Tips for Purchasing Authentic Indigenous Art

August 15, 2017

In Why Buying Authentic Indigenous Art is Important I talked about the cultural and economic impact knock-off art has on Indigenous artists and communities. In this article, I share an example of a non-Indigenous retailer profiting from “inspired’ works of a small Indigenous community and include some tips for buying authentic Indigenous art at the end of the article.

Haida paddles by Andy WilsonIn the lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the Organizing Committee (VANOC) developed the Vancouver 2010 Aboriginal Licensing and Merchandising program (a first for Olympic Games). The Four Host First Nations (FHFN) and VANOC created an official licensed merchandising program that would, among other goals, ensure that licensed vendors were selling authentic Aboriginal products.* However, outside of that licensing program, there was no control over what was sold or where it was made.

A retailer wanted to sell Cowichan sweaters, presumably in order to capitalize on the market potential of the Olympic Games. The retailer negotiated an agreement with the Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island but the agreement hit a major snag when the retailer realized how long it would take to knit an authentic sweater (up to 75 hours per sweater). The timeline did not come close to accommodating the time required to knit the volume of garments required. The Games were in 2010 and the contract for the sweaters was discussed in 2009. Given this challenge, the retailer chose to go with a sweater ‘inspired’ by the Cowichan pattern, found a BC manufacturer, and produced the volume required.

The Cowichan Tribes threatened to line up along the Olympic torch relay wearing their sweaters and toques. In a move to divert the negative media that was threatening to erupt, the retailer negotiated an agreement with the Cowichan Tribes allowing the knitters to sell their sweaters at the First Nations Pavilion, and at the retailer’s Vancouver store. In the end, the controversy did benefit the Cowichan as the knitters received an influx of orders, but, as far as we can determine, the Cowichan Tribes were not part of a profit-sharing agreement on the hundreds of sweaters that were ‘inspired’ by the Cowichan designs.

The retailer in the example above obviously had no idea how long it took to knit a Cowichan sweater, or how many knitters were available in the community to fill the order. It was a great idea but not without challenges. Had the retailer known more about Cowichan sweaters and the community then the story could have had a different ending. It highlights how important pre-engagement research is when planning/hoping to work with an Indigenous community.

Here are some basic tips for those who are interested in purchasing Indigenous art:

  • Do your research prior to contacting the community and or the artist. It is not their responsibility to educate you about them and their art.
  • Authentic carvings, boxes, jewellery etc. are created, not mass-produced.
  • If you are interested in buying many items, then get an understanding of the time it takes an artist to create each piece and contact the artist or community well in advance.
  • Authentic Indigenous art is respectful of cultural custodianship - Indigenous designs, symbols, images, and stories are not interchangeable between cultures.
  • Determining the authenticity of an artist’s work is a delicate discussion. Study the culture and the art you are interested in before contacting the artist or community. The above photo is of a Haida paddle carved and painted by a Haida artist, Andy Wilson.
  • If you are hosting a conference and want to give Indigenous art as speaker gifts, then work with the community on whose traditional land your conference is held. Contacting the community should be one of the first action items on your to-do list.
  • Consider inviting the artists or community representatives to speak to your delegates about the art. If you have Indigenous speakers, here’s an article that will help you select gifts for them: What are appropriate gifts for Indigenous Guest Speakers?

* There were concerns from the Indigenous art community that not all the items sold were authentic.

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