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When you think of Indigenous art, or for our friends in the USA Indian art, what comes to mind?
In the US that will typically be either male or female figures dressed in buckskin sporting feathered headdresses, decorated with elaborate beadwork. Perhaps they may have a skinned animal or dead bird tied to their head vis-a-vis Johnny Depp.
On the other hand, if you are Canadian you will think of Woodland style art, first created by Norval Morrisseau in the early 1960s, which depicts very stylized animal and human figures usually with cosmic connections indicated by his own stylized symbols. I won't go into the deeper meaning of his art.
For the vast majority of non-indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island, this is what comes to mind.
You will find it in the galleries, you will find it in the airports, you will find it in the gift shops and the dollar stores. This is what you expect when you look for Indian art, and it doesn’t even have to be produced by an Indigenous artist!
For example, in the US Kirby Sattler has become one of the top producers of Buckskin and Feather art. And while his work is beautiful in a technical sense, it is also very disturbing from an Indigenous perspective. Adding to this unease, he states that the figures depicted in his art do not adhere to any specific indigenous culture (Tribe/FN). Or in his owns words states, "I am not a historian, nor an ethnologist," [and hopes that my paintings] "satisfy my audience's sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy."
This of course begs the question, who is his audience?
Sattler is a non-indigenous artist painting for a non-indigenous audience, about people he has no true depth of knowledge... nor does he seem to care to know. This of course has dual repercussions in which he continues to promote stereotypes that place Indians in the past as well as maintaining the Pan-Indian fallacy.
This is only one artist and I’m not picking on him in particular because there are many more like him, perhaps not as talented and more akin to the gift store collection rather than an art gallery.
Now let’s take a quick look at the Canadian Indian art scene.... sorry Indigenous. Indian has a MUCH different meaning in this place currently known as Canada.
If you go into an art gallery looking for Indigenous art, what do you think you will you find?
I’ll bet you an entire bag of wooden buffalo nickels that you’ll find at least one Woodland style painting if not an entire gallery. Thankfully unlike the US, Buckskin and Feather art hasn't quite taken off as it did down south. But the Canadian Indigenous art scene is almost as disturbing.
Go into any art gallery or gift store and you’ll find at least 80% of the work is Woodland-like style depicting animals or perhaps people rendered in a way that branches off by varying degrees from Norval’s original concept.
Now I have to be careful, because unlike the artists I spoke of in the south, most Woodland style artists ARE Indigenous ...except for one person that had her exhibit pulled from a local Toronto gallery because it was an obvious rip off of Norval and she just didn’t get that that was a clear example of CULTURAL APPROPRIATION of the worse kind!
So all of this begs the question, why the Buckskin and Feather art in the US and why Woodland style art depicting spirit animals in this place currently known as Canada?
Simple my dear reader... commerce.
Trust me, the art world is a tough place and if you are an artist and want to make a living creating art, you will need to produce work that sells.
So this begs the question, why?
Why is it so popular and why has it been so ingrained in most non-indigenous people living on Turtle Island? When they go shopping for Indigenous art, why do they want this type of art and why is it expected?
Why does non-indigenous Turtle Island want Woodland style bears or a leather clad Pocahontas posing with a docile wolf?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the reason this happens is because this is the way the vast majority of non-indigenous people want to view Indigenous people on Turtle Island.
In the US they want the noble savage dressed in Buckskin and Feathers, wearing war paint, sitting astride a horse, and maybe holding a lance or bow. I won’t get into how our women are viewed, that’s a story for another day, and I won't mention Germany... that's really a whole different story!
But the fact remains that the non-indigenous US sees us as historical figures, people of the past before 1492. The “good-ol-days”. Within this mindset we encapsulate qualities that they admire, whether real or not. But given the truth, they are prone to ignore us or worse.
In Canada on the other hand, there are few realistic depictions of Indigenous people. It’s like we’ve been erased from non-indigenous perceptions within art as well as history and the landscape. The only evidence of our existence are spirit animals and depictions of our connections to Mother Earth.
Within this place currently known as Canada we have become the mystic warrior, the sage, the wise man or medicine man. In many respects we do not exist as a people, but rather as a collection of distilled Pan-Indian philosophical or spiritual ideas that meet the needs of current non-indigenous society. In fact the idea of the spirit animal is a fallacy and I use it as a multi-layered literary device for those people that are in the know. [wink-wink-nudge-nudge].
Like the US, given the reality of on-going colonial/Indigenous history and its issues, most non-indigenous folk would rather hang onto their preconceived ideas of either the sage or drunken Indian rather than admit to the reality of who we are as a People, and why we are in this current state of crisis.
In the end, like most markets, the demand will determine the supply. In this case it determines the type of art that is being produced and sells. On a deeper level, I would like to argue that what we are seeing in popular/commercial art is how we are viewed as Indigenous people on Turtle Island. And if we as Indigenous artists continue to create art in this manner, we are perpetuating these stereotypes.
In all fairness I want to add that not all Indigenous artists are creating art along these lines both in the US and Canada. There are many artists, especially in the southwestern states that have broken away from Buckskin and Feather art. In addition there are many Indigenous artists in Canada that are breaking new ground and are not depicting spirit animals in their natural habitat. Three of my favourites are Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Travis Shilling and Nathalie Bertin to name a few.
Another of my favourite artists in the US is Kevin Red Star. Mr. Red Star is of the Crow Nation and depicts historically accurate figure paintings and characterisations of Crow people and their culture. He is very popular, and justifiably so. I'll leave you to ponder the philosophical and social differences between the art of Kevin Red Star and Kirby Sattler.
In the end I believe, it is up to the galleries in these markets to challenge popular culture and to be brave enough to support artists that do not create art within the commercial norm.
Let’s face it; the act of painting on canvas is not a traditional Indigenous art form. This medium is fairly new to us historically and we are still learning and developing as Indigenous artists. I won’t call it reverse cultural appropriate because there is no such thing, but perhaps the adoption of a colonial practice and making it our own.