Alberta Cree artist criticized for magazine illustrations of a bear in this headdress

An Alberta Indigenous artist says he has no regrets about creating cover art which depicts a bear clad in a headdress of marijuana leaves, as the print sparks controversy for a Toronto magazine.

Jason Carter says the artwork was not intended to be offensive, but a playful exploration of cultural symbols

Alberta sculptor and illustrator Jason Carter was commissioned to create this artwork for Now Magazine. (Jason Carter)

An Alberta Indigenous artist is apologizing after his artwork, depicting a bear wearing a marijuana leaf headdress, sparked controversy for a Toronto magazine.

"I understand that art and social responsibility should go hand in hand and if some find this approach offensive, I sincerely apologize," said Jason Carter, a sculptor and illustrator from Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta. "I totally understand how people would be disappointed or offended by it but I approach all of my work with humour and optimism."
The cover art Carter created for the magazine has been the target of numerous complaints. (NOW Magazine/Jason Carter)

Carter was commissioned by Now Magazine to create artwork for its latest edition to accompany a feature article on legalization. Titled Decolonizing Cannabis, the article explores the impact of legalization on Indigenous communities.

Carter submitted two illustrations to the magazine.

Both illustrations feature a bear wearing a headdress made, not of eagle feathers, but of large marijuana leaves.

"They wanted to use an Indigenous artist because they knew it was going to be a sensitive issue, and I jumped at the chance," Carter said. "I really wanted to play with the iconography of the bear and the headdress. It went through a few evolutions, but ended up there with something simple and effective to get people talking."

'Insulting and diminishing'

The prints were the subject of dozens of complaints on social media. Some readers described the art as racist or insulting, with criticism targeting the magazine for trivializing headdresses, which are considered sacred objects.

"You say that one of the core 'visions' for your company is empowerment of all," reads one complaint from Kaylee Juniper on Twitter. "This cover is not empowering, regardless of the material contained within, it is insulting and diminishing.

"You would do well to apologize immediately and pull this issue." 

Carter said the art was not intended to be offensive, but a playful exploration of cultural symbols.

While he is apologetic to those he offended, Carter said he has no regrets about his work. Indigenous people should feel empowered to explore their own culture through art, he said.

If Indigenous artists can't use Indigenous iconography in art who can, he wonders. 

"I think it's important to reclaim that iconography, that Indigenous iconography," Carter said. "As an Aboriginal artist, feeling that I can't explore that sort of subject matter feels a bit silly to me."

The magazine issued a statement on its official Twitter account on Friday acknowledging the controversy, clarifying the collaboration efforts with Carter and thanking readers for their "continued response."

With files from Julia Lipscombe