When painter Sierra Roberts was accused of cultural appropriation she was shocked. She talks to Fairooz Samy about appropriation, love, and intention.
Three months ago, Waikato’s Tūrangawaewae Marae hosted the 2019 International Indigenous Artists Gathering (IIAG). Over 100 global indigenous artists attended, creating traditional and contemporary artwork inspired by their cultural histories and personal experiences. The results of their collaborations became part of one of Aotearoa’s largest indigenous art exhibitions, Puhoro ō mua, Puhoro ki tua, at Waikato Museum.
Events like the IIAG reflect a growing movement by indigenous artists to reclaim representations of themselves from a position of authenticity and agency. As progressive racial politics make their way into the mainstream, the topic of cultural appropriation has found itself in the headlines.
Appropriation is the term used to describe the situation when members of a dominant or privileged group use something from a less-dominant society without their consent, for a direct monetary, social, or personal benefit. It’s a maligned behaviour, because individual acts of appropriation are often well-meaning. But there remains the fact of a larger historical context, in which most of the ways that European-derived populations interact with other cultures (among others tourism, political engagement, and artistic portrayal) sustains a power imbalance in their favour.
Roughly when the IIAG was taking place, a twenty-seven-year-old Wanaka painter named Sierra Roberts was crafting a self-portrait. The piece, simply titled A Self Portrait, is a finalist for the 2020 Adam Portraiture Award. It depicts Roberts scowling, framed by messy blonde hair and gold earrings, their soft colours contrasting with a white-paint hand-print slapped across her mouth.
A look at Roberts’ previous work helps to illuminate A Self-Portrait. The Flower Girls was exhibited at Arrowtown Botanical in 2019. It was an exhibition depicting women from a range of ethnicities including South American, African and East-Asia.
Their common feature – other than stunning colour – is what academic scholarship calls ‘exoticism’ and ‘Orientalism’, more recently described as cultural appropriation. Roberts has always preferred to focus on indigenous communities in her work. She’s previously said that it stems from her ‘idealism that they are more earth-bound’; she captioned a portrait of Maori wāhine as ‘a yearning for a lost, primitive, agrarian’. Roberts’ depictions of indigenous peoples and her invocation of essentialist binaries did not go unnoticed. She began receiving messages from a group of university students on Instagram, critiquing her suitability to depict Maori wāhine in her art and labelling it culturally appropriative. A Self Portrait was Roberts’ response to the indictment.
I spoke to Roberts the morning after Waitangi Day, a reminder of the relevance of questions of ownership and entitlement to our nationhood. I asked if it would be accurate to interpret her painting as representing how the invocation of cultural appropriation has made her feel silenced. ‘That’s basically how I felt’, she said, ‘After I was accused of it, it made me not want to paint any more and it almost silenced me, more with my painting than anything else.' I was curious about what cultural appropriation means to Roberts. 'For me, it’s when you have no understanding of the culture and you’re just using it as a joke. You’re not taking them seriously, you’re not understanding them, you’re not appreciating them, you don’t care about them, and there’s no love there.' What about cultural appreciation? She paused. ‘You don’t have to know the full depth behind the culture to appreciate its beauty or to try to understand a little bit about the people’.
Has the concept of cultural appropriation affected Roberts’ own interpretation of her work? ‘Absolutely’, she responded emphatically. ‘It changed a lot, because I could honestly say, before I got that feedback, I had never thought that my work was inappropriate, or rude, or that I wasn’t thinking of the whole picture’. She continued, ‘It really made me analyse everything I do, see it through a new lens, and go, “Well maybe I shouldn’t have done it like that, maybe there’s a more respectful way I can do certain things”.’
As I asked Roberts what she hopes the conversation around her self-portrait and appropriation will be – ‘that’s hard to answer. Everyone’s so divided on the subject!’ – it occurred to me that we might be pondering the wrong question. Perhaps genuine cultural appreciation is the tearing down of gatekeeping practices that shut out marginalised indigenous perspectives in the art world. Maybe the answer is to collaboratively uplift historically-silenced voices, to fund and support events like the IIAG, and to spotlight Māori and Pasifika art as part of both Aotearoa’s history and its future. As for Roberts, this experience has hardened her resolve. ‘Obviously, I’m never going to stop painting what I love, and you can’t change your subject just because someone told you not to’, she says, ‘I’m just coming at it with more intention behind my work. It’s given me more fire in my belly.'
First published ArtZone #83