Monday, September 02, 2013

Appropriation, First Nations, and the alphabet as a tool for seeing.

I have been creating numerous visual poems that engage with the visual traditions of a variety of indigenous cultures. For example, the distinctive black and red designs of traditional West Coast Canadian Native art (e.g. the Salish and Tlingit peoples.) These poems explore the visual connection between the Hebrew or Roman alphabet and these traditions. 

Both of these alphabets have been part of my visual culture since childhood. I learned of some Canadian Native visual traditions when I moved as a child to Canada.

Is this engagement with Native traditions appropriation of voice? Are my explorations with elements of these traditions usurping what would better be left for Native artists? (I should state, that though I am riffing off elements of these Native art traditions, I'm not actually recreating it.)

I don't feel that I'm speaking for Native artists or, indeed, speaking about their experience. My exploration comes from a deep respect and delight in these traditions. I believe that art is deeply syncretic. I feel that these traditions are very strong and my explorations in the very marginal world of visual poetry, don't appropriate in the way, say, Elvis eclipsed some of the African American songs which he adapted, at least as far as mainstream, popular culture.)  It would be like me trying to knock down a mountain with a feather.

I consider my explorations a means of uncovering the inherent design potential in language, but more importantly, how the elements of language are open signifiers, are carriers of culture as well as tools for looking and thinking that culture. 

Simply put, language shapes our vision, therefore, by expanding our use of language, we can expand our vision.

Written language helps us look, helps us see. Making marks is about seeing. About uncovering.  Making a map and then exploring it.

Further, to paraphrase Trevor Owen, the alphabet is not only an information technology but is also an interaction technology. I enter into a dialogue with these traditions, though, as this little note indicates, with trepidation and an awareness of my share in colonial guilt, or at least, my white privilege. 

How do the tools that I know square with other visions of the world? How can I enter a dialogue with other traditions? Can the tools that I know teach me? I explore the tools and the tools lead me. Can I discover non-Eurocentric ways of seeing in the alphabetic traditions that I've received? Are there more than one way of reading these letters? What do other people bring to the reading of these alphabets? How does the normative way of reading the alphabet lead to a certain kind of thinking?

I remember being very struck, when I visited Iceland, that that island had no native peoples. The European Icelanders were it. They didn't settle an island that was already populated by an indigenous population, unlike in nearby Greenland, Canada, or Scandinavia. I found it hard to imagine a place that had no Native people. 

I wonder how exactly, as a non-Native Canadian, my visual landscape is shaped by my experience of indigenous traditions? Indeed, more generally, how is my view of the world shaped by my knowledge and awareness of Native culture and its history in Canada and elsewhere? How does my language and its alphabet (and my experience with the Hebrew alphabet) shape me and locate me in the world? How can I detourn it to enter into new conversations?


Joanne Arnott said...

Acknowledging and honouring cultural wealth of indigenous people by way of riffing and allowing influence

is a world away from the bait & switch of appropriation of voice, i would think

"i see you" is a different sort of statement

gary barwin said...

Thanks very much for your comments, Joanne. I'm glad that you see it that way.

I like the way you phrase that, "the bait & switch of appropriation of voice.."

It's tricky though. In these situations sometimes the people being 'seen' in the 'I see you" statement, may feel that the seer is not seeing all, not understanding or articulating the context, history, and complex issues in what is being 'seen.'

But as I say in my post, I believe art is about dialogue, is about learning from each other and making connections. So I honour any respectful or aware attempts to engage with other traditions.

Again, thanks.