How to collaborate with Indigenous artists without cultural appropriation

urban Indigenous artist Rosalie Dipcsu explaining her painting artwork to conference attendees
Urban Indigenous artist Rosalie Dipcsu explaining her Conference 2022 art piece to conference attendees / Photo: Lisa Hemingway

Mark Twain famously said there’s no such thing as an original idea and all ideas are, “the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.” As long as there has been artistic expression, artists have drawn on others for inspiration. So why are some designs considered cultural appropriation, and how do you avoid it?

What is cultural appropriation?

The subject of cultural appropriation versus appreciation is an important distinction. Failing to explore this subject can have hugely negative consequences for you and your business. An example of this can be seen with the 2015-16 Dsquaw collection by Canadian fashion designers Dsquared2. Not only did the name of their collection include a derogatory term used to describe Indigenous women, but the featured clothing was described as a fusion of, “the enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes,” and, “the confident attitude of the British aristocracy.” Accused of trivializing colonialism for profit, these designers came under heavy scrutiny on social media.

Though we understand that most organizations don’t intend to appropriate a group’s culture for profit, an extra level of consideration is a must. As Canadian citizens first and foremost, we have to be sensitive to Indigenous culture and commit to reconciliation together. 

How can a business genuinely use and amplify Indigenous artwork, without misappropriation? At iilo, this is a conversation we prioritize with our clients and collaborators.

How to avoid misappropriation

Misappropriation happens when an entity benefits from another group’s culture without permission or providing something in return. As a paper written by IPinCH states, “in order to avoid misappropriation, it is important to critically reflect on why you are turning to Indigenous cultural heritage for your inspiration and business success.”

At iilo, when a client asks to integrate Indigenous artwork or elements into a design, we begin by asking “why?” By understanding the goals of a project we can be sure to avoid instances of tokenism. Our client CPHR BC & Yukon, for example, wanted to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion. For their Conference 2022, they commissioned original artwork from urban Indigenous artist Rosalie Dipcsu. Their goal was to engage, educate and inspire their members and have meaningful conversations about today’s HR topics, which included diversity and inclusion. Seeing that they had speakers lined up for the conference to discuss D&I, and even a closing keynote speaker who is Indigenous, signified to us that they were serious about this intention, and we were there to support them. 

We worked directly with the artist, Rosalie, to adapt her artwork, digitizing her line art for use on all brand graphics and consulting with her at each stage of the creative process, to ensure her vision shone through. We also made sure to include an artist credit wherever space allowed. Rosalie also had a display at the event tradeshow and enjoyed talking to attendees about her work.

How does iilo approach collaborations with Indigenous artists?

Whenever we collaborate with an Indigenous artist, we aim to meet with an artist as early in the process as possible. It’s important for us to understand the artist’s vision and to get their input at every stage, ensuring their intentions are reflected throughout. 

We also encourage our clients to include an artist’s name with their work and to create a space for an artist to share their story. Sometimes this means helping them figure out what should be said, specifically, but also simple things like making sure their name is spelled the way they’d like.

During a project, we’ll also look for more ways to align our client’s objectives by finding other ways to incorporate their message. When working with the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation on their 2019 Conference: HELISET TŦE SḰÁL – ‘Let the Languages Live’ we looked for multiple ways to visually integrate and highlight Indigenous languages. We specifically chose a Canadian-designed syllabics font called Huronia, for example, and suggested the client include the Lekwungen word ‘skʷəniŋəɬ’ above the English ‘Helper’ on volunteer t-shirts

At iilo, we believe impact-focused communication design can change the world. If you would like to discuss this topic further or share your own experiences, we’d love to hear from you.


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