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Joseph Tisiga: True From False (theme #19)

Theme: True From False


The Musée d'art de Joliette’s current exhibitions raise in different ways the thorny question of cultural appropriation. As I wrote in the text IN DIALOGUE, displayed at the entrance of the galleries: the notions of context, ownership, and authority are central to understanding the gesture of appropriation and its consequences. Appropriation consists of borrowing, usurping, copying, without permission, an image or object that is not our own, and using it out of its original context. When this gesture generates a profit (symbolic or pecuniary), it accentuates the unfair balance of power between the two parties involved and thus amplifies the feeling of injustice. All the more so when the appropriated object or symbol plays a vital role in the economic and cultural health of the looted community.


In her blog âpihtawikosisân, Chelsea Vowel refers to the guide to good practices developed by Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. This guide reminds us that appropriation, understood as the exchange, circulation of ideas, and inspiration between different groups, is a common gesture in all societies since people and cultures do not live in a vacuum. However, it points out that this gesture becomes problematic when made to the detriment of a group and done unilaterally.


Joseph Tisiga, view of the exhibition Somebody Nobody Was... at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2020.

Photo: Paul Litherland.


Sitting at the center of Kaska Dena artist Joseph Tisiga’s exhibition, the installation Oliver Jackson Works suggests ways to consider the history of appropriation and its consequences. Tisiga's work consists of a display of objects – sculptures, masks, clothing – created by the English craftsman Oliver Jackson after his arrival in Canada in the 1920s. Fascinated since childhood by books about Indigenous cultures, Jackson created hundreds of imitations of Indigenous objects (common and symbolic) by mixing different aesthetics and teaching himself the techniques required to make them. He even created a museum in Kelowna in the mid-1950s, which was open to the public and school groups until 1981. Although he never suggested that these objects were authentic, they certainly served as reference for many visitors and citizens. Tisiga recounts that the City of Kelowna even organized parades during which members of the Indigenous community were asked to wear clothing created by Jackson.


Why this importance given to these "fake" objects ? It is because from 1884 to 1951, the Indian Act prohibited the holding of traditional Potlach ceremonies. This led to a decreasing production of the objects at the heart of this practice and to the seizure of several items that were sometimes later found in museum collections. Indigenous communities were deprived of the right to hold ceremonies where these objects were meaningful, and had them confiscated if they defied this prohibition. All the while, "fake" Indigenous items were circulating freely and could be produced by non-Indigenous people who made a profit from them. This historical example helps to highlight the reasons why the issue of cultural appropriation is sensitive and why mistrust remains even when actions are taken with good intentions. The gesture of appropriation revives painful memories that contribute to a deep and growing sense of injustice, as the practice continues to this day.


Joseph Tisiga, view of the exhibition Somebody Nobody Was... at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2020.

Photo: Paul Litherland.


Joseph Tisiga himself adopts a nuanced stance in his discourse on Oliver Jackson, acknowledging that he was probably seeking to celebrate the cultures of the communities whose productions he admired. In fact, his creations have an ambiguous status, having since been bequeathed to the Sncewips Heritage Museum of the Westbank First Nation, British Columbia, where they are used for educational purposes. By banning Potlach ceremonies for more than 60 years, the federal government has weakened the vitality of the communities involved by preventing the transmission of certain skills and techniques. Tisiga points out that Jackson played a paradoxical role in keeping – however ambiguously – these practices alive.


The project presented at the Musée d'art de Joliette is circulated by the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, whose permanent exhibition showcases numerous works by Indigenous artists from British Columbia working in contemporary and traditional aesthetics. The Audain Art Museum is known in particular for its collection of masks made by West Coast First Nations artists from the 18th century to the present day. In this context, Joseph Tisiga's installation highlighted the discrepancy between the quality of the authentic works from the permanent collection and the naivety of those by Oliver Jackson. Going back and forth between the galleries certainly helped to dispel any doubts on this subject.


Joseph Tisiga, view of the exhibition Somebody Nobody Was... at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2020.

Photo: Paul Litherland.


The installation was re-imagined for the MAJ. Jackson's objects were placed on plinths made by Tisiga with common materials: cardboard, white tape, rough-looking pieces of wood. The plinths are wobbly, the supports are crooked, and the paint does not conceal the cardboard beneath it. This aesthetic choice underlines the do-it-yourself and naive aspect of the displayed objects. But make no mistake: Tisiga, who knows one of Jackson’s descendants, respects the craftsman and recognizes his good intentions. However, he remains categorical: such a gesture of appropriation is unthinkable today.


By bending traditional museum display techniques, Tisiga also criticizes the museum as an institution. Museums, which have inherited or appropriated Indigenous heritage that had use or ceremonial value, have often misrepresented these objects in the past. Throughout the world, a movement is underway to repatriate artefacts to the communities from which they were taken, with the objective of decolonization and a concern for recognition and respect.


These notions are complex and these few avenues of reflection should be developed further. Nevertheless, they give you a glimpse of the depth of the reflection carried by Joseph Tisiga's exhibition.

Joseph Tisiga, view of the exhibition Somebody Nobody Was... at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2020.

Photo: Paul Litherland.


Joseph Tisiga, view of the exhibition Somebody Nobody Was... at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2020.

Photo: Paul Litherland.


This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette.


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