10 or so questions to ask yourself before making art about a group you don't belong to
Montreal musician Hanorah on the responsibility artists have when crossing into someone else's narrative
Controversy swirled around the Montreal Jazz Fest this year with the production of SLĀV, a musical created by two white artists described as "a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs." The play spawned protests, led some artists to rethink their participation in the festival and ended up being cancelled today.
On her personal Facebook wall, Montreal musician and artist Hanorah wrote a thoughtful guide for artists on how to approach other cultures in your work on culturally or socially heavy subject matter. We asked her to adapt it for CBC Arts.
Depending on who you ask, the issue of cultural appropriation can be confusing and frustrating. This can become particularly tricky when it comes to art and artists. As artists, we like to think we have the freedom to dip into any arena of life for the sake of our expression. To an extent, I believe that is true — so long as we don't take away space or a potential opportunity from someone else from the culture we are trying to represent artistically.
This point came up last year when Dana Schutz's painting of Emmett Till — a young African American boy lynched in the '50s — took a fair bit of heat when the work was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Schutz was criticized for making a spectacle of violence directed at Black people, as a white artist, for profit.
Similar questions are now being asked in Montreal around the production SLĀV by artist Betty Bonifassi and director by Robert Lepage. SLĀV is, for all intents and purposes, a production meant to highlight the history of slavery and oppression in a meaningful way. But Bonifassi is white, and the majority of the cast is too. Bonifassi has a long-standing fascination for slave songs of the Deep South. According to interviews he's given, this production is an effort put together from years of research. However, whatever statement she is trying to make falls short for me because she, as a white woman, puts herself at the centre of the story of Black liberation. Funnily enough, I happened upon her music the day before I read about the controversy in the Montreal Gazette, and was impressed by the power of her vocal tone. But digging deeper into how criticism of this show was deflected by its creators and the Montreal International Jazz Fest, I was left with a sour taste.
This got me thinking about the responsibility artists have when crossing into someone else's narrative after hearing about a similar story closer to home for me. With that, I wrote a guide on Facebook for artists to consider when tackling a heavy socially or historically charged subject matter or project. Please feel free to add to it, in an effort to create responsibly and keep learning.
1. Whose story am I telling and who am I telling it for?
2. If the answer to question #1 isn't "me" or "people like me" (whatever it is that makes the people in the group alike), then why?
a) If it's a group of people I'm trying to represent, is it because they're not around (i.e. obscure and far away or lost to history and time and no one knows about them)?
b) If they ARE around, do I have the blessing of that community? (One person being impressed doesn't count — you need to listen to people who may not agree with your approach.)
c) Are there people in this community who are already representing themselves (the answer is most likely yes) that could use an extra set of hands? (The answer is most likely yes.)
d) If I'm trying to represent a still-living group that I am not a part of, am I involving people from that group in a meaningful and conscientious way? Am I helping the community? (Raising awareness of a long-standing, well-documented issue doesn't necessarily count. Pass the mic.)
3. Am I bringing anything forward to further the conversation in a respectful way?
4. In reality, who is benefiting from this other than myself (including financially, appearing progressive, etc.)?
5. Have I done research? What are my sources? Am I only looking at work that confirms what I want to hear or the side of (colonial) history I want to explore? Whose lens am I seeing this through?
a) How have others handled similar subject matter?
6. What's my place in the dialogue? What is the context of me being here?
7. In paying attention to the world/social climate I'm in right now, how might my project be perceived and by whom?
a) Who is my audience? Why are they my audience? (If it's a mainstream audience, think about the responsibility that comes with that level of exposure. It's also our job to communicate these ideas in a way that is informative for a five-year-old but not too sugarcoated or over-simplified so that adults who are at least partially aware can appreciate the work too.)
8. Consider history and power dynamics. Am I furthering anything gross, harmful, toxic, oppressive, violent, etc. to someone? (An example of opportunity and employment: cisgender men playing trans women in films instead of real trans women representing themselves in a situation where trans women are on the receiving end of truly heinous violence, prejudice etc.)
9. Would this project be better if I enlisted someone more experienced or appropriate in the situation? Am I excluding people because I want to be the artist/hero?
10. If I am resisting these questions, am I in this for the right reasons? Or is this just about me and my expression?
a) If something is telling me no and I chose to proceed: why? Is any part of it the feeling of, "Well, why can't I? Why can't I have this? I'm an artist and I should be able to do what I want?" Are you in this for the right reasons? Is there entitlement involved? Is this kind of thinking a luxury every artist can afford?
Would this project be better if I enlisted someone more experienced or appropriate in the situation? Am I excluding people because I want to be the artist/hero?- Hanorah
If you're an artist with a similar project in mind and you've read this far, and you're feeling discouraged because you're not an anthropologist, then you may need to reconsider your subject matter or approach to art-making. It's not a bad thing to stay in your lane. Explore as much as you want, as long as you're not taking anything away from anyone else. We have a responsibility with the words and images we use. We do not make art in a vacuum. Art is social. The world is big and we are a part of it, not apart from it.
While well-meaning, we have to be aware of the social climate in which we put forth projects with heavy subject matter. We must consider what our motives are, or how they might be perceived. And most importantly, when we do wrong, it is our job to listen.