Faking It: The Appropriation of a Culture

By Melanie Scott

As another tourist season draws to a close, the buses, trains and planes that delivered visitors to Ottawa this summer are swallowing them up again to take them home. And many of those moms, dads, kids and grandparents will be clutching mementos of their trip. But one form of souvenir that sells particularly well in Canada reflects a sordid trade in a merchandising giant which has little or nothing to do with the cultures on which the images are based.

We've all seen them: quaint soapstone trinkets of an Inuit hunter hauling a seal onto the ice; miniature plastic Haida totems; reproductions of Benjamin Chee Chee framed in stained glass.

Harmless? Not according the cultures that originated the designs.

When Inuit art first gained the attention of the international market in the 1950s, its acceptance as fine art would be a long, slow climb, even within Canada's borders. It was revered as a novel new commodity, but was often dismissed as mere "craft." Despite this, its success in the market meant possible financial redemption for communities where loss of traditional life-styles resulted in rampant unemployment. To the Inuit, the potential market for their art meant hope. And this hope would be in the long-term, not just a quick-fix band-aid to their economic woes.

It was inevitable that if the Inuit art form grabbed the attention of the buying public, it would also appeal to imitators. Fake Inuit art began filtering its way into the marketplace from numerous channels. Images on paper that are nothing more than reproductions of existing Inuit works are passed off as Inuit "prints" by tourist shops and street vendors. Objects made of resin compounds that attempt to mimic the style of Inuit art are sold as hand-carved Inuit soapstone sculpture.

Documentation obtained from the Inuit Art section of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada dating back almost 30 years indicates that the market in "fakelore," from the beginning, would present a challenge to the benefits the Inuit community should have enjoyed from the sale of original art.

The market for fraudulent art is as old as history. Roman statuary purporting to be Greek has fooled seasoned collectors and museum curators alike. The well-documented trade in fake European prints, the images of Salvador Dali being the most common, has caused irreparable damage to the market for genuine original prints. And the market in signed reproductions has contributed to making art buyers leery of purchasing anything with an edition number and a signature.

These examples illustrate that the art market has become tarnished from the trade in "art" of questionable provenance. But the Greeks whose images were appropriated by the Romans are long-since dead and do not have a vested financial interest in seeing improvements which would protect both producers and buyers. The contemporary Inuit artist does: the forging and appropriation of Inuit imagery, more than any other art market scam in Canada, has a very real and direct impact on the economy affecting those whose cultural identity is at stake.

Not content to simply copy the style of Inuit art, the producers of fakelore sometimes adopt Inuit-sounding names. Tags attached to the items might include misleading biographies of the "artists," and terminology appropriated from genuine art. Inuit legends and stories are printed onto placards which stand on the shelves beside the items. Although they may remain within the bounds of the law by by making no direct claims that their producers are Inuit, imitators mislead the public by employing Inuit imagery, using materials associated with Inuit art, and making references to the North.

A company which markets a plethora of objects including pen holders, jewellery boxes claims they are "images of the North." are "hand-crafted" in "genuine soapstone." The objects are, in fact, made of stone, but their attribution to being made by hand is questionable, judging from their perfect uniformity. The imagery on the pieces includes that typically connected to the Inuit, such as seals, walruses and other wildlife. I approached the clerk in the shop to ask about the source of the objects made by Siku. To her knowledge, she explained, they were hand-made using a sand-blasting process. I then asked if Siku was the name of the artist, as each piece bearing a Siku tag was signed, by hand, with this name. She replied: "I don't think so. I'm not sure. That's the name of the manufacturer so, no, I guess not." With prices ranging from about $15 to $80, the trade in Siku objects was brisk, explained the clerk, especially during the tourist season.

Among the glossy objects locked away in another display case in another shop are items produced by a family operation based in Quebec. Again, the brochure, printed in English, French and what appeared to be Japanese, offera a biography of the artists. It boasts that Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Lady Diana were recipients of gifts of works by the team. The objects appear to be hand-carved from stone, although the detailing on the surfaces is gratuitously scratched on to make them appear hand-finished. When the manager of the store was asked if the artists are Inuit, she replied: "They are Oriental." So, I pressed, they are not Inuit? "Oh, yes, they are. They're from Quebec." I then asked from what part of Quebec. "Somewhere in the North," she replied. The object which held my interest was a standing bear and retailed for $185.

Certain producers skilfully avoid any claim connecting the objects to Inuit culture. Nowhere on the brochure just cited does it state that the artists are Inuit. It refers to the producers fascination with "Canada's northern culture" and their ability to "express this culture in soapstone." And it states that these "truly talented artists" reside in Quebec. It is simply the imagery, style and material that is being adopted; if labels are carefully read, consumers would realize that they are not purchasing an original work by an Inuit artist.

There are, however, distributors who are much less cautious. In another shop, a locked case displayed a number of what appeared to be Inuit carvings. I asked to see a sculpture of an Inuit drum dancer which was retailing for $195. As it was removed from the case and handed to me, pieces of it fell off. The drum appeared to be made of sinew and plastic. The body of the work was resin compound. This was fairly easy to discern from the overall uniform appearance of the work and lack of surface variation. At the creases where a foot met a leg, the resin had flowed evenly between the two and left a fair amount of residue. The inside of the tag was almost identical to the igloo tag which is used on authentic Inuit art. It stated this this was "Hand made by Canadian artist" (sic). The name of the "artist" was illegible, although both the tag and the work were signed in the same script. It listed the artist's "community" as Campbell's Bay, Quebec. Again, the clerk was unsure of the source of these objects, but explained that sales were healthy.

The tag listed the distributor as a company based in Mississauga, Ontario. When contacted for information about this particular piece, a spokeperson explained that the company's procedures are slightly different from other distributors. The works are "not done on a reserve." When asked about the artist, after indicating that the name on the card is illegible, the company rep was unable to clarify whether he is, in fact, Inuit, but she claimed that he has Inuit in his background, perhaps on his grandfather's side. When I explained that I thought the piece I had looked at was not stone, she quickly stated that it was. "It's not steatite, or surpentine, or one of those soaptones, it's regular soapstone." ("Steatite," one should note, is another name for soapstone). But the piece was, as mentioned, nothing more than resin compound.

In response to the flourishing market in fakes, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada devised a system of labelling original works. The igloo tag would be affixed to genuine works and would identify the artist's name, their residence, the subject of the piece (which was usually then adopted as its title) and its date. Users of the igloo tag are registered, but Indian and Northern Affairs' ability to monitor its use are now being examined. Although the igloo tag has gone through various transformations over the years, it has retained, for the most part, its original design. The tag should have protected the integrity of genuine Inuit art, but the fakers were up to speed with the system and developed their own labels, employing misleading terminology, and using Inuit words and acronyms for "Eskimo" to identify the "artist". And it's crucial to point out that some distributors of authentic works do not display the tags. On a visit to a well-established commercial gallery in Toronto, almost none of the works had igloo tags, but the authenticity of the works is indisputable. Many galleires keep the tags on file rather than display them with the works.

Perhaps more than anyone, Ottawa lawyer Marc Denhez has the background to challenge the current vulnerability of aboriginal creations. Using his expertise as a lawyer combined with an evident passion for art, Denhez has been attempting to enforce existing legislation and propose new legislation which would safeguard Inuit artists.

Native Arts, Crafts and Fakelore: Legal and Administrative Options and Recommendations prepared by Denhez and Anne Noonan in March, 1994, demonstrates just how widespread the issue of fakelore has become. Commissioned by The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the document proposes 24 concrete recommendations for changes and additions to existing law. Among these are proposals which should have been established when Inuit art first emerged as a commodity: educating retailers as to the difference between genuine art and fakelore; conducting a study which would identify methods for native artists to best protect their own interests; forming a copyright collective for Inuit artists; compelling accurate labelling of objects that might be mistaken for native arts and crafts.

As Denhez and Noonan point out, legislation at the state level in the United States has taken measures to improve labelling. In certain states, imitation Indian art must be labelled as such and signs indicating that objects are imitation must be posted over those objects. Even failure to disclose material facts concerning objects can be construed as an offence. This legislation ensures that important information is provided to buyers, which might affect their choices. It could serve as a model for Canada.

In a 1990 document dealing with the labelling of imitation art, Denhez points out several salient points of law. The denouement of passing off fakes has often been considered, first and foremost, one of consumer protection. Denhez takes a different angle by identifying portions of the law which should protect the producers as well as the buyers. Citing the Ontario Business Practices Act, the Trade-marks Act, the True Labelling Act and common law, he indicates that several statutes can be applied in terms of the labelling issue alone.

Mislabelling as to "material content" and "composition," "method of manufacture," and the "status, affiliation or connection," of the producer are just a few examples. Denhez points to Industry Canada's Misleading Advertising Bulletin (January 1991), which spells out what cannot appear in labels, on pain of an investigation by the department. However, says Denhez, "although Canada's rules admirably address sins of commission, Canada doesn't deal as competently with sins of ommission, namely the vital information which would inform consumers this was a fake - but which is missing."

Line-ups of tourists at cash registers all over Ottawa are testament to the popularity of native imagery. Along with bottles of maple syrup, and plastic renditions of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, tourists grasp worthless mementoes of their vacations, all of which are poorly executed sculptures based on native designs. It seems obvious that they are completely unaware that their purchases are nothing better than mass-produced plastic replicas, likely imported, possibly even from their own countries. Denhez stresses that the tourists are completely helpless in being able to determine the authenticity of these objects, and are being victimized by the retailers who rely heavily on the tourists' ignorance to make a sale.

It could be argued that simply improving labelling would do little to protect the interests of native artists. Labels are, after all, nothing more than an external addendum to the works and can be easily removed. And consumers, especially tourists, may not take the time to read them. But if labels are clearer at the original point-of-sale, consumers would be better informed, and fewer works of questionable source will make their way back to collectors' living room shelves.

The Canadian Copyright Act has done much to improve the situation for artists. An artist's original idea or design is considered to be intellectual property by the act and ownership of this property remains in the hands of the artist unless otherwise sold by agreement. Theft of intellectual property constitutes an infringement of copyright law. But by the time the law catches up with the infringement, it's often too late.

An artist from Canada's west coast sold the rights to his designs of traditional masks to a chocolate manufacturer. The process was completely within the law and should have helped to foster a healthy relationship between the artist and an industry which sought, legally, to incorporate the artist's designs into a commercial product. An American firm replicated the images by creating molds from the chocolates, which were then used to mass-produce pewter imitations without the artist's consent. Both the artist and the chocolate company could have pursued the American firm for copyright infringement, but the time spent tracking the case would have been more than enough for the firm to sell off its entire stock and disband.

For the most part, buyers must rely on common sense, intuition, and caution. This caveat emptor approach leaves both producers and buyers of art in an unfair quagmire, when compared to any other commodity. As Marc Denhez states, if a consumer is standing at the dairy counter in a supermarket, the difference between butter and margarine is explicit on packaging: the consumer can make an informed choice, based on the laws which govern the labelling of food. An art buyer only has the word of the seller to go on.

So how can one tell the difference between the fake and the real? The National Gallery of Canada holds regular curatorial clinics to which collectors can bring proposed purchases for authentication. Being employed by a national museum, they are unable to appraise works or even advise buyers as to whether they have made a wise investment, but their expertise can help to clarify a market rife with fakes and copies.

When a genuine Inuit carving to be placed on a table beside a reproduction or a fake, the differences may be easily discernable to an expert. Detection is not always as straight-forward for the layperson. Style of the work, naturally, comes into play. Many fakes will immediately give themselves away when compared to the real thing. Further than that, genuine stone has qualities so far removed from concrete or plastic that, with practice, almost anyone can determine the difference.

Inuit artists will often use the stone in its raw state to determine the form a carving will take. The veins within the stone may suggest the image of a loon; the colour may suggest a seal; the shape may suggest a whale. Genuine carvings will sometimes look "incomplete" because the stone has ended just shy of the intended form. Stone is cool to the touch, plastic warm. Stone has a weight suggestive of its source which plastic lacks. These are all fairly easily discernable differences. The most crucial, though, is that the fake does not appear to convey any purpose, in the way the genuine piece does.

Similarly, an original print has texture and depth which a reproduction lacks. The Inuit are known for renditions using processes like serigraphy and stone cut prints. As with carving, although not as rampant, the originals have been used to create thinly-disguised fakes. Determining the difference between the two can be difficult, because the technology of making copies improves with every passing year. With advancements in laser printing have come a giant leap forward in the marketing of fake prints. One crucial difference which still exists is that, when examined using a simple hand-held magnifier (as little as X 8 will do), the original print which have variations of pattern on the surface of the ink. The copy, though, will have a near-perfect, uniform "dot pattern" which gives its process away.

Copies of prints are sometimes sold as nothing more than that: copies. Most tourist shops, in addition to the carvings, offer walls full of reproduced images. But when sales clerks are asked for an explanation of what the items are, they will usually respond by saying "it's just a print." As with the field of signed reproductions and fake European prints, the layperson does not understand the distinction between an "original print" and a "reproduction," because the latter is produced using a mechanical process which mimics some of the terminology of original print-making.

The Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada, along with Canadian Artists Representation, has been pressing the Canadian government to establish a clear law in the definition of "original prints." The issue, along with most issues concerning art, has been put on the back burner over and over again. The reason may be simple: describing the process of original print-making versus mass-produced photo-mechanical reproductions cannot be done in ten simple words or less.

It could be said that imitation is the best form of flattery. Marc Denhez believes that the trade in "fakelore" is attacking the credibility of genuine Inuit art, and is subjecting the legitimate market to a form a ridicule. Much worse than simply passing off cheap reproductions as "prints" by Salvador Dali, or factory-produced plastic "sculptures" as Greek icons, the business of stripping a culture of its identity in order to make a quick dollar is far from flattering.

According to Statistics Canada, $370 million is spent on "original art" by private Canadian citizens every year. Keeping in mind that statistics are collected by those with, probably, no knowledge of original art, from consumers who also lack expertise, one can only speculate as to the percentage that is spent on fakes. Of that figure, anywhere from $40 million to $80 million is spent on "aboriginal" art. Again, how much of that figure would apply to fakelore?

Perhaps because art is often thought of as a "fringe" activity, or an unnecessary luxury, government officials dismiss its impact as a commodity. They should, however, review the statistics to garner a better understanding of the enormous contribution the art market makes to the economy: the $370 million spent on "art" does not include those amounts spent in the secondary markets which depend on art for their livelihood: the manufacture of paper used in print-making, the chisels used for carving, the transport services that move the art from maker to market, the galleries that employ sales clerks.

Canadian statistics only apply to what is spent within Canada's borders. What of the export of fakelore? Most of the buyers appear to be tourists, who will take the fakelore back to their own countries, where it will pollute markets further afield.

The tragedy, of course, is that tourists are not buying the real thing. For every original work that could be bought, are there a hundred fakes taking its place?

Until concrete new legislation is passed to protect the interests of aboriginal cultures, establishing statistics for the trade in fakelore will be, at best, guesswork. And only then will the Inuit begin to experience the benefits from their art that they so rightfully deserve.

Melanie Scott is a consultant, writer and lecturer specializing in the visual arts. With additional research by Martha Fournier.

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