'Cultural tourist': How a renowned street artist's 'Indigenous inspiration' fell flat
Okuda San Miguel's intentions were good but some say his statement crossed a line
Three days and $100,000 of donated money resulted in a mural by world-renowned street artist Okuda San Miguel in the heart of Edmonton's Old Strathcona neighbourhood.
The mural depicting a half-wolf, half-person figure was met with near-universal praise for its vibrant colours and representation of the thriving arts scene that makes the neighbourhood unique.
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But in describing his inspiration for the city's mural, the Spanish artist said something that raised the eyebrows of a few Indigenous people in the arts community.
"I want to go back to ancestral Indigenous artworks where they mix animals and humans because they were so close to the animals in spirituality," San Miguel told CBC News in mid-July.
Why was this statement bothersome? The mural was amazing and the nod to Indigenous culture was certainly well-intentioned.
According to some, the problem was the suggestion of Indigenous inspiration — but an absence of Indigenous consultation.
'His words are problematic'
Tanya Harnett is an artist, a member of Carry-The-Kettle First Nations, and University of Alberta professor in the Native Studies and Arts faculties.
The mural is inspirational, she said, and may spur further acceptance of art using spray paint in the city.
But, she added, "His words are problematic."
For San Miguel to say he was inspired by Indigenous artworks was a step over the line.
"The fact that we have somebody who is rather a tourist come and want to make Aboriginal art is rather irresponsible," she said. "As a cultural tourist, not spending time with Indigenous people does lack of some sincerity."
Looking at the artwork, she doesn't see anything that shows Indigenous inspiration.
"There's a deeper meaning when speaking about First Nations, animals and ceremony," she said. "It's important for the artist to talk to the people of this territory to see if they have the right to do the work or if there are any problems with the work."
Work is 'totally different,' artist says
Before he arrived in Edmonton, San Miguel wasn't sure what to expect.
"I was thinking, 'OK, it's a boring place.' I didn't know too much about the city," San Miguel said. "At the end, it was 20 times better than Toronto because the people were so amazing."
The mural initiative was led by Michael Maxxis and Fish Griwkowsky, who teamed up to raise more than $120,000 for the mural. Maxxis said the expenses ended up costing close to $100,000, with the remainder of the money going to local initiatives in the city.
San Miguel said the organizers and the people who visited during his time painting the mural showed a ton of support. "They showed me the love of the painting and showed me how one painting can change a neighbourhood."
He reiterated his inspiration from North American Indigenous culture but said the inspiration he had doesn't translate to appropriation.
"I think my work is totally different," San Miguel said. "I talk about Indigenous [inspiration], but I tell more about how the modern system is f--king the nature."
The half-canine, half-person is standing in oil, he said, which is a nod to Alberta's oil industry.
With only three days spent in Edmonton, there wasn't a lot of time to consult with members of the community, he said.
But that lack of consultation — while claiming Indigenous inspiration — is what Emily Riddle takes issue with. Riddle, a researcher, policy analyst, writer and member of the Alexander First Nation, grew up in Edmonton but now lives in Vancouver.
She said the use of the wolf-like figure without consultation of Indigenous people might send the wrong message. "We have wolves in the area and they mean a lot and have symbolism for Cree people," Riddle said.
"We have a relationship with them, but I don't see how that's particularly reflected in the piece."
Riddle said she understands the appeal of bringing in an international artist in the quest to compete with other Canadian cities as a world-class city. But she wonders if it shows an eagerness to support international artists while neglecting local ones.
"I see the point in flying in an international artist to do it, it's just that I don't see Indigenous artists being supported in Edmonton the same way they are in other cities," Riddle said.
"In Edmonton, I see myself reflected in people. But when I go to other Prairie cities like Winnipeg, or to Vancouver, I feel like there's more public Indigenous art."
The experience of Indigenous public art in other cities is something Riddle wants for Edmonton.
History in Alberta
It's not the first time that an Alberta city has brought in an international artist who created work with Indigenous symbolism.
Last year, New York artist Del Geist created the Bowfort Towers in Calgary. Three Blackfoot Nations of Siksika, Piikani and Kanai called it a "theft of culture" because the towers resembled Blackfoot burial towers.
The city and chiefs from Treaty 7 released a joint statement the next month saying the art installation was never meant to be an Indigenous-inspired artwork.
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Carolyn Jervis, the director of the John and Maggie Mitchell Art Gallery at MacEwan University, said regardless of who is making public art, they need to consider the messaging and symbolism behind their designs.
"Culture is one of those things that we all share together — so when you're putting it in public space, I think there is a responsibility to acknowledge the public impact," she said.
San Miguel said if he does come back to Edmonton — which he said is possible, considering his strong relationship with local organizers — he's open to having conversations with Indigenous people in Edmonton.
"Maybe if I come back, it will happen," he said. "It will be nice."
Jervis said she will continue to welcome art from renowned artists like San Miguel in the city but maintains there needs to be room for more local Indigenous artists, too.
"I want it all. I want to support local artists and I want to bring in international artists, too, to help create a really rich cultural conversation here," Jervis said.
"And I think we have room to do it all."