Cultural appropriation is generally easy to condemn. When someone borrows a painting style from another ethnic group, or wears a badge of rank from another culture, there is seldom any ambiguity. If nothing else, the appropriation is often poorly done. But what if the appropriation is art of the highest calibre? What if those whose culture is appropriated not only forgive the appropriation, but are honored and inspired by it? These are some of the questions raised in the case of Emily Carr, who is generally considered one of Canada’s greatest artists of the twentieth century.
Emily Carr was an impressionist who between 1910-40 painted the wilderness and First Nations villages in British Columbia, including totem poles and mortuary sculptures. She would wander the coast with a pack horse and her pet monkey, a well-known and respected eccentric. Her work shows limited knowledge of First Nations art forms, and she almost never attempted to work in them or to imitate them. All the same, her work has a brooding, restless atmosphere all its own.
Like for many people, Emily Carr was my gateway to genuine Northwest Coast art, which I consider one of the greatest traditions in the world. However, after I learned about appropriation as an adult, my appreciation of her work became a guilty pleasure. Was it okay to like her work? Or should I be embarrassed about my taste?
In 2018, the subject of Carr came up in a Facebook group dedicated to ferretting out fraudulent First Nations art – a major problem in the art world, with containers full of fakes being shipped regularly to British Columbia from southeast Asia. Since the group was full of artists, I expected to hear her denounced, loudly and indignantly. However, to my surprise, that wasn’t what happened.
Just the opposite, in fact. Nor was the fact that Carr lived at a time when such issues were viewed differently mentioned by most of the commenters.
It’s not that Carr never culturally appropriates, or that people are unaware of the issues. Recently, Gayton Nabbess, who studied at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, but is not First Nations himself, did not hesitate to respond with the term when asked about Carr’s work. And in the original thread, Brad Letwin described Carr’s ceramics, which were intended for the tourist market, as a classic example of cultural appropriation. Yet Sonny Assu, a post-modernist whose Interventions on the Imaginary sequence involved painting over some of Carr’s work with his own designs, defended her, saying her ceramics were done “reluctantly” to make a living, and debunked the widespread notion that she sought to record a dying culture. Although Assu’s feelings were mixed, he had obviously come to respect her works.
However, for others, the question of cultural appropriation hardly arises. Kwagiulth artist Carey Newman commented,”She didn’t set out to ‘save’ us or preserve our traditions,’ or proliferate our art forms. She didn’t make our work more famous or relatable, she was a painter, not an anthropologist, and when she painted us, she lived amongst us. One of the things that I truly appreciate about her works of villages and totems is the vibrancy and vitality that they communicate. Not a narrative of extinction, not a record for preservation, but a reflection of what she saw and felt, which, considering the cultural superiority of the day, is remarkable on its own and speaks to her independent thought. I guess I’m saying that I don’t see it as harmful, nor do I think of work as harmful in any other way.”
Similarly, Haida goldsmith and carver Gwaai Edenshaw wrote that Carr was “honest and unique. She was not taking money out of the pockets of the masters whose shadows land in her paints. She was a member, engaged with the community. If anything her work has increased the reach of our market.”
Others in the thread praised her for the historical record she left. Haida artist and activist Dan Wallace observed that her work “shows actual family ties to the poles that were there at that time.” Veteran artist Richard Hunt wrote, “When people say, ‘Did you really live here?’ I say, “‘Yes, look, Emily Carr painted our pole here!'” Gitxsan artist and teacher Arlene Ness said that “it shows the power of our culture that the totems, culture, and communities captured her. The depth to her paintings reveal the impact the Northwest Coast had on her. She then belonged to the Northwest Coast. She stayed in the villages and was welcomed and accepted. Gitanyow and Kispiox (upper Skeena River/ Gitxsan) are two of the places she made home temporarily…. She is regarded favorably in my area.”
I mention these comments because they are such a contrast to the usual narrative of cultural appropriation. While the culturally sensitive insist that appropriation is never acceptable, the reactions to Carr tell a more mixed story. Some may be surprised, but in Carr’s case, influential art, honesty, participation in the culture, and giving something back in return for hospitality and inspiration have combined to make appropriation, if not altogether acceptable, at least forgivable. And if members of the culture she painted and her artistic peers can respect her work, who else has any right to complain? The acceptance of Carr should not be mistaken for an unrestricted license for appropriation, but it does show that the issues can be more complicated that many people admit.