What is cultural appropriation and what does it have to do with finding voice as an artist?
Hi my name is Carrie Brummer and here on Artist Strong I help artists like you build your skill and develop your unique artist voice.
I started drawing mandalas as an act of play. I felt super stressed and anxious, and my feelings of perfectionism were gaining ground when it came to my art. I had as an art teacher taught this activity to my students in the past. I decided I wanted to do something that felt free, fun and relaxing.
When I started drawing them, I couldn’t stop. It became such a source of release! That’s when people starting asking me to make a coloring book from my drawings. I had all of these images, why not? I hired someone to edit my images to make them coloring friendly and then put together the book myself. I felt proud and excited to share this work and feeling of relaxation and fun with others.
Then came the embroidery. My mom looked at my designs and said by chance, “Hey I think these would make lovely embroidery patterns.” A fireworks display went off in my brain, super excited at the notion of returning to textile work, something I’ve done on and off since I was a child.
After I finished these embroideries I decided to start drawing and painting larger and larger mandalas. There was something so fun about them. It was an act of meditation for me to create them, and I was excited at the notion of sharing that sense of calm and meditation with others through my design and use of color.
It was somewhere around this time I started to wonder: am I appropriating a cultural practice?
For years now I’ve practiced yoga. It’s been a regular part of my life and has enhanced the quality of my health and clarity of my mind. I’m kinder to people and myself because of this practice. And I know because of yoga’s connection to India that I likely discovered mandalas through this connection.
For years I’ve always known I want to share my success. And thus it’s always been a plan to have an organization to support through my work. I kept looking and looking, and again yoga led the way. I went to Rishikesh, India and attending The International Yoga Festival. While I was there I went to Ramana’s Garden, an organic food kitchen run by orphans. After eating there and talking with one of the boys raised in that learning community, I knew I had found the place I wanted to serve. You can learn more about Ramana’s Garden in the link I provide below this video.
While living in Muscat and Dubai no question of appropriation came to my mind. But as soon as I returned to North America, it felt so obvious and in my face. Was I using an idea from another culture and using it for my financial benefit? Yes. Was I giving money to an organization to honor that cultural heritage? Yes.
I feel guilt. I haven’t even told anyone really about it because I felt (and still do) embarrassed around this. Maybe even a little ashamed. “Carrie, you should know better.” And I guess I do, because I’m here talking about it.
While there is the inspiration that likely comes from one culture, there is also the interesting fact that mandalas span across time and cultures worldwide:
You can find them as sand drawings, created by Tibetan Buddhists.
You can see them in the art of Aboriginal or First Nations cultures of North America in the dream catcher or medicine wheel.
Mandalas were present in the Aztec calendar.
You can see them in Celtic crosses.
You can see it in Bagua Circle Walking, part of a martial arts training originating from China.
One thing that appears to be shared across all cultures and time periods is that it is a sacred symbol tied to religious belief and meditative practices. Mine do have a mindful, meditation connection but I don’t have religious belief around them.
I like to end my articles tied up and wrapped with a pretty bow, but this is one I don’t have an ending to. I can tell you I have art for sale that is mandala art. I designed them myself, I did not copy or refer to images of other mandalas when I created them. I want to continue to create them for the mental benefits I receive, but I’m no longer sure I should sell future ones I create.
I had a smaller percentage of the art profit going to Ramana’s Garden when the work sells, and I do think I will increase it to honor the inspiration from which they came. But I’m also no longer certain I want to make anymore. I haven’t felt called to create any in a few years now.
Cultural appropriation can be a triggering topic for people. I don’t entirely understand why. IF we make art that looks directly like someone else’s, say Van Gogh’s art, is it REALLY our voice anyway? That’s part of how I hope to serve people in our Artist Strong community: I want to help you find that voice. So separate from the perceived political tone people take with it, ultimately it also points out potential derivative art: a term that suggests the work is not uniquely your style or voice.
I can see how mandalas, and especially working with them in my embroidery work has influenced the work I’m currently doing. And this new series of art, well, I finally feel like I found my voice. It’s the thing I can do and want to do for years to come. And the process and media I use have been directly inspired by my creation of those mandalas.
I would not be making my unique art today without making my mandalas. This is because part of the journey to finding voice is to emulate other artists. Some of the artists we copy from are people like Van Gogh. I sometimes see artists selling art in the style of Van Gogh, but we always think: oh, they paint like Van Gogh. You are likely here because that is something you don’t want for yourself. You want people to look at your art and think, hey, that’s by Carrie (or insert your name here)!
Generally, I encourage students to copy the art of those they admire, but then leave those at home. There is no rule we should sell all the art we create and these are works that are part of finding voice. Often we don’t sell our very first drawings or paintings because we don’t think our skill is strong enough yet. This copying, this Stealing Like An Artist, as Austin Kleon calls it, is a valuable step in skill building and developing voice.
But there are artists who inspire us from groups who have faced historical and even continued oppression today. And it is this context that makes copying their art and selling it questionable.
I know some artists who hate being told what to do (and what NOT to do). Surprising to hear that about artists, no? Haha. You need to trust yourself and what feels right to you. And I’ve always noticed: when I listen to that inner artist of mine, the advice is always pure. I encourage you as an artist to continually ask yourself questions and be curious about the world around you and how the work you create fits in it. It doesn’t matter what I think at the end of the day, it matters how you feel about your artistic contributions when your head touches the pillow every night.
Before I close today’s conversation I’m going to be clear here: Artist Strong always has been and always will be a place that allows people to share their thoughts and feelings, but I insist our community show one another love, thoughtfulness, and kindness in their responses. And this is MOST important when you disagree with someone. Because this topic can be triggering I want to make it clear: I will not have our comments space turn into a shouting match. This isn’t a space to change someone else’s mind, it’s a place to open your own. I will not approve offensive or intolerant comments.
I also want to openly state: I did not write this or talk about this topic to seek permission from others. I’m not looking for comments giving me permission to continue the work. I’m making my decision based on what feels right for me.
As an artist who has built a community, I’m sharing today’s conversation to let you in on some of the things I think about and don’t always openly share with you as part of my creative process, because then I hope you might feel freedom to do the same. Ambiguity is uncomfortable, but I think we should all spend some more time there. Too quickly these days we are quick to point fingers, name call and cut people out of our lives because of different beliefs. But it is through meaningful, ambiguous, awkward conversations we can actually grow, connect, and unite.
I encourage you to be curious about different perspectives and open yourself to ideas that make you uncomfortable. Maybe you will even learn something new about you.
I’ve read some wonderful and interesting articles on this topic that can really bring light to the grey areas of this conversation that I will share below this video.
I know I will certainly continue to do this kind of reflection and ask myself these important questions about my art, because ultimately this work will help me find my unique voice and lead me to the art that I should be sharing with the world. This is what it means to be an artist.
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Now, let’s start that conversation: have you ever found yourself creating art that feels too much like someone else? Or reflective of a culture other than your own? Comment below and tell me more.
Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time here on Artist Strong.
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