K’omoks/Kwakwaka’wakw artist Andy Everson recently produced a limited edition print titled Sons of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’ (Oct 2013).
This work references both a central mythological figure in the Hamat’sa secret society amongst Kwak’wala-speaking peoples of British Columbia’s Northwest Coast (Boas 1897; Glass 2004) – a part of the larger Kwakwaka-wakw winter ceremonial calendar, the Hamat’sa or “Cannibal Dance” repertoire “ceremonially enacts the removal, possession, taming, and resocializing of an initiate” (Glass 2004: 282) – and a hit American network television program about an outlaw motorcycle gang.
In what follows I address the ways in which this artwork both confronts and counters certain kinds of appropriation, while simultaneously embracing and encouraging others, in an effort to comment the issue of (cultural) appropriation and the politics of circulation.
For readers not familiar with the popular TV show “Sons of Anarchy,” Everson’s print is a play on (i.e., appropriation of) the back patch imagery of the mythical motorcycle gang after which the show is named. The original Sons of Anarchy image has become a ubiquitous pop culture icon, appearing on almost every marketable commodity imaginable—from flip-flops to dartboards. It has also spurred an incredible body of “rip-offs, including numerous references to other popular television shows and movies such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars.
At first glance, Everson’s print can be seen as simply the latest in a long line of these type of images, where cultural producers employ already popular or established cultural iconography and re-imagine it through another established brand or form.
Is Everson’s print to be considered “appropriation”? Of course it is, art historically speaking. As an artwork it falls directly into a history of production —from Duchamp’s ready-mades through Warhol’s soup cans and onward — that continues to challenge conceptions of authorship, copyright, and intellectual property in both legal and aesthetic contexts (cf. Urice 2006). Things get a little trickier, however, when we start thinking in terms of cultural appropriation. Here I want to pick up a thread teased loose in another installment of IPinCH’s “Appropriation (?) of the Month” series, by Maddie Knickerbocker and Lisa Truong on Indigenous Teacups (June 2013). In it they comment that “appropriation” has come to be, more often than not, associated with exploitative practices through which a dominant culture infringes upon, or completely disregards, the intellectual and cultural property rights of another group. And while this is usually the case (and something that critical attention needs to continue to be paid to), it leaves little, if any, room for a discussion of other kinds of appropriative activity through which groups who are usually on the exploited side might “talk back,” as it were, to the dominant culture (Knickerbocker and Truong 2013). How, then, does Everson’s most recent work fit into this?
Everson’s print is appropriation art made in a moment where the sensitivity to issues of cultural appropriation has perhaps never been greater, in both popular and academic discourses. It uses one form of appropriation to respond to another and in so doing, I think, it opens a space for an important reflection on the politics of both borrowing and circulation. In a recent article in the online publication Indian Country Today, Everson is quoted as saying:
These will ONLY be for hamatsas. If you are NOT a hamatsa I will NOT give or sell one to you. If you don't know what a hamatsa is, chances are you are not a hamatsa. ... I'm sorry to make it so exclusive, but hamatsas have a great deal of responsibility in our culture, so they deserve a little bit of exclusivity for a change (ICT 2012).
As such, Everson has tactfully employed a form of borrowing that references an overly commoditized consumer culture product to assert rights to exclusivity for another cultural form. As Glass (2009: 90) observes, through “hyper-representation by ethnographers in various media …the Hamat’sa became one of the most widely represented features of not only Kwakwaka’wakw society but also the entire Northwest Coast region.”
Hamat’sa life group, prepared by Franz Boas at the US National Museum, 1895 (Neg. #9163: “Kwakiutl Indian Ceremony of expelling cannibals”, in file “Anthropology Collections Management, Photo files on old museum installations”, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH) via Material World Blog.
The Hamat’sa, since the late 19th century, has thus been subject to numerous outsider re-presentations, its imagery appropriated by outsiders and circulated in numerous non-Kwakwaka’wakw spaces. Examples of this include the dioramas constructed by Franz Boas at the US National Museum and the popular photographs of Edward S. Curtis (Glass 2009: 90; 96). Everson is engaging this history through an appropriation of his own.
I am reminded of Charlotte Towsend-Gault’s astute observations in her article “Circulating Aboriginality” (2004). Through an examination of the recent proliferation and increased commercialization of Northwest Coast art and culture, Townsend-Gault establishes that such processes involve a joint construction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and not merely an asymmetrical relationship of appropriation (2004: 186). There is a distinct theme of control that emerges here on the part of Indigenous peoples. While Northwest Coast iconography has found a home on the most mundane elements of consumer culture – bottle openers, t-shirts, jewelry, household goods, etc. – it works to extend the agency of this imagery, and those who produce it, into new spheres of circulation where there is always an imposed limit (2004:192). As Townsend-Gault notes, “an expanded field of sensory figuration makes evident full native participation in the modes of display, promotion and marketing of the late capitalist liberal democracy. Simultaneously, it maintains limits — protecting renewed definitions of aboriginality — by offering meanings that are both tangible and opaque” (2004: 197).
It can be argued that Everson’s Sons of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’ does just this. It employs forms of appropriation to present a particular surface, one that riffs on the over-commoditization of particular imagery, while at the same time restricting access to both the image itself and the knowledge it embodies. However, Everson takes this a step further. His statement above regarding the circulation of Sons of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’ indicates that its restriction is not solely defined by categories like Indigenous/non-Indigenous, or even Kwakwaka’wakw/non-Kwakwaka’wakw, but Hamat’sa/non-Hamat’sa as well. It is a reminder that intellectual and cultural property rights are continually re-articulated at the intersection of numerous groups and categories of difference (cf. Glass 2004).
Boas, Franz. 1897. The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl. US National Museum Annual Report for 1895. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office
Glass, Aaron. 2004. The Intention of Tradition: Contemporary Contexts and Contests of the Hamat’sa Dance. In Coming to Shore: Northwest Coast Ethnology, Traditions, and Visions, edited by Marie, Michael Harkin, and Sergei Kan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Glass, Aaron. 2009. Frozen Poses: Hamat’sa Dioramas, Recursive Representation, and the Making of a Kwakwaka’wakw Icon. In Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards (eds.) Photography, Anthropology, and History. Farnham Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Indian Country Today. 2013. A ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Logo for a Native Secret Society. Accessed 10/15/13.
Knickerbocker and Truong. 2013. Indigenous Teacups. Accessed 10/17/13.
Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. 2004. Circulating Aboriginality. Journal of Material Culture 9(2): 183-202.
Urice, Stephen. 2006. The Beautiful One Has Come – to Stay. In Imperialism, Art and Restitution, edited by John Henry Merryman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight just how complex the categories of appropriation and cultural borrowing are.