Recently I gave a talk about my art in connection with an exhibition at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. Afterwards visitors asked general questions about my process, about materials and inspiration. Near the end of the evening, an art student approached me with what turned out to be the most important question. Important because it gave me pause and continues to perplex.
How, she asked, would I respond to certain people who might charge that I am appropriating important and even sacred cultural symbols and beliefs. The question caught me off guard and I’m afraid my answer might not have been satisfactory.
I told her that artists down the ages have sampled ideas and images from other cultures. Their appropriations were deemed valid because under the artists’ creative influences the images became part of unique new art works. Picasso, van Gogh, and Gauguin, in particular, were adept at re-interpreting ‘foreign’ artistic styles.
The student’s question may have been in reference to a piece in the exhibition titled “Singing The World.” The title is based on an Australian native people’s story of how the world and everything in it were created. The painting features an image of a kangaroo and a style that harkens back to Aboriginal art.
My intent is not to disrespect Aboriginal culture but to celebrate it and to do so in a way that is unique and true to my particular vision. And I believe the piece fits in seamlessly with the other works in the exhibition.
I’m thankful the young woman asked me that question because it continues to bring up other questions. How would native Australians respond to “Singing The World”? Perhaps they would have no objections to it and could even come to celebrate the painting. Could it be that in modern society's rush to be politically correct, we simply reject that which we don't understand? I wonder.