Home Arts A brief look at artist Emily Carr’s totemic paintings: innovation or appropriation?

A brief look at artist Emily Carr’s totemic paintings: innovation or appropriation?

by Ashley Fish Robertson October 26, 2021
A brief look at artist Emily Carr’s totemic paintings: innovation or appropriation?

The well-known Canadian artist’s work has sparked debates for quite some time when it comes to her paintings that depict Indigenous art and communities

The work of Emily Carr has no doubt captured the attention of Canadian art connoisseurs throughout the years, and many have hailed her work as innovative. There’s perhaps no other artist who has represented British Columbia’s wilderness and its people so diligently and vividly as Carr. Born on Dec. 13, 1871 in Victoria, Carr spent the majority of her life living among breathtaking mountain ranges and verdant forests. Her early work demonstrates a clear fascination with Victoria’s landscape and its vegetation. Despite her education leading her abroad to Europe for a considerable period of time, Carr eventually returned to B.C. not only with refined artistic skills but also with an even more profound appreciation for her homeland.

It was a trip to Ucluelet, a municipality on the west coast of Vancouver Island, that initially piqued Carr’s interest in Indigenous art and culture. She began depicting totemic art and people she met in Indigenous communities in her work during this time. Despite being immortalized as one of Canada’s most talented artists, Carr’s work has also sparked debates by some who view her paintings featuring Indigenous life and totemic art as prime examples of artistic appropriation.

A major turning point in Carr’s career that led her to pursue Indigenous art as her subject matter was a trip in 1907 to Alaska, where she spent the majority of her time immersing herself in the life of the Indigenous community she was staying in. A few years later, in the summer of 1912, still inspired by her trip to Alaska, Carr set out on a trip to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago located 100 kilometres west of the northern coast of B.C. She began working on a collection of paintings, and as Ian Thom writes in Emily Carr Collected, “The primary goal of this large body of work was to document the villages and totems of First Nations people, which Carr, like most Euro-Canadians of her generation, believed were destined to disappear.”

While Carr’s own writing and records from those who were close to her suggest that the artist was dedicated to her subjects’ preservation, there are still some who wonder if Carr really knew enough about these Indigenous communities and their forms of art to make them her focus. Some speculate she was simply caught up in the romanticization of Indigenous life, and was simply emulating their art through her own work. In an article from Canadian Art titled The Trouble with Emily Carr, author Robert Fulford writes, “Did Emily Carr understand native culture in the way she understood, say, the British-colonial Victoria in which she grew up? Or did she understand it in the way a diligent scholar may come to know a single foreign culture after years of study?”

With all of this in mind, Carr still had an undeniably keen eye for important details when it came to all of her pieces. She managed to capture totemic art like no other white, Canadian artist had before. As an artist, her distinctive style showcased the West Coast’s abundance of natural wonders in a manner that is simply inimitable.

Although Carr may or may not have understood Indigenous traditions or a community’s way of life, her paintings depicting totemic art still appear to demonstrate a considerable appreciation for what she witnessed during her time in B.C. — even if only from a superficial standpoint. Many still, and probably always will, remain torn between their admiration of Carr’s haunting work and the ethical questions that arise when we begin to ask, who reserves the right to depict certain subject matter in their art, and who doesn’t?

 

Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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