An art gallery in Canada has canceled an exhibition which was accused of cultural appropriation so extreme it has been termed “cultural genocide”.
Visions Gallery, a contemporary venue in Toronto, scrapped a five-day display of work by artist Amanda PL because of its treatment of an indigenous Canadian art style.
PL’s work drew on the colorful style popularized by Norval Morrisseau, who hailed from Canada’s Anishnaabe group of tribes and shot to fame around the 1960s.
His work retells tribal legends and has spiritual overtones – which PL said inspired her works in turn, even though she isn’t indigenous. Here are some her paintings:
Gallery bosses had originally not seen a problem with the style – but changed their mind and killed the show once they realized PL’s ethnicity.
According to a report by Canada’s CBC news network, PL was hit by a raft of accusations from indigenous artists, which led to the cancellation.
One, Jay Soule, told them: “What she’s doing is essentially cultural genocide, because she’s taking his stories and retelling them, which bastardizes it down the road.
“Other people will see her work and they’ll lose the connection between the real stories that are attached to it.”
The co-owner of Visions told CBC that he had assumed PL was indigenous (though she never claimed to be), and that her art was therefore not problematic.
On reading the criticism, he said he realized that she was just a regular Canadian, and immediately axed the show.
The gallery’s website now features a long, rambling justification for canceling the exhibition, including a section which asserts that “freedom of artistic expression cannot be absolute”:
Many people have claimed not to discount the treatment of First Nations people in Canada, but have immediately argued in favour of the freedom of artists who borrow from styles and subjects of different cultures. We say to those people that in applying that argument to Indigenous art, you are indeed dismissing the voices of an oppressed culture. You are intentionally or unintentionally demonstrating your cultural insensitivity.
This is not simply a case of an artist borrowing ideas, themes and styles from another culture. In the context of “borrowing” from, or appropriating, the work of Indigenous people, freedom of artistic expression cannot be absolute.
In response to the cancellation, PL said: “I think it’s a shame to say that an artist can’t create something because they’re not from that race.
“That’s like saying any other culture can’t touch something like abstract art unless you’re white, or you can’t touch cubism art.”
Visions Gallery said they consulted an indigenous tribal elder for guidance over the controversy, who told them they had done the right thing.