Robert Everett-Green has reviewed, briefly but succinctly in the Globe & Mail, the current McCord Museum exhibition, Wearing Our Identity curated by Guislaine Lemay. Nadia Myre, Algonquin artist in residence at the McCord, has chosen pieces from McCord’s collection plus new work by a range of aboriginal artists. Everett-Green raises the issue of appropriation in such an exhibition, referring to the amauti, above, which has a line of pewter spoons attached to the front and pennies sewn on the back, pointing out that while the term appropriation is applied to Victorian middle-class ladies doing Indian beadwork patterns from The Ladies Home Journal, it does not apply to the widow in Baffin Island sewing spoons on her amauti. It is a question of power, he posits.
Victorian middle-class women were denied much participation in an outside life but they were allowed to do crafts – watercolours, needlework, and there were magazines that gave them instructions (impossible as Myre demonstrates). Although they had more power than any aboriginal woman had, or has in the main even today, the Inuit widow had more freedom to make her own elaborations on her own parka.
One of the most salient things I learned, long ago during my postcolonial education, was in the reading of Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, the back history of Jane Eyre through the lens of the other: the ones without power, the women, the fragile and the dangerous. It is Antoinette Crosby’s nurse, Christophine, who says to Mr Rochester, newly arrived to take blind possession of a wife, a plantation and all its inhabitants, you know some things, I know other things – I paraphrase wildly, but the gist is that power doesn’t know everything, it actually doesn’t know anything other than itself; while the putatively powerless know a hell of a lot about the world, their environment, their culture, relationships of power – their survival depends upon this knowledge when brute force isn’t an option.
Yes, whether something is appropriation or adoption is a matter of power: the powerful take, those with a different kind of awareness incorporate the signs and materials at hand, whether they be trade goods or baseball caps: the original meaning of such materials is subverted by a different set of codes, inaccessible to power: it is the development of a decolonising language.