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Interpreting Indigenous Culture in Art: A History

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 2126 words Published: 25th Apr 2018

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  • Mahealani Subad


Art has been a historical connection for many cultures, such as Indigenous culture, as they protect the history of communities and allows for the new generation of the community to learn of their past through artwork and documentaries. However, due to misrepresentations from artwork such as paintings, sculptures, films, Indigenous identity can be represented by stereotypes created by non-Indigenous artists who interpreted indigenous culture into their own artworks, which they presented to society. Although with the misrepresentations are still present in today’s society, modern indigenous artists have emerged, for which they presented Indigenous art that represents Indigenous identity where the art is themed based on Indigenous cultural values, such as family, and the realities Indigenous people face within society. Within this research paper, it will discuss how modern indigenous artist can diminish the stereotypes that have been produced by non-Indigenous artists through their interpretation of Indigenous culture.


Throughout history, art has been a historical connection in many cultures as it allows for those in the community to protect their cultural identity within history and to create a connection between the old and new generation to learn about their heritage. However, Indigenous art has been known to show misinterpretations of Indigenous people made by non-Indigenous artists who presented their perspectives of Indigenous culture and shown it to society without any prior knowledge of Indigenous culture. Now, within modern day society, Indigenous art still holds a fascination with Western culture, but presents Indigenous art in a new perspective as Indigenous artists are emerging representing their culture to society. These modern contemporary Indigenous art pieces are based on Indigenous cultural themes and values such as family, connections to their land territory, and to present the realities Indigenous people confront with in today’s society.

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Within this research paper, it will discuss the differences of Indigenous artwork throughout history, for which it will answer the question of how modern contemporary Indigenous artwork, such as paintings and films, has diminished the stereotypes of Indigenous people which had been produced through Indigenous artwork done by non-Indigenous people. Examples, such as Emily Carr who was mostly known for her work in Group of Seven, was one of the artists that had been inspired by Indigenous culture and produced indigenous art to display to society with the belief that indigenous culture was vanishing (Morra, 2005). With perspectives of Indigenous culture such as Emily Carr’s many indigenous artworks that were produced in the past may have contributed to the stereotypes that many see in society today.


Indigenous culture has always been a fascination between Western culture throughout history, for which many artists looked upon Indigenous communities as inspiration for their artwork. Non-Indigenous artists, such as Emily Carr, have been known for their Indigenous artwork within Canada as they created their art pieces within Indigenous communities to recreate “authentic” representations of Indigenous culture. Famous for her work in the Canadian artist group, Group of Seven, Emily Carr focused on landscape artwork throughout the duration of her career. Although known for her work in the Group of Seven, Emily Carr was also known for her Indigenous artwork that focused on Indigenous material culture (Morra, 2005). Upon working on her indigenous art pieces, Carr often focused her inspirations on native villages, totem poles, and poetry (Halkes, 2006). As Carr took inspiration of Indigenous culture for her art work, she believed that her work served as a purpose to preserve Indigenous culture through her work (Morra, 2005). While visiting indigenous communities to capture their culture through her work, Carr had the belief that by showcasing Indigenous material within her art it would bring awareness to Western society that Indigenous communities that were vanishing (Morra, 2005).

Although Carr had the notion that by documenting Indigenous culture through her artwork, Hollywood films began to emerge, but with a dominant culture portraying as the heroes (Stoddard, Marcus, & Hicks, 2014, p.9). In case study, it analyzed two Indigenous films that were prominently made by non-Indigenous filmmakers, in which, they found both used white male characters to narrate the film and the main target audience for the films are white and middle-class (Stoddard, Marcus, & Hicks, 2014, p.15-16). Majority of these films cater to these audiences as Hollywood films choose to represent those who are apart of Western society, which they present them as the dominant society within these films (Stoddard, Marcus, & Hicks, 2014, p.17). Nonetheless, with Indigenous films made by non-Indigenous filmmakers are prone to cater to white audiences with a white male character as the main role, this also presents itself to younger generations such as students, where they may be subjected into believing that the representation of Indigenous people within the films are realistic, therefore adding on to the stereotyping Indigenous identity through films.

Comparison to Emily Carr’s work, modern contemporary Indigenous art work creates a more prominent view of Indigenous cultures as it expands to different sources of media such ass paintings, sculptures, and films. At the National Gallery of Canada, they hosted an exhibition called “Sakahan, International Indigenous Art” which showcased Indigenous artwork done by Indigenous artists from around the world (Davidge, 2013, p.83). With the art exhibition being the first exhibition devoted indigenous contemporary art from around the world, it attempts to broaden the views of Indigenous culture as it seeks to expand the meaning of “indigenous”, setting indigenous culture into a global perspective, and to demonstrate that the Indigenous artists “are among the leading contemporary artists in the world” (Davidge, 2013, p.83). Along with the Sakahan exhibit, Kristen Dowell (2006) discusses the intake of modern Indigenous arts as indigenous filmmakers are receiving recognition for their work. In 2005, the leading art galleries in the U.S hosted several international indigenous filmmakers to present their work to highlight international cinemas (Dowell, 2006, p.376). The productions that indigenous filmmakers present feature documentation of indigenous cultural traditions and opposing of misrepresentation of Indigenous people (Dowell. 2006, p.376). Indigenous films such as Smoke Signals (Eyre et al. 1998), opposed the misrepresentations of Indigenous people as it comically follows the family life within an indigenous reserve focusing the father and son relationship within the film (Dowell, 2006, p.378).


The differences between the time periods of Indigenous art, such as of Emily Carr’s time and of modern day society, they are dependent on the artists’ interpretation and the perspective of Indigenous culture. During Emily Carr’s time period, majority of society had not been exposed to Indigenous culture, for which made the culture very appealing to artists such as Emily Carr, who chose to look at Indigenous communities as a rarity due to colonialism. Carr viewed indigenous communities and the artefacts she found as “a formal art of intense ritualistic formalism,” (Stacton, 1950, p.500). With Carr observing Indigenous culture with only the perspective of the formal art they have created, Carr’s art does not portray a credible representation of how Indigenous communities live. By having a non-Indigenous artist present art work that is inspired by Indigenous culture to a society who has no knowledge of Indigenous communities, it promotes a stereotype to society that is maintained today due to these types of art pieces as the majority of society are not educated or aware about Indigenous culture. This notion that without prior knowledge of indigenous culture creates indigenous stereotypes is also inclusive with Indigenous films made by non-Indigenous filmmakers as the majority of their target audiences is toward a white and middle-class audiences (Stoddard, Marcus, & Hicks, 2014, p.15-16). With producing a film that misrepresents Indigenous people and their culture, it reflects a persona that society will identify Indigenous culture with as majority of the films present this type of representation frequently.

As for modern contemporary indigenous art, it can be seen as a revelation as more indigenous artists are gaining the recognition by various art organizations for their work. Majority of Indigenous artwork has been done by Indigenous people as the film, Smoke Signals (Eyre et al., 1998), was the first film to feature an all Indigenous cast and crew, in which, Indigenous people wrote, directed, and starred in the film (Dowell, 2006). It is also noted that the Sakahan exhibit that was held in the National Gallery of Canada was the first exhibition to be devoted to contemporary art created by indigenous people from around the world (Davidge, 2013). Today’s modern contemporary artists allow for indigenous representation to be reliable as the artwork portrays the artists’ culture, for which many of the indigenous filmmakers include themes within their work that represent indigeneity such as family values, traditional stories, the realities indigenous people face within society, and the connection of land and territories for indigenous communities (Dowell, 2006, p.377).

Although many misrepresentations of Indigenous people are still active today, modern Indigenous artists, make attempts to diminish the stereotypes of Indigenous people made by those in the past who were attempting to share Indigenous culture with society during that time period. During that period, modern Indigenous artists have made progress on establishing Indigenous identity within society as many have created artwork such as films, painting, and sculptures, to showcase Indigenous culture or to bring awareness to realities indigenous people face within today’s society.


With the initial question of trying to answer if modern indigenous artists diminish the stereotypes of Indigenous people, which was formed by previous indigenous art work done in the past, it can be considered that modern Indigenous artist have made progress with trying to diminish the stereotype, but more needs to be done to gain a true representation of indigenous culture and identity. Although there has been progressed made to diminish the stereotypes of Indigenous identity, many non-indigenous filmmakers are still producing misrepresentations of Indigenous culture. In trying to prevent the misrepresentation of Indigenous culture, prior to filming or starting an art project, the consultation of Indigenous people must be included when creating a project or film inspired or based on Indigenous culture to respectful of indigenous communities they are basing their artworks on.



Davidge, M. (2013). Sakahàn, international indigenous art. Border Crossings,32 (4), 83-85

Dowell, K. (2006). Indigenous media gone global: Strengthening indigenous identity on‐ and offscreen at the First Nations/first features film showcase. American Anthropologist, 108 (2), 376-384.

Eyre, C. (Director), Eyre, C., Alexie, S., Rosenfelt, S., Estes, L., Skinner, D., Bressler, C., . . . Bornia, C. (Producers), & Alexie, S., Capener, B., Berdan, B., Smith, B., Otis, R., Brown, R., . . . O’Sullivan, P. (Writers). (1998). Smoke signals [Video file].

Halkes, P. (2006). Emily Carr. Border Crossings, 25 (4), 91-93

Morra, L. (2005). Canadian art according to Emily Carr: The search for indigenous expression. Canadian Literature, (185), 43

Stacton, D.D. (1950). The art of Emily Carr. Queen’s Quarterly,57, 499-509.

Stoddard, J., Marcus, A., & Hicks, D. (2014), The burden of historical representation: The case of/for indigenous film. History Teacher, 48(1), 9-36


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