February 9, 2018

Inclusivity vs Appropriation

        As I have previously mentioned, I’ve been working on a bestiary project.  For about ten years I’ve been slowly and unsteadily working my way towards making a block print of a mythical creature for every letter of the alphabet, and just in the past couple of years I’ve been dreaming of using those creatures in a bestiary with stories and writings to go with them.  I feel that it’s really important to include creatures from the legends of people all around the world, for a number of reasons.  1. I want to introduce some creatures that are lesser-known to English readers, as well as some of the universally-beloved classics.  2. I want to acknowledge some of the huge diversity of fantasy in our world.  3. I want to celebrate the fact that all cultures everywhere have wonderful stories that fire the imagination.
        On the other hand, there is a strain of thought I sometimes encounter, that demands that no writer or artist ever touch any mythology that doesn’t originate with the culture of their own ancestry.  And that would mean that as a person of primarily northern European ancestry, I am not to use anything other than northern European mythology.  To do otherwise would make me guilty of appropriation of other peoples’ cultures.
        Okay, so that’s a relatively extreme statement of sensitivity to appropriation.  Most people do not object to the mention of other cultures’ mythical creatures as long as it’s scrupulously researched, clearly attributed, and respectfully represented.  But that’s the thing - this bestiary project of mine is not a scholarly dictionary of legends of the world.  I do, in fact, want to use these creatures to tell my own stories.  In making my block prints, I always think about what I can bring to the depiction, and how I can shed some new light on an idea.  After all, if I’m just going to carefully and accurately copy what someone else has already done, what’s the point in my doing it at all?  In writing my stories, I want to be free to let my imagination loose and to tell the stories that these creatures suggest to me - stories that aren’t exactly the same stories that have been told before, or what’s the point in my doing it at all?  To be quite blunt about it, I do, in fact, want to make my own version of each of these creatures.  And that’s surely appropriation.  So, to feature only northern European creatures is Eurocentric and implies that European legends are the only ones worth celebrating and exploring, while to feature non-European creatures is privilege and appropriation.  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.  What’s an artist to do?  What do you think?
        It is always my intention in my art and writing to bring people joy.  In my small way I want to prompt people to think, move them to smile, and inspire them to celebrate the ways in which people (all people!) can be wonderful, and the ways in which we can strive to make our often imperfect world more wonderful.  It is never my intention for anything I create to make anyone feel unvalued or disrespected or taken advantage of.  I can’t believe, however, that the solution to that danger is to ignore all cultures but my own.  So I continue to make block prints and tell stories about non-European creatures quite simply because I am inspired by them.  My desire to make stories and pictures comes out of my delight in the mythologies of all peoples, and my firm conviction that imagination belongs to everyone and is one of the things that can help bring us together instead of dividing us.  But I am nevertheless mindful that not everyone may see it that way, and that I risk angering someone who has seen their culture misappropriated too many times.  And so I ask again, what’s an artist to do?  What do you think?

[Baku Dreams, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

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