Appreciation or Appropriation?: Image usage and Aboriginal Art


It was Orange Shirt Day yesterday, September 30th.  A day to remember and honour Residential School Survivors and to press for education funding equity for First Nations’ students.  I wore an orange shirt and two pieces of Aboriginal art, a bracelet and a broach.

Typically, I’m pretty conflicted about wearing Aboriginal art.  On one hand, I want to support Aboriginal artists and to showcase Aboriginal art and culture.  On the other hand, I do not want to be seen as appropriating Aboriginal culture.  This conflict was put to rest-ish, when I listened to an Unreserved podcast about Aboriginal fashion designers.  In it, one Aboriginal fashion designer really brought the point home that settlers should be encouraged to buy and wear Aboriginal art created by Aboriginal people.  Makes sense.  It’s hard to make a living as an artist if no one is buying your stuff.  So by me, wearing Aboriginal art, I am appreciating it and not appropriating it.

I wonder, then about using images found on-line.  At what point does appreciation become appropriation or just plain theft?

Clearly, many people create images to be shared/appreciated online.

Memes are a case in point.  If I didn’t share this meme out of fear of appropriating it or stealing it, I would be defeating the whole purpose of its creation.  (Incidentally, I hyperlinked the meme to the page where I found it.  No telling where it was created.)

I would argue that most of what is put on the internet is put there to be shared, otherwise, what’s the point?  But where is this fine line between sharing and stealing?  In our class on Monday, we spent 45 minutes talking about how to ethically use images in a blog post and then spent another 45 minutes watching a slideshow presentation where few of the images were sourced  (in a way that was obvious to me, anyway).  So, we can share images in a Powerpoint but its stealing if we put the same images in a blog post?  And yet memes are home free? But when does an image become a meme?  Who gets to decide?

Kirsten Hansen made a good point in her blog post about cyberbullying and memes:

Have you contributed? I know I saw the Star Wars Kid video way back. I’ve laughed at memes and only later wondered if the person in it really wanted their picture used that way.

Would I want my image turned into a meme?  Probably not.  In fact, even finding one of my images landing in a Powerpoint without my knowledge, sets my teeth on edge.  So, maybe it comes down to control.  I want control over what I create and also any pictures of me.  If I want something to go viral, then I’m more than happy to see it taken and used frequently, but also attributed to me.  If I want to showcase my work to a specific audience, it is frustrating to have the same work taken from me and put in a different context, especially if it is not attributed to me…  But you’d have to be living inside my head to know which is which.

With this logic, though, even so-called memes are not safe.  Who’s to say if my Meme guy above gave permission to have his image meme-ified?

As a self-declared Digital Technology resident, this image debate has great bearing for me.  I have three blogs and four Twitter accounts not to mention Facebook etc.  I’m creating a fair bit of content and I’m prone to using images.  The messy conclusion I’ve come to is that I better set up a Flickr account because no image is safe!

3 Responses

  1. carolyn

    Very interesting … as a digital immigrant I’m still learning how to cite the pictures . . . this adds another dimension.

  2. Definitely some important questions here! When it comes to images, this is actually why Creative Commons is so important. Those licenses let you say, “Here, please use my image. But I would rather that you not alter it,” or, “I’m happy for you to use my image but don’t make money from it,” or, “Hey, I’m sharing this, so I expect you to do the same no matter what you do with it.” We enjoy playing with things. We are inspired by things other people said. By using a quote from what I wrote and repurposing it for your message, you’ve done it as well, just in a more expected way in an educational setting.

    Remixing is something that’s been going on for a long time, it’s just more obvious now. Think about every add that has used a piece of famous art. I had an art teacher who collected things that used the Mona Lisa in odd ways. Remixing is how we learn and do new things. There are a lot of documentaries about it, including Everything is a remix. I know Alec has screened another one at U of R as well. There is a difference between that and cultural appropriation though. My understanding is really that cultural appropriation is not about appreciation or understanding. It is not about having a message or a reason. It is about flat out deciding to use something with no real context or reason other than you like it. Wearing a culture as a costume (see all halloween sites everywhere right now), using it as a decorating scheme, <a href="http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/white-people-black-hairstyles/"adopting a fashion statement. That isn’t using for a reason, it’s using because you know nothing about it and just think it’s cool.

    Using a meme usually means understanding the meme and having the image make sense for the meme. It is a comment on an image, plus social commentary in some way (whether it’s smart or insightful might be another matter).

    Katia mentioned that she intentionally puts some on Flickr because she does want to share them and using Creative Commons licensing lets her do that and have some say in their usage. So it’s worth thinking about sharing and whether we want to share and how. I don’t have too many of my images up as Creative Commons but most of the images I share aren’t ones I could see anyone wanting to use. But I love people who do choose to share. People who don’t, however, I want to respect their wishes too.

  3. Cindy

    After reading your blog I realize that I tend to shy away from crafts, jewelry, and art that have content outside of my cultural background. I fear that I would be questioned about my right to wear a particular bracelet or display a piece of art. I wonder if I could adopt a better perspective by knowing that items for purchase are meant to be shared and that artifacts with deep symbolic and ritualistic values would not be for sale. For example, a drum needs to be earned. I cannot purchase an authentic First Nations drum. With more understanding and knowledge my comfort will grow as yours did after hearing that podcast.

Leave a Reply