Aboriginals want to knock out knock-off art

🕔Dec 04, 2006

As British Columbia moves closer to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, tourism numbers are expected to increase each year. Many tourists will be coming in search of Aboriginal art. But how can they be sure they’re getting the real thing?

That is the question facing the Aboriginal tourism and artists communities as they try to devise a way to combat knock-off art and poor quality work. This will not only ensure high standards but also help preserve Aboriginal culture.

The Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC (ATBC) released its Blueprint Strategy this past winter and is now bringing it to Aboriginal communities and government, seeking support in implementing the first three-year phase of the plan. The Blueprint Strategy addresses several areas, among them the threat of Aboriginal art being produced without permission.

“We definitely realized it is a concern as we move towards the Olympics and that it is going to become more of an issue,” said ATBC Chair Brenda Baptiste. “It’s not just that people are making Aboriginal art or reproducing it without permission, but they’re doing it without including the Aboriginal knowledge as well.”

Baptiste explained that the issue is more than just non-Aboriginal operators drawing money away from legitimate Aboriginal artists; it’s also about respecting the culture and heritage. She believes that many of the people producing knock-offs don’t even know it’s inappropriate, and it’s up to Aboriginal people to inform them.

“Really, each community, each Nation, is responsible for protecting their own art, their own culture and knowledge,” said Baptiste. “We are working with VanOC (Vancouver Olympic Committee) and the four host Nations; the issue is definitely on the table.”

Baptiste said it would be difficult to police the making of knock-off art, so the likely answer is to implement some kind of authentication program backed by Aboriginal community leaders.

Russell Mather is an up-and-coming Tsimshian artist in Prince Rupert, and recently finished a huge wooden panel project for the local Friendship Centre. He sees merit in an authentication program. “I think it would be beneficial, especially for emerging artists like me. It would add credibility to our work,” said Mather. “Some form of authenticity would put more wind in our sails.”

Many long-established artists like the idea too, not for their own validation but because of why they do their craft in the first place. “I’m a fond believer in original art. I don’t like mass production,” said master carver Alver Tait of New Aiyansh. Tait, who was named to the 2006 Order of British Columbia, recalled a business in Prince Rupert that mass-produced Aboriginal art by machine, and how much it upset him. “The store was run by non-Aboriginals and they were using our crests, our stories, without permission. I went in and gave them a word or two. I really frown upon that,” said Tait.

“Those stories behind the art mean something to the Nations they belong to. To produce them, you have to get permission from the right people, the chiefs, the elders.”

The stamp of approval concept has a lot of support but Baptiste said it’s tricky, especially with there being almost 200 bands in the province. “The idea of a logo is a very interesting one that is very much in the preliminary stages,” said Baptiste. “But, ultimately, it will be the bands who have to decide how to meet the needs of the artists.”

Consideration is also being given to some kind of grading of artists, as some established artists feel their superior work should be recognized and have higher value. As former ATBC Chair Richard Krentz pointed out during consultations, an artist has to build credibility, as it’s “not just a matter of someone picking up some tools and carving something and saying ‘I’m an artist.””

Baptiste cautioned, though, that the grading system might “open up a can of worms, because the one thing artists carry with them is pride.” She offered the possibility of having the master carvers setting the bar by endorsing their apprentices and reviewing the work of artists in their respective Nations.

Tait agreed but said master carvers themselves must also be assessed because there are too many people giving themselves that designation. “You shouldn’t be calling yourself a master carver just because you did a totem pole or have been an artist for five years,” said Tait. “You have to master all mediums, and you should know the stories and sing the songs. Ultimately, it’s the people who name you master carver.”

Mather was somewhat torn on the grading plan, saying it was hard enough for young artists to get a place in the market, although he and everyone seems to concur that respecting the history is of the utmost importance.

Concluded Baptiste: “You have to know your roots, where you came from. The real artists aren’t in it for quick and easy cash; in the long haul, they’re in it to promote their culture.”