The richness and vibrancy of the myriad visual traditions of Canada’s Northwest Coast first nations is well known and has certainly been discussed by many people more experienced and qualified to engage it than I. What I would like to write about now is one of the myriad examples of non-indigenous artists and designers brazenly appropriating a superficial understanding of these traditions and building a career upon their appropriation, far away from the regions they exploit and far from accountability.
The above is an album cover designed by Icelandic designer Siggi Odds. On its own it is offensive and appropriative, yes - not least because the figure created by the vaguely Haida, Coast Salish or Tlingit shapes is obviously ethnically European - but hardly unusually or exceptionally so; unfortunately since the Canadian, American and European hunger for ‘native’ imagery began growing exponentially in the 1960s and ’70s, the art market has been flooded by superficial Northwest Coast-style graphic works to such a point that it is just expected. What disturbs me most is the texts I found in combination with it on the website It’s Nice That.
The title says it all, “The wild and native illustration and design of Iceland’s Siggi Odds,” following up with the adjectives “weird,” “brilliant,” and astoundingly, “utterly unique.” The interview-piece continues to gush with the only references to the overwhelming aboriginal influence being the moments: “[his work] is inspired by the native Canadian artwork of his childhood home in Vancouver”, and in Odds’s own words, that “aesthetically [he is] obviously influenced by aboriginal art” (as we all know there is only one aboriginal art). The rest of his answers to questions about inspiration implies the ideas for his works all come suddenly and independently from the inner workings of his mind. Particularly considering the below image and it’s corresponding text from the artist’s website, Siggi Odds’s work is decidedly not nice.
This style, widely known, has been evolving for thousands of years and remains as a definitive traditional style [note, singular] common in essence to indian groups on the Northwest coast of America, from Alaska to Washington.
The end product was called Nang Jáadaas, which means ‘The Woman’ in the Haida language, an idolization of the women in my life, as the indians idolize the animals in their spirituality and surroundings.
As said, I plan on progressing my own take on the Northwest Coast style as it remains intriguing in its beauty of form and profound symbolism, but seeing as this is a style that took hundreds or thousands of years to evolve, it will take some time.
There is no denying that it is not a style that belongs to the Icelander despite living in Vancouver (with hundreds of thousands of other non-aboriginals), and it certainly makes no unique contribution or intellectual engagement with the tradition he exploits. Further there is absolutely no evidence that Odds ever engaged or collaborated with Northwest Coast first nations artists. The text itself is oddly individualistic and implies a highly independent practice, never discussing how he came to understand the stylistic rules and conventions he draws from. It seems as though Odds believes he is the only one trying to “evolve” “the style”, not least considering the dozens of exceptional Northwest Coast artists exploring the aesthetic traditions which are their own, and bringing them far further than Odds’s intent would.
Why would It’s Nice That not, for example, discuss Lawrence Yuxweluptun (Coast Salish), whose practice and works such as the above New Chiefs on the Land simultaneously discuss the monolith of the European modernist tradition in relation to Northwest Coast arts as well as intricate political issues (such as the rise of corporate reserves, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s being a prime example, its possessions including the Hard Rock Cafe). Or Andrew Dexel (Nlakapamux) who has a new exhibition in Toronto at Neubacher Shor gallery, and who actively collaborates with and engages other aboriginal artists, from Arizona and Brazil in his most recent works. Or to remain within a more ‘design’-oriented context, Corey Bulpitt (Haida) who has a growing number of design products as well as a grafiti piece in the monumental Beat Nation exhibition at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery, contextualizing Haida aesthetic traditions into an urban, hip hop environment.
The perverse European fixation on superficial references to North American indigenous peoples is especially heightened in Scandinavia, as some of you are aware. In Norwegian Ole Robert Sunde’s recent novel Krigen var min families historie (The war was my family’s story) the main character, a child, identifies himself as an Indian (and it should be noted that in the Nordic languages, North American indigenous peoples are rarely if ever referred to with words translating to ‘indigenous’ or ‘aboriginal’, let alone names of specific nations), but remarks that he feels this way despite being not feeling connected to nature, ignoring the generations of real Indians who were themselves brought far from their traditional lands, and stripped of wealth, access and power which the average Norwegian possesses, without the means to return. In this instance, with Indians being likened to an ignorant, self-absorbed child, the popular stereotype of Indians as stupid and selfish is reinforced. Or in Dopler, another Norwegian novel by Erlend Loe, which references the ‘savage’ picture of indigenous peoples; after the main character who is living in the woods outside Oslo kills a moose and eats a piece of meat raw, “like a red indian” (included in both the original Norwegian and it’s English translation).
The European’s love to employ the generic “Indian” as a broad-reaching metaphor is well-documented. These works are so dangerous because - since the majority of these artists, designers and authors never even consider engaging the peoples they reference and mostly work completely outside of North America - they would not likely be picked up by actual North American aboriginals. They are thereby allowed to continue working with no accountability. It is not simply a matter of poor-taste or ideological theft - it is about the European hold over control of aboriginal peoples’ identities in the artistic world.