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Times have changed around cultural appropriation, but has the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts?

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts's 2011 retrospective of work by French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier was a smash hit in Montreal, and toured the globe for five years. More than two million people saw it in 12 cities – a record for a Canadian exhibition.

This week, as a coda to that success, the MMFA opened a much smaller display of three dozen Gaultier wedding outfits, arrayed on tiered platforms that resemble a wedding cake. On the cake's top layer stands a spectacular costume that is dragging the museum's festive display into an increasingly sharp debate over cultural appropriation.

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The gown, from 2002, consists of a heavy skirt that looks as if a hussar's overcoat had tumbled around the mannequin's waist, with swirls of braid at her feet and epaulettes at her hips. On the mannequin's head, above a filmy bodice of tulle and chains, is Gaultier's riff on a Plains Indian headdress, in white feathers that trail down to the floor.

"My God, it never ends," said Métis artist Christi Belcourt, after seeing a photo of the gown. "We may as well call #Canada150 the Year of Appropriation." Belcourt saw, first-hand, a more respectful way of incorporating Indigenous designs in 2015, when Valentino designers asked her if they could adapt one of her floral paintings for a high-fashion collection. Before saying yes, she specifically asked whether Valentino had ever sent a model down a runway in a feathered headdress.

"Why would any major art exhibition taking place [in Montreal] make a mockery of Indigenous rights by representing European representations of Indigenous peoples?" said Clayton Windatt, executive director of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. He cited a clause from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes the right of Aboriginal peoples to protect their cultural heritage, including traditional designs.

Gaultier's headdress gown has been shown at the MMFA before, in the 2011 retrospective. I remember at the time thinking that the designer's anything-goes aesthetic had carried him a step too far, but I didn't actually say that in my review. To my knowledge, no one else called out the MMFA for displaying the piece. Appropriation was not as high on the public agenda; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was still four years away.

MMFA general director Nathalie Bondil described the gown in an e-mail as "a clear and well-known homage to interculturalism," which was not challenged at any stage of its 12-city tour. On the contrary, she said, the piece was received everywhere as "a visionary tribute made by the couturier to togetherness and world cultures."

Perhaps. But six years after the MMFA first showed the dress, appropriation has become a much more prominent issue in Canadian arts, fashion and media. In 2015, the Toronto fashion house Dsquared2 withdrew its "Dsquaw" collection after fierce criticism. A year ago, some film festivals cancelled screenings of Montreal filmmaker Dominic Gagnon's much-reviled Of the North, because it consisted entirely of video clips of Inuit used without their consent. Last winter, novelist Joseph Boyden was obliged to defend his right to tell Indigenous stories, and in recent weeks, three prominent media figures left their posts after seeming to argue that cultural appropriation was okay.

Gaultier has been free with culture-specific forms and symbols throughout his career. In 1994, he created what Women's Wear Daily called "an Eskimo-themed 'trans-Siberian' collection," which the magazine splashed over its cover and dubbed "Eskimo Chic." At the time, Ingrid Sischy, a prominent style maven and editor of Interview magazine, offered this analysis: "I think to take something that none of us understands necessarily and mix it up and incorporate it into the culture, and show all sorts of different people wearing it, is a way of removing strife."

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The first part of Sischy's comment is a damningly lucid account of the actual practice of appropriation. The last bit, in Canada today, is completely false. No strife is going to be removed by showing Gaultier's headdress gown, or another outfit from his "Gypsy Indian" collection of 2013, which is also in the MMFA show. No museum or fashion boutique, in Canada in 2017, could reasonably hope to display high-fashion duds as "Eskimo Chic."

And yet, here we are, with MMFA guest curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot talking about how works such as the headdress gown "challenged stereotypes and shattered taboos with humour." Gaultier, "the defender of diversity, used his boundless imagination to champion freedom of expression and differences," Loriot said in his notes to the exhibition.

The museum is positioning the Gaultier show, which is called Love Is Love, as part of its "Year for Peace" activities, designed to "promote tolerance and inclusion." It's hard to see how an image that inspires rage and disbelief in Indigenous communities can be inclusive. How can ripping off aboriginal cultural symbols be an uncomplicated exercise in freedom of expression and difference?

The odd thing is that just a few weeks ago, the MMFA seemed to be in tune with Indigenous communities, as it hosted an hour-long ceremony of greetings, blessings, dances and gift exchanges by Kwakwaka'wakw and Mohawk people, at the installation of a totem pole outside the museum. Even then, however, it ran afoul of Quebec Indigenous artists, who at a recent conference in Montreal expressed shock that a museum whose collection is thin in works by Quebec Aboriginal artists would choose to bring in a West Coast totem pole.

Concerning appropriation, Bondil said, "We are fully aware of this important topic, as is shown by our acquisitions and exhibitions policy." She claimed not to see a connection with Gaultier, whose work "is openly based on métissage." To have kept his headdress gown out of the show this time would have been "artistic censorship," she said.

Or maybe it would have been artistic leadership. Bondil could have led by displaying the sensitivity required to ask Indigenous artists and elders what they thought of Gaultier's métissage. She could have shown Indigenous communities that the museum recognizes that times have changed, and that work formerly given a pass needs to be seen through a different lens or in a different context. As it is, the MMFA's latest Gaultier exhibition looks like one wedding party that will end in tears.

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