Navigating Blurred Lines & The Borderless Online World

Christi Belcourt

For over 20 years I have been a full time practicing visual artist, and during this time I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with a number of clothing, apparel and accessory companies on collaborations including The House of Valentino, Ela Handbags (in coordination with Holt Renfrew) and Manitobah Mukluks, who I also worked with to create a Pendleton blanket.

In all cases I worked with the designers in these companies in a collaborative process that I felt was respectful of me and my work.

However, what followed my collaboration with the House of Valentino was not positive, and this is what I wanted to relay to your committee in the context of examining copyright infringement.

The design collection of my work with Valentino proved to be very popular internationally and the pieces were worn by several celebrities. Good for Valentino, not so good for me.

The Valentino design collection was stolen by knockoff companies, who reproduced the pieces and my artwork and made them available online. To this day they are still mass producing these items through overseas online store fronts.

Online store fronts are easy to create. There is no way to tell in which country they are originating. At first, I was spending a lot of time writing to them to take down my artwork because of copyright infringement, but as soon as I would jump though their hoops and the pages would come down, another three new store fronts would pop up with the same work. It was like playing whack-a-mole. I just couldn’t keep up with it and I gave up.

These companies are nameless and faceless. My work is now out in the world in a way that I have no control over.

This is also happening with my political art and banners that I created for water and land protection actions. Although I offer this particular work as copyright free specifically to “grassroots land and water defenders and actions”, there have been a few instances where people have taken them and created online store fronts with tee-shirts and other accessories with my artwork on them and some are making big profits from it. So far, I’ve been able to take a few of those down as they were based in North America and the companies themselves remove the pages when you report copyright infringement.

The fear of sharing art online is that it can be used and taken by anyone and used on any item that they want to print it on. The issue of art fraud is now different than it used to be even twenty years ago. E-commerce and on-demand printing make it easy for people to steal other people’s artwork and profit from it. And because many are based overseas, the artist has no recourse to stop it.

On the Subject of Appropriation:

There has already been a lot written on the subject of appropriation and cultural appropriation of Indigenous art by non-Indigenous people that I’m sure this committee has researched and so I’m not going to comment on that today.

My contribution here, or what I hope will be a useful contribution, is to ask questions so we can begin to think about the areas where things are not so easily and clearly defined and start to understand how we are going to navigate these areas among us in a respectful way. That is: what constitutes appropriation between Indigenous people, when is it appropriate to take action, and what form should that action take?

All over Turtle Island, Indigenous nations are in an era of reclamation and recuperation of our identities that includes revitalization of our culture and languages. In this process, we are sorting out what is ours and what is not. Following the disruption of colonialism, residential schools and multiple “scoops” of Indigenous children, pan-Indigenous organizations emerged 40-50 years ago reflecting the need for Indigenous people to unite, to organize under large banners in order to assert the rights of Indigenous people. This assertion politically was also part of the reclamation process. However, more recently, people are moving further towards reclaiming their own authentic community and traditions once again, while also still being influenced by other nation’s work as has been the tradition for thousands of years.

I like to think about blurred lines. I think about that things don’t always fit nicely into clean little boxes, lines and borders. I think about the instances where things are not clearly defined.

For example, Indigenous people, including Ojibwe, Cree and Metis across Turtle Island adopted flower bead work as an art form. Other Indigenous nations also equally adapted floral beadwork into their culture. Take, for example, the octopus bag from the Tlingit and the Metis who both have this style of floral bead work on black velvet. Obviously, there were influences from trade and mixing of cultures. Is this appropriation? Could the Metis lay exclusive claim to floral beadwork? Of course not. Would we consider the jingle dress now worn and danced by nations across North America to be appropriated by those who are not Ojibway? What about those who only used hand drums or rattles and traditionally didn’t have the big drum but were gifted the drum perhaps in ceremony 50 years ago for their powwow? Or powwow culture that includes grass dance songs from the prairies which are now widespread all over the continent? How are we going to navigate the subject of appropriation, and importantly, the accusations of appropriation that are happening now in this year of “cancel culture,” between Indigenous nations, particularly where historically people traded, shared, intermarried, and shared the same geographical spaces?

People are coming home. They are coming home from child welfare and adoption. They are coming home to the ceremonies. They are coming home to the languages. They are coming home from alienation from their communities and they are coming home to their lands. They are rediscovering who they are and that is sometimes a long journey. And what they find along the way are pieces here and there, gifts from Elders, or teachings, that don’t originate among their own people. Sometimes they are artists who will express these things without knowing where they come from.

As we move through this era of healing from past traumas, both individually and collectively, we must be kind to each other and be generous in our collective learning of what our own nation’s true material culture is going to look like when the dust settles.

I want to make sure that we don’t go down the road of fundamentalism where we start to participate in this very violent online call-out culture with each other. I want us to pause and ask ourselves “How can we navigate around these areas that are not so clear, these blurred lines?” and, “How do we do this within our nations with kindness, without being laterally violent to each other?”

On the other hand, there are Indigenous people who have been called out for appropriating another Indigenous people’s artform (e.g., Inuit throat singing), and when confronted with it, they continued to practice it even when asked not to. And so, there too it becomes a question of what do we do in those instances where people are being disrespectful and continuing to appropriate another people’s artform?

Moving forward, I think the challenge of appropriation among and between Indigenous people will be deciding how we navigate between protecting the culture and artforms of our nations while still making room for multiple ancestries, teachings that have been gifted in ceremony, and honest mistakes to be made and rectified in a way that doesn’t destroy a person or their potential.

I wish you all the best in your deliberations.

Christi Belcourt

Christi Belcourt (Michif / Lac Ste. Anne, AB) is a visual artist, designer, community organizer, environmentalist, social justice advocate, and avid land-based arts and language learner.

Her paintings are found within many public and permanent collections across North America including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Gabriel Dumont Museum, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery among others. She was named the Aboriginal Arts Laureate for 2014 by the Ontario Arts Council. In 2016 she received both the Premiers Arts Award and a Governor General’s Award for Innovation.

Christi has also organized several large national community based projects of note including Walking With Our Sisters, the Willisville Mountain Project, Nimkii Aazhibikong and various works done within the Onaman Collective that she formed with Isaac Murdoch and Erin Konsmo in 2014. Christi donates the proceeds from her collaborations and awards to Nimkii Aazhibikong, the year-round Indigenous language and traditional arts camp that she, along with a small group of people, started in 2017. The camp is committed to the revitalization of Anishinaabemowin language along with providing opportunities for Elders and Youth to come together in a land-based learning environment.