Let art help us build bridges

  • By Janine Reep
  • Thursday, February 22, 2018 11:25am
  • Opinion

I was away for the weekend and was shocked and disheartened to read about the exclusion of a strikingly beautiful entry from the Sunday Wearable Arts Exhibition, because it incorporated Japanese themes and symbols and the non-Japanese artist was accused of “cultural appropriation.”

I was shocked because Juneau prides itself on supporting the arts. Art is generally defined as the expression of human creative skill and imagination in the production of works that are appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Art, in its many forms, has always had the power to transcend borders and build bridges between people and cultures in a universal language. As I understood the message from the news article, art is subject to political censorship — which I believe contributes only to building walls between peoples and bolstering division.

The new rules suggested by the article leave us with the troubling question as to who, ultimately is to be the judge of what is permissible or not? What person or entity is entitled to decide who is going to be able to utilize what images? Would the Wearable Arts entry have been permissible if the artist was born in Japan? Or is it only required that she be of Japanese descent? But, if so, of what percentage? Does she need to have a Japanese mother or father? Or grandparents? Does she need both? Was she raised in a culturally sensitive Japanese home? Should she have contacted actual citizens from Japan for permission?

Or, to me, the saddest conclusion of all — is she just forever foreclosed from employing Japanese motifs and designs (which are internationally admired and embraced) because she is of the wrong ethnicity? This result contributes to building walls and division in our world instead of embracing connections

My father, Edward Reep, earned a living as a professional artist. He painted many pictures that embraced different cultures — although always clearly in his own style. One that comes to mind is a powerful picture of a strong black man who was intended to be emblematic of the scourge of slavery in our country. Perhaps my father had no right to portray that slave, as he, himself, was not African-American. Similar to the Wearable Arts artist, my father admired Japanese art and painted some lovely tributes to Asian artists and sometimes utilized Japanese motifs in his paintings. I suppose that also should not have been allowed. After one of his visits to Alaska he painted an “Alaskan” series, and one quite lovely abstract watercolor actually incorporates a totemic image. Apparently, there are those that believe this was wrong.

I see no end to this. I, myself am a descendant of grandparents born in Russia, Ireland, Lithuania and England. Does that mean my artwork, and perhaps dance and poetry must be limited to symbols and references to those countries? Perhaps I should be objecting to the “Russian” dancers in Juneau and Sitka — that are not of Russian heritage. Why should they be allowed to “appropriate” Russian dances?

There is a great deal to fear about going down this road. Censoring freedom of expression is tragic, in my view. No one should steal another’s work, or use special creations without permission. But the Wearable Arts piece appeared to be a beautiful expression of art that didn’t promote stereotypes; it represented some beautiful images, drawn from the thousands of images that are in the public domain. Must the creativity of filmmakers, poets, playwrights, musicians and visual artists be constrained to the subject matter that can be linked only to their own genetic makeup?

Let “the people” judge art, on its merits, as always. Let each decide what appeals to them … what is “appropriate” or not. Censoring art is wrong —creative expression should be open to each and every human being and not decided by politics.

• Janine Reep resides in Douglas.

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