Skip to main content

When Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella died last year at the age of 81, many of the laudatory obituaries also politely noted that he had been the subject of some controversy involving cultural appropriation in the 1980s. Indeed. Critics, both white and Indigenous, had objected vociferously to Kinsella's "Indian" stories, in which the writer used a first-person narrator, Silas Ermineskin, to tell funny tales of reserve life that included bumbling white bureaucrats and native tricksters. Kinsella, the popular author best known for Shoeless Joe, had fought back, defending his right to tell any story and create any character he pleased, but at the time he and Silas were exhibit No. 1 in the case against appropriation of voice.

You can still buy The Fencepost Chronicles and The Moccasin Telegraph, but I doubt any Canadian publisher would touch those stories today, the source of their humour so obviously insulting and dated. On the other hand, the objections to them – including Lenore Keeshig-Tobias's classic essay "Stop Stealing Native Stories," published in these pages in 1990 – read as if they were written yesterday. The issues surrounding cultural appropriation remain as relevant, and difficult, as ever.

Toronto writer and editor Hal Niedzviecki certainly proved that this week when he flippantly called for an "Appropriation Prize" in an editorial in Write magazine, a publication of the Writers' Union of Canada. In a weirdly counterintuitive introduction to an issue devoted to Indigenous writing, Niedzviecki argued that Canadian writing was too white and middle-class and that writers should spend more time imagining different perspectives or adopting different voices. Critics, including contributors to that issue, quickly pointed out that Niedzviecki was actually encouraging white writers to appropriate Indigenous stories when he was supposed to be celebrating Indigenous voices. Niedzviecki, who has since apologized on Facebook and told The Globe and Mail that his editorial was "tone-deaf," promptly resigned, while the Writers' Union apologized profusely.

Artists often argue they have the right to the contents of their own imaginations, wherever that may take them. But Niedzviecki's case illustrates how that journey becomes hurtful. It all depends on the context. His initial position is a variation on a familiar and powerful argument for fiction: that its very purpose is empathy – that together the writer and reader imagine what it feels like to be somebody else. He argues optimistically that readers will know if the writer is just stealing stuff or phoning in stereotypes, but that doesn't address the thorny question of who is directing the empathy project. White writers telling Indigenous stories often feels like profiting off someone else's suffering or laughing at someone rather than with them. Niedzviecki's editorial (which is not accessible on the Writers' Union website but has been posted on Twitter by its critics) was mainly offensive because his first intellectual concern was so clearly the exploration of the boundaries of white writing rather than the topic of Indigenous writing.

That Canadian controversy takes place in an international context where not a month goes by without some major dust-up over cultural appropriation. This week, the debate continued at the Venice Biennale after Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor complained in an Instagram post about British art star Damien Hirst copying a historic Nigerian sculpture from the ancient city of Ife without giving sufficient credit. Representatives for the artist defended Hirst's Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable – a set of fantasy sculptures crusted in barnacles and supposedly recovered from an (entirely fictional) ancient shipwreck – saying it plucked cultural references from around the world and acknowledged that in its labelling.

Ehikhamenor argued that, despite the small print, the world would eventually come to think of this African image as an original Damien Hirst. That seems unlikely since kitschy citation seems to be the whole point of the show, yet once again the problem is context. Hirst has also borrowed from ancient Greek and Indian art in his sculptures, but in the first year that Nigeria has ever participated in the Biennale with its own national pavilion, it's the African head that offended Ehikhamenor, one of three Nigerian artists invited to contribute to the elite event.

Hirst's rather tired idea for his Wreck – which is getting lambasted by reviewers – would seem to be a commentary on the art world's process of collection, curation and enshrinement through ironic and conscious borrowings. Ehikhamenor sees it as appropriation – full stop. You can argue that, like all great art, the Ife sculptures belong to the world. Artists have always sought inspiration in their predecessors' work – Cubist portraiture was derived from Pablo Picasso's interest in African masks. But you can also see that, to a Nigerian artist, Hirst's approach just looks lazy and greedy.

In a way, both Hirst and Niedzviecki are guilty of the same kind of privileged creative assumption: that there's a vast sea of images, ideas, stories and experiences out there and imaginative voyagers should be encouraged to pluck from it whatever flotsam they please. Beyond the very limited applications of copyrights and trademarks, there are no rules to say they are wrong, just lots of contexts in which those assumptions start to look really dubious.

Why? Because they may elbow out people who haven't had enough time or space to make their own mark. Tellingly, Ehikhamenor's contribution to the Biennale, a work that also draws on traditional African art, is titled The Biography of the Forgotten.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles