genocide” had taken place. The year 2017 also marked the third anniversary of the publication of the Commission’s final report and its 94 “calls to action”. In December 2016, Justin Trudeau announced he would establish a three-step implementation strategy. In the time between when these declarations were made and the actual implementation of concrete action, the gap has been widening. This is the special context in which Hal Nidzviecki’s statement, and the uproar it elicited, must be understood.

Speaking in their place…

The editorial was actually just the most recent iteration of a debate that has been regularly recurring in Canada over the past decades. In 1988, Women’s Press, a publishing house in Toronto, published Imagining Women, an anthology uniting new writings exclusively by women; white women. The publication was quickly perceived as an act of cultural appropriation: indeed, several authors in the anthology expressed themselves through the voices of characters belonging to cultures that were not their own. To appropriate a culture means, in this case, to appropriate the “voice” of that culture. To speak in their place, while passing for that other person thanks to the artifice of fiction. The accusation is far from anecdotal.

Several months prior to the controversy that would lead to Hal Niedzviecki’s resignation, Joseph Boyden, a Canadian writer whose books are national bestsellers, was accused of cultural appropriation. He claims he is of Amerindian, Scottish and Irish descent, and situates both the plot and characters of most of his novels on First Nation reserves. As an Amerindian, in 2005 he received the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, a literary prize intended exclusively for a First Nation, Inuit or Métis writer, for his debut novel Three Day Road9.

Aside from his literary and commercial success, Boyden has also made himself a defender of indigenous interests, occupying an increasingly important role in the Canadian media. He has therefore progressively become a bridge between “white Canada” and other communities. Upon request by the Canadian government, he was even an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In December 2016, the Canadian Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) published a report denying the Amerindian origins claimed by the writer10. The term for “white” people who make a show of their Amerindian origins is pretendian11. Suspected of usurping his identity, Boyden was accused of taking up all the literary, artistic and media but also political space, leaving little room for other indigenous people. Also, Boyden’s impostering could potentially undermine his literary legitimacy. And so artist creation is subordinate to notions of identitary belonging, the borders of which are most often blurry. In a country that went to great lengths to deform “indigenous12” identity, for many minorities everything is at stake when it comes to defining that identity, no matter how complex the process.

Freedom of speech falls prey to its own contradictions

In one of the foundational post-colonial studies texts, published in 1988, Gayatri Spivak, literary theorist and professor at Columbia University, poses the terms for debates to come: “Can the Subaltern Speak?13” The idea is to know whether minorities are part of a system that allows them to both express themselves and truly be heard. A dialectic that is often sacrificed on the altar of a certain freedom of speech.

From 1988 to 2017, the terms and expression of the debate remained unchanged. The controversy rapidly transformed into a binary debate about censorship. This reformulation takes several distinct arguments and places them into a hierarchy: defending freedom of speech is preferred at the expense of denouncing the exclusion of artists with minority backgrounds. Any struggle against intellectual censorship of any kind thus becomes “privileged discourse”. The discourse of privilege? “In Canada, that wider context is, in fact, very narrowly drawn around the artistic freedom of white writers,” hammers Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip14.

In a context where not all artists can express themselves and be heard, the absolute value of creative freedom and its corollary, freedom of speech, is debatable.

By focusing on censorship, the initial debate gets completely confiscated. And so what is perpetuated is what was initially critiqued: the absence of representation of minority artists.

The controversy surrounding Write is a perfect example. For its February 2017 issue, the magazine in fact chose to highlight literature by Canadian aboriginals, opening its columns exclusively to First Nations, Inuit or Métis writers. Published in a media that is primarily targeted to professionals from the publishing sector, these writers would have benefited from this increased visibility. But the opportunity was missed, since Hal Niedzviecki’s controversial declarations occupied the foreground for so many months, saturating the media space.

Cultural appropriation: An imbalance perpetuated by the market?

Cultural appropriation also covers up a more insidious problem: the lack of diversity in the Canadian book industry, for the most part a white industry. The make-up of the editorial sector is a fundamental issue: the process of selecting which books are published, the editorial work of proofreading and correcting, contribute to transforming a text and how an author is presented.

The way the market functions reflects and reinforces the existing power dynamics. Minority cultures have fewer resources to makes themselves heard: “Appropriation depends on a unidirectional flow of power that goes from high to low.15” Researcher Minh-Ha T. Pham examines the case of haute couture, explaining how the sector is faster to crack down on counterfeits and “illegal” copies than it is to examine the “thin dividing line between appropriation and copy.16

Written vs. oral cultures: a de facto inequality?

To the inequalities perpetuated by the market, one could add an additional imbalance that pits written knowledge—that of the majority population—against oral knowledge, the heritage of First Nations peoples.

While writing is accounted for—and protected—by laws on private property, oral knowledge, the knowledge of memory, is founded on principles of intergenerational sharing and transmission. This confrontation of two systems of transmission raises an issue that goes much further than the simple pecuniary dimension covered by common law.

Ancestral narratives and knowledge are also subject to appropriation because they are an integrated part of the Canadian socio-economic system and its institutions of knowledge, such as universities. These histories are no longer most directly accessible to First Nations populations because they are negotiated through economic deals: the purchase of a book, paying university tuition, etc. “They stole our knowledge and are now selling it back to us.17” Denouncing cultural appropriation therefore constitutes “a strategy to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.18

From appropriation to re-appropriation

And yet, cultural appropriation is also a vector by which minorities can emancipate themselves. One can indeed pass through assimilation to a majority culture in order to arrive at re-appropriation of ones own culture. By overturning aesthetic rapports, some artists reverse the asymmetrical relationship between minority and dominant cultures by conducting a kind of metaphoric digestion of the latter19.

In this sense, the colonizer’s language can be assimilated and then transformed. Cut-up and other techniques give birth to a renewed use of the English language. For his novel Injun, Canadian poet Jordan Abel, of the Nisg’a First Nation, compiled and then cut up, distorted and re-manipulated texts from 91 novels written between 1840 and 1950 that all used the word “Injun”, a pejorative deformation of “Indian”20. Although his book is “built out of all settler texts. […] At the end at the end of the day, it becomes an Indigenous work.21” “Injun, as a book, is about appropriation, and as such it also uses conceptual forms of appropriation in order to comment on the mechanisms of appropriation itself.22

Jordan Abel’s work inscribes itself in the same channel dug out by the work of M. NourbeSe Philip and her poem Zong!23. A poetry of fragments, Zong! “tells a story that can not—but must—be told.” Philip uses and re-appropriates the court decision Gregson vs. Gilbert, the sole written trace documenting the 1781 massacre of 150 African slaves who were drowned for insurance money. She dismembers words to recount the dismembered bodies, then erases others in recognition of the erased violence. By deconstructing the elements of the majority culture, Philip contributes to rebuilding a collective memory. By way of poetry, she also retraces the ambivalent and profoundly tragic character of the English language in her creative process, just as in the construction of her own identity24.

Subverting images

Canadian and Cree First Nation visual artist Kent Monkman, for his part, explores the terrain of reappropriation in the visual arts. Much like American painter Kehinde Wiley, whose works borrow from the décors of several iconic pictorial frescoes in Western art history, Monkman reuses and twists the codes of great classics in European painting. While Kehinde Wiley creates portraits of Afro-American men and women, turning them into the new protagonists of secular painting, Kent Monkman introduces First Nations characters, objects and symbols into his works.

In his painting The Three Graces, inspired by Raphael, he reintegrates women and men who are usually absent from art history, thus telling a different version of the birth of the Canadian nation. Similarly, in The Scream, he appropriates the abduction of the Sabines, an ancient Roman event that inspired many European artists like Nicolas Poussin, to portray the abduction of indigenous children from their families.

This narrative transgression also strives to invert the clichés traditionally disseminated about gender and sexuality in First Nations peoples. In opposition to the romantic image of the ‘Hollywood Indian stereotype’25, Monkman created the character Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a kind of alter ego for the Canadian painter. A recurring figure throughout his works, Miss Chief—which plays on the notion of a feminine chief and mischief—is inspired by berdaches, bi-spiritual people that possess both a masculine and feminine spirit. By reintroducing this concept, which comes from the Anichinabé people, Monkman emancipates himself from the hyper-sexualized representation of First Nations bodies as they usually appear in the Canadian pictorial imagination.

In The Daddies, the painter takes up Robert Harris’ painting The Fathers of Confederation and inserts Miss Chief in stiletto heels, posing naked next to the nation’s forefathers. Although he uses pictorial techniques from European painting, he also reuses its codes and stereotypes, including the female figure as a muse and model for the male artist. The scene painted by Robert Harris—the 1864 Charlottetown Conference—was a founding event for Canada, but one in which the indigenous populations were not—or very little—involved. With The Daddies, Monkman reinserts that which has remained, for the most part, out-of-frame in Canadian history.

Today his work is included in the collections of major museum institutions in Canada. The celebrations that marked the year 2017 granted Monkman unprecedented space within the country’s cultural sphere. His solo show, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience was presented at Art Museum, the gallery of the University of Toronto, before touring the four corners of the country, precisely within the framework of the 150th anniversary of confederation. The artist was also invited to present his work in several conferences: at the forum Six Degrees Citizenship organized by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a Canadian think-tank co-founded by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, or at Creative Time Summit in 2017 in Toronto. A new solo exhibition, Beauty and the Beasts has been chosen to launch the re-opening of the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris.

“Miss Chief has never been afraid of cultural exchange – cultural appropriation is a different matter. When you have a dominant culture taking from a marginalized culture, it’s impossible not to see it as appropriation.26” Exchange and borrowing, just like distortion, have constituted and continue to constitute secular artistic practices without cultural borders. Cultural appropriation—or re-appropriation—called out time and time again as despoilment, or celebrated as an emancipatory act, depends above all on the historical and political context that precedes it.

Cultural renewal

Despite countless articles and opinion pieces dreading the return of a past censorship, cultural appropriation is not actually at risk of prohibition or extinction. The concept does not make up an ideological dictate that would de facto banish any discussion in order to “see heads roll27”. On the contrary, it shakes up the traditional aesthetic, political and ethical positions. A true protest strategy, it enables an open and renewed debate on the under-representation of minority populations within a given artistic and cultural scene.

If the year 2017 was punctuated in Canada by the controversy provoked by Hal Niedzviecki, it was also a year of renewed cultural life. The Nisg’a poet Jordan Abel and Mi’kmaq artist Ursula A. Johnson each received one of the most prestigious national awards in their respective disciplines: the Griffin Poetry Prize, the most well-funded prize in the world, and the Sobey Art Award for contemporary art. Meanwhile, for the first time in its history, the Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO, named a curator dedicated to Canadian indigenous art: Wanda Nanibush, an activist from the Beausoleil First Nation and belonging to the Anichinabé group. An opportunity for Canadians to write a different national history.

Translation by Maya Dalinsky

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