Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel comes from a long line of artists.
One doesn’t have to look far to see the legacy of her relatives, including totem poles in Stanley Park and at UBC that were carved by her grandmother, Ellen Neel—a woman who also left a lasting impact through her pursuit of fair compensation for aboriginal carvers.
“She really advocated all throughout the ’40s and ’50s and early ’60s to stop the products that were being made offshore, and were just really poor replicas of our work,” Neel, a textile and jewellery artist, said in an interview with the Georgia Straight.
Decades later, Neel said she feels like she has picked up where her grandmother left off. On October 8, a new Authentic Indigenous label is being formally launched to identify work made by B.C. aboriginal artists.
The system is part of Aboriginal Tourism B.C.’s Authentic Indigenous Arts Resurgence Campaign, initiated by Sechelt Nation artist Shain Jackson. Statistics cited on the campaign’s website indicate that indigenous artists earn 30 percent less than their nonindigenous counterparts and that up to 80 percent of the aboriginal-themed souvenirs sold in B.C. have no involvement of an indigenous artist.
“This [will be] the biggest economic shift to ever happen in the aboriginal-art sector,” said Neel, who is coordinating the initiative with Jackson. “Up until now, this is the way it’s been.”
So far, six galleries have signed on to the new labelling system, including the Squamish-Lillooet Cultural Centre in Whistler, the Museum of Anthropology, the Bill Reid Gallery, and the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery.
The system will consist of three tiers: one for artists who are designing, producing, and distributing their own work, a second for artists who are designing but not producing the work, and a third tier for situations where an artist has granted permission for a producer to use their design to create, distribute, and sell the product.
“The trouble with that system up till now has been that it’s always under a licensing agreement and usually that licensing agreement doesn’t allow any royalties to go to the artist, so the artist actually never gets paid, despite millions of their products being made,” said Neel.
Authentic Indigenous has set a minimum royalty of five percent to be directed to the artists, but the hope is that the designers can negotiate a higher rate. Through the initiative’s website, consumers can also find information about aboriginal artists and where they can buy their work.
“What we’re trying to do is raise our artists up and make people aware that they can communicate right with the artist, they can order directly from the artist,” Neel said. “All we can say is it’s up to the consumer. If the consumer wants to make an informed choice about buying something authentic, then amen. We’re really happy that they’re taking that stance.”
She hopes to see more galleries and shops participate in the labelling initiative, and she also has her sights set on further expansion, including offering workshops to indigenous artists to help them market their work.
Neel didn’t start selling her designs publicly until she started working on the Authentic Indigenous initiative. She noted that both she and her relatives have had their work undervalued by potential buyers.
“Everyone in my family’s an artist, so I was watching them get taken advantage of and I just thought, ‘I can’t go to every single gallery every time one of my relatives is selling something,’ ” she said.
Eventually, Neel’s “big dream” is to set up an aboriginal-art production company to help generate employment and economic benefits for indigenous communities through local manufacturing.
“I look at our reserves, where there are empty buildings all over the place and the unemployment rate’s upwards of 80 percent,” she said.
“And why we couldn’t we manufacture? That would put entire communities to work, with quality stuff—people know the designs, they have a sense of pride. So I would love to see some innovative new community-based manufacturing going on.”
In the near future, she also hopes to see more public education around the diverse art produced by First Nations across B.C.
“It’s really grounded in all of the First Nations cultures,” she noted. “It’s not some long-gone past and dead culture that you only see in a museum now. It’s very much alive.”