by Maya Tripitaka
From Homage to Plagiarism
The composer Jack Body created a corpus of works he labelled ‘transcriptions’. A keen ethnomusicologist, Body made field recordings of ethnic musicians and ensembles throughout Asia: Indian street bands, Indonesian folk singers and food sellers, rural Chinese musicians, Papua New Guinean tribal rituals. He diligently transcribed what he heard for Western ensembles and orchestras, fascinated by the outlandish rhythms and tonalities, the exotic melodies, and many of these compositions were transcribed verbatim, albeit for different musical voices. Body made no secret of his sources. In his lavishly packaged cds the composition/transcription is included with its source recordings. The works’ titles lead you back to his source material. He asks you to listen to both versions.
One or two practitioners in the classical music world got a bit sniffy about Body’s processes, wondering: “but where is the composer, where is the creative spark?” This type of question assigns an all-or-nothing value to the notion that what pours forth from an artist must needs originate wholly and solely in their imagination. Patent nonsense, of course. Isaac Newton put it best when he said of his scientific revelations: “If I have seen further than others, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Art is a cumulative process.
Wander around Nuna Gallery and you will see art—some of it very famous art—that owes a massive debt of gratitude to its authors' mentors and forebears. Originality is not a mystical process, it happens when the path you’re already on takes an unexpected turn and you have the gumption to follow this new path into unchartered territory. Originality is a mindset, it arises when you trust your instincts and processes; it doesn’t fall out of the sky on the wings of a muse to settle on you if you are the Chosen One, the myth of magical inspiration. Originality resides inside you. It is what makes you You, and not the person in the next chair.
A hot issue in the arts, especially in recently colonised countries, and still far from resolved, is ‘cultural appropriation’. Picasso took inspiration from African tribal masks and Pacific motifs. Matisse and Gauguin took ‘inspiration’ from tribal cultures too. Raphael famously and surreptitiously stole a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling while that master was still on his scaffolds. Art historian Kenneth Clark opined “The great artist takes what he needs!” Raphael did not hide his theft, his painting can be viewed in the papal suite at the Vatican, a short distance from the Sistine.
So when is stealing someone’s swag homage? When is it inspiration? When is it appropriation? And when is it plagiarism?
An anecdote was related to me by a composer friend. I won’t use identifiers, this is a history better forgotten. In her university composition class some years ago were two talented composition students. Student 1 wrote a piece which I’ll retitle Metamorphosis. It earned him local fame. Student 2 took Metamorphosis as the structure for a work, using every second note and “tweening” with her own note selection to create a different piece. Her work, too, was well received until Student 1 analysed her score and discovered her naughtiness. And here lies the rub. Had student 2 titled her piece Variations on Metamorphoses or Homage to Student 1, drawing attention to its source, the piece would simply have been judged on its merits and accepted as a compliment by Student 1. But she didn’t. She stole his structure without acknowledgement and called it her own. That was the end of her promising composing career and the stigma of theft still attaches to her name. A strange business.
I came across a painting by a leading Woman Artist, Hinetitama by Robyn Kahukiwa, and immediately recognised its source. I’ve been troubled by this discovery for a while. Her painting has become an important statement in the indigenous canon to which she belongs. It graces a book cover, posters and appears in other literature. It has been solemnly analysed and approved.
Here is a quote from a reputable historical reference:
"The interpretation of the women in this series can be seen as a feminist reading of traditional Māori mythology. Kahukiwa attempts to redress the conventional portrayal of women as less important than their male counterparts. Hinetitama is an example of the bicultural style that is common in contemporary Māori art. Traditional subject matter is fused with a Europeanised style. While the figure is strongly representational as is typical in Western art, the symbolism which is an integral part of the work identifies it as Māori.
Tane is depicted as a stylised tiki superimposed upon the figure of Hinetitama and forming the bones of her arms.
The lizard represents Maui in the disguise he adopted when he tried to triumph over death.
The foetus represents the children of Tane and Hinetitama – the human race.
The spiral is an important element in traditional Māori carving. Here it represents the ten overworlds. The horizontal layers of colour represent the ten underworlds."
But nowhere can I find any mention of homage, inspiration, influence or acknowledgement to its source, not from the artist, and not from the art historians who have reviewed her work and placed it on its pedestal. The source work(s) are by Abdul Mati Klarwein. I’ve written about him here. Klarwein was as an outsider to the arts establishment, so art historians can (only just) be forgiven for being unfamiliar with his work. In the header strip above, Kahukiwa’s work is on the left and Klarwein’s is on the right. Klarwein’s work was published in his widely distributed book ‘God Jokes’ (1977). Kahukiwa’s painting is dated 1980. Note the pose, the bright outline, the male skeletal figure—down-pointing penis and all—superimposed on the female figure. Judge for yourself.
The plagiarism doesn’t stop with this one image of Klarwein’s though. "Original" features of Hinetitama are easily identified repeated motifs in other works by Klarwein, some from the same publication: the stepped aura and the baby attached by umbilicus. To really complicate this piece of art thievery, it could be contextualised (or apologised) within the context of ‘reverse’ cultural appropriation. Reverse in the sense that this time the indigenous artist has claimed another’s imagery into the sacred lexicon of her own culture. When I pointed out Kahukiwa’s deception to an artist friend, her reaction was: “Fair enough, [Robyn’s] appropriating her own culture back from those who stole it in the first place!”
Except that she isn’t. Klarwein was born of Jewish parents and he grew up in Palestine. The Persian world has not appropriated culture from Polynesia. Nowhere in Klarwein’s paintings or artistic language is there any cultural appropriation from Polynesia. The true irony is that Klarwein would not have minded Kahukiwa’s appropriation of his personal vocabulary, such was his nature. The question though, is, should we mind?
Kahukiwa’s original sin was to appropriate and closely transcribe Klarwein’s imagery without any mention of her obscure source. In some ways an attribution of source would have added richness to her work, a layer of purposefully retooling one culture into another. As her work was warmly received and the accolades poured her way though, she became entrenched in her silence. She painted Hinetitama two decades before the internet came along, in a time when it was very unlikely anyone in the arts establishment would be familiar with Klarwein’s work and with the comfortable knowledge that his book—a lovechild of the 70s—would disappear and be forgotten. But the nature of information and institutional memory has changed. Kahukiwa will be found out. If I have seen this and now you have seen this, so will others.
What is her remedy? What would I do in her shoes (other than not wear them in the first place)?
She should, of course, confess. Confess before exposure, not spin after exposure. She should explain her appropriation, if there is an explanation, apologise if there is not. We are all entitled to mistakes of miscalculation. We should not allow them to become dirty little secrets. Kahukiwa is a talented artist with a body of original work in her portfolio. Yet her legacy could pivot on this one detail. By remaining quiet she raises the question: does a thief only steal once? Questions of that sort can throw your life’s work under the bus.
The difference between homage/inspiration and theft/plagiarism is honesty.Return to Essays