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Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation


Maynard Johnny Jr. is a Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish artist who was born in Campbell River, British Columbia in 1973. A self-taught artist, Maynard has been honing his talents since he was a teen. He dedicates an average of eight to ten hours to practicing his craft every single day. His time and effort has been punctuated with successes, occasional failures, and unrelenting persistence, helping him evolve into the lauded artist he has become. Today, Maynard’s work is internationally recognized, and can be found in galleries and private collections across the world, and as beautiful prints on umbrellas, clothing items, and scarves sold by authorized sellers.

Artists designs are proprietary, and should never be reproduced without permission. In Indigenous art, acknowledging the artist and their community roots is an absolute necessity when identifying and sharing work. Recently, Maynard was surprised to discover that one of his designs had been stolen and reproduced by an online t-shirt company. This is a problem that regularly plagues Indigenous artists, and causes harm on several levels.

Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn't respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, reinforces stereotypes, or contributes to oppression. It occurs when aspects of culture are taken and used as fashion, or taken out of context for the personal gain of the appropriator. Indigenous art is permeated with important symbolism and meaningful nuances, and when these designs are taken without permission and plastered across t-shirts, it degrades and minimizes the significance of the art. Further, it disrespects the artist.

Cultural appropriation can happen when individuals wear regalia (authentic or reproduced) as a fashion statement. It occurs when people take photographs or videos of cultural activities, and share them without permission, for the purpose of seeking attention or remuneration. And it occurs when facets of art and design are taken, and used in the production of cheaply made garments, without the permission of the artist.

In contrast, cultural appreciation occurs when individuals seek to learn and understand culture, paying due respect while doing so. It requires the understanding that not everything can be purchased, and not everything is meant for you. Some things are sacred, and they need to be treated with respect and reverence.

Cultural appropriation can be insidious, and so the onus must reside in those purchasing pieces to be vigilant in finding reputable sources. Artist Maynard Johnny Jr. offers the following suggestions for those wishing to acquire Indigenous art in a good way:

  • If possible, buy directly from artists.

  • If purchasing from a gallery, ask the seller who the artist is and where they are from. If they don’t know, walk away.

  • If there is no mention of who the artist is, it’s fake.

  • If it says “designed and sold” by a name that seems fishy, ask what Nation the artist is from, and how long they’ve been practicing.

  • If purchasing from an online store, research before buying. What do the reviews say? Does it seem questionable? If it raises concerns, listen to that intuition.

If you are interested in viewing more of Maynard’s work, you can find him on Facebook at Maynard Johnny Jr - Coast Salish Artist, or on Instagram at @maynard_johnny_jr_artist.

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