British Columbia

Open letter accuses non-Indigenous artist of cultural appropriation

Artist Sue Coleman said she sees her role as translating Indigenous art forms in her nature paintings.

Artist Sue Coleman defends role as translator of indigenous designs in her own work

Kwakwak'awakw/Salish artist Carey Newman's open letter to artist Sue Coleman has received more than 100 signatures asking her to remove the "cultural property" of First Nations from her work. (CBC)

A B.C. artist is defending herself against accusations leveled in an open letter signed by prominent Indigenous artists, that she is appropriating Indigenous culture in her work.

Victoria-based artist Carey Newman published the open letter this week on Facebook in response to statements by Vancouver Island artist Sue Coleman on Facebook and in a CBC report. Coleman, who is not Indigenous, has described herself as a "translator" of Indigenous art forms.

Coleman's paintings incorporate traditional Indigenous designs in western-style paintings, typically of wildlife and nature settings.

"We do not need you or anyone else to 'translate' our art form," Newman wrote in the open letter, which is signed by more than 100 people, including prominent Indigenous artists George Littlechild, Roy Henry Vickers and Richard Hunt.

"It is beautiful, refined and accessible on its own merit and has been this way, in the hands of our artists, since time immemorial," the letter stated. "It is not only offensive and patronizing that you believe translation is needed, it is also disturbing that you have appointed yourself as the translator."

Coleman said she has never represented herself as an Indigenous person.

"I put it within an imagery that was so totally non-native that I felt anybody looking at it would not see it as native artwork. They would see it for what it was."

Non-Indigenous artist Sue Coleman's "Spirit Of The Orca" print from 1994. Her originals sell for $17,500-$29,000. (Supplied by Sue Coleman)

​Coleman said her work was partly inspired when she met Carey Newman's artist father, Victor Newman, at a Sooke art show more than three decades ago.

She said the elder Newman was demonstrating and explaining Indigenous art traditions but discouraged her interest in exploring them in her own work.

He told her the practice of non-Indigenous people copying and selling Indigenous-style artwork was immoral.

But Coleman said, after that conversation, she envisioned a way of bridging the two cultures through art. 

"The idea of doing the native artwork came from that feeling that OK, I'm not native but I would really like to understand it. I would really like to follow it and would really like to translate it," Coleman said.

"Maybe it was the wrong term to use," she said. "Obviously it seemed to upset a lot of people."

"When I put it in an artist statement, I wanted to amalgamate the two cultures, I wanted to do something that would bring the two cultures together."

Support from other artists

Despite the initial rebuff by Victor Newman, she said other First Nations artists have been largely supportive in the years that followed.

Richard Hunt, a prominent carver who has signed Newman's open letter, said he also told her not to do First Nations art, but Coleman says Hunt never said anything to her that criticized her work.

Newman's open letter calls on Coleman to stop using First Nations images in her art.

"Your explanation that you don't do any specific style, rather adapting and blending several different styles and forms to create your own original style are evidence that, after 35 years, you still do not fully understand the artistic boundaries that you purport to translate," the letter stated.

"Long before you decided to personally capitalize on our culture, it was renowned throughout the world and today there are legions of authentic artists practicing both traditional and contemporary works."

Use not always cultural appropriation

In an interview, Newman acknowledged the use of Indigenous art forms by non-Indigenous people does not always constitute cultural appropriation.

"There are ways and instances where it is OK," he said. "Where it's done with accountability. Where it's done from within a relationship within the community."

"What I hope is that what comes out of these conversations around cultural appropriation is that we start to understand that nuance and realize that you can't just take something because you feel like it."

The nuances of acceptable use of Indigenous art forms might not make much practical difference to Coleman now.

The artist told CBC reporter Michael Tymchuk she is considering doing her future work in a totally different style.

With files from Michael Tymchuk