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Cultural appropriation from an immigrant perspective

Cultural appropriation from an immigrant perspective

A couple of weeks ago, I attended  a philosopher’s cafe discussion at the North Vancouver community arts council on cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. It was a very interesting discussion and it raised a few questions for me, as an artist and as an immigrant from France.

I realize that most of these questions don’t have an easy answer but would be interested in reading your input in the comments.

A little bit about me:

My husband and I moved to Vancouver from France about 18 years ago.  As an immigrant, my cultural identity is a bit difficult to define : Here in Canada my children think I am embarrassingly soooo French and when I travel to France people tell me that I really became Canadian, that statement is usually preceded by a sigh of exasperation.

So I guess my culture lies somewhere in between French and Canadian cultures, Europe and North American influences. My ancestry is even more complex: My father was born in North Africa at the time Algeria was a French colony and my DNA testing reveled to me that I have about 1 % of Jewish ancestry, many ancestors in Sardegna, Spain and Northern Europe. What happens then is that as an artist, I am not deeply connected to a specific geographical location, I see myself as a citizen of the world , I will come back to that point later as I think the attachement to a particular territory is an essential element to understand when looking at most indigenous cultures.

It is also interesting that coming from France where French culture is predominant, I moved to a part of Canada where French is spoken by a minority. So I get to see a bit of both sides of that equation.

Over the years, many indigenous cultures and certainly native cultures here in Canada have been devalued, then exploited. Many artists have seen their designs stolen and used for monetary profit, without any benefit going back to the artists or to their community. All this in the Canadian historical context of the systemic abuse in residential schools, that in effect can be described as an attempt at cultural genocide makes it even more problematic. So the subject of cultural appropriation is very sensitive here and rightfully so.

Times are changing

Our global awareness and cultural sensibility to what is acceptable or not are evolving and we are becoming more educated as a society, both in Canada and in France. A few months ago I was looking on YouTube at some French stand up comedians that were hugely popular when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s . What a shock! Half of what I was watching with my 2017 eyes was totally inappropriate, racist or discriminatory  and certainly not material to broadcast on national television. At the time, most French people would see it as humor, now it feels offensive. So I can see that our collective sensitivity and awareness as a society is evolving in the right direction. Popular culture is changing. I can also see the beginning of a political awakening in France where political figures start to discuss the not so grandiose aspect of some of French history, like intense colonization or collaboration with nazi Germany during the second world war.

The same goes on in Canada, where there is a broader realization of the huge damage done by residential schools and this awareness was necessary to start the long and difficult processus of reconciliation. The idea of systemic racism also is very much discussed in Quebec these last months.

The grey zone of appropriation

The subject of appropriation is very complex in art as art is not born into a vacuum but as the result of multiple influences, but I think everyone will agree that directly stealing an artist work, and any artist work for that matter is bad.

You might also be interested in : The fine line between inspiration and imitation

Of course some factors are making that theft even worse, for example when the artist is part of a cultural minority, when that minority has an history of  exploitation or oppression or when the person stealing is making monetary profit from it. Another aggravating factor would be when the person stealing the work is in a position of power compared to the artist.

It is also obviously upsetting when the copies show a complete lack of knowledge of the culture they are appropriating, like the ridiculous way natives are portrayed in old Hollywood movies.

What I am struggling more with, is the grey areas, the questions that are not so obviously answered, basically the limit between cultural appreciation and appropriation.

For exemple, is that acceptable for me to enjoy another culture’s food, music, art style… as long as I do it for myself without trying to make money out of it?

I guess no one would think it is a problem for me to cook tacos or Vietnamese pho for my family at home but many would find it surprising if I decided to start a business and open a Mexican restaurant instead of a French one. But could I? or would it be disrespectful? Let’s say if I have a deep appreciation for Mexican food and that I took the time to study and practice it?

A lady at the philosopher’s cafe was talking about her choir. That is another interesting example:  Is that ok for a choir to present a public repertoire of songs that are a sampling of different cultures? I think it is, as long as the authors get proper credit and the choir buys the partitions.

Someone in my husband family had a fascination for Japan and enjoyed painting in his spare time Japanese subjects in a Japanese style. It was for him and to give as gifts to his family, it was coming from a place of appreciation. I don’t think there should be any trouble with that. But would that be acceptable if someone was doing the same thing with first nations designs?

Another area that is difficult to assess sometimes for me is what can or cannot be used in my art. Let’s say I am a sketching artist and I sketch scenes everywhere I am travelling that I might sell. I don’t think it would be a problem for anyone if I was sketching the Eiffel tower,a Buddhist temple in Japan or a street in China town in Vancouver . But would that be a problem if I was sketching a room in the museum of anthropology with first nation art or if I was sketching the totem poles area of Stanley park?

Or if I was a photography artist, would it be acceptable to sell pictures of first nation art? The medium here is photography but the subject is the work of art from another artist in a public space. You could also argue that a Buddhist temple or the Eiffel tower are also works of art, but they are also part of a mainstream culture.

Could Emily Carr, who is a celebrated Canadian artist do the same paintings nowadays? (Many of her paintings are representing first nation art) or should we look at her as a woman of her time, a time when these issues were not regarded as being potentially problematic.

Source Wikimedia commons: Blunden harbour totems by Emily Carr (circa 1930)

A few weeks ago, I was browsing Daiso, the Japanese toonie store in Richmond and was looking at French looking designs that were printed on dishes and various objects. The designs had a very strong French flair, there was some text in French but any French person would know right away that it was not a French person who made that design: The language was a bit inexact or the way things were said was weird, a bit like what you would get with a Google translation. As a French native, I feel more flattered than upset when I see things like that because it looks cute to me and I clearly see that as cultural appreciation. But then French culture is widely spread and doesn’t have an history of being exploited. If anything French has been on the other side of that equation as one of the colonizing countries.

But then I was thinking, by limiting access and use of one’s cultural elements, like language, traditional designs, food or traditions, doesn’t that by essence limits that culture transmission and its propagation, and puts it at greater risk of disappearing in the future?  Cultures, languages, arts need to be practiced to flourish. If we restrict too much access to one’s culture or if it becomes too much of a sensitive subject, how will the artists of that culture be able to make a living? And how will that culture not disappear in the long term?

One last point that crossed my mind was about freedom of expression. As an artist originally from Europe with mixed ancestry, I don’t feel that I have to express myself in a particular style and I enjoy a wide arrays of possibilities about what I can do with my art. It is also part of my cultural upbringing. In France, personal style, self expression and uniqueness of style in art is valued more than let’s say technical skills. Pictural traditions that have very strong visual codes strike me a double edge sword. Yes it is as a rich cultural heritage, rich in history and meanings but it is also a limitation on how an artist can express himself visually. I guess one could argue that limitations are what makes creativity flourish but I am wondering : Can any artist develop his own style or will some artists be commercially successful only if they work in the style that is dictated by the geographical location of their upbringing?

Also how would you determine your right of defining yourself as being from a culture or another? Is it the place you are born and brought up? Is it your knowledge of that culture? Your integration in its community? Is it your ancestry? Many predict that in the future, we will all be of mixed races and maybe even the concept of race will be obsolete, so how would you define your cultural ancestry in that case? Will the culture of the future be somewhat globalized and ending up in a mix of various influences or will it keep geographical and cultural particularities?

I would like it if you could share your thoughts in the comments.

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