The Story of “Unity”: From Appropriation to Honour
Born in Kitimat 1964, Mervin Windsor came from a long line of artists originating in Bella Bella. While Windsor was in high school, he was inspired by renowned Haisla artist Lyle Wilson. Mervin went on to sell his acclaimed work in Great Britain, Germany, Australia and Saudi Arabia.
One of his most popular paintings was “Indigenous Canada”, an ingenious map of the country that depicts each province/territory in the shape of northwest coast style animals. Asked about his inspiration, Windsor said, “I feel a responsibility to share my art and honour the presence of the Indigenous people of this land.” Later, he created prints from the original and called them “Unity”.
But not everyone shared that sense of honour. For years, Windsor watched in dismay as a settler artist sold a plagiarized version of his work, oblivious to the cultural appropriation she was perpetuating. Jennifer Adoneit, a white woman who took a First Nations art class at University of Northern British Columbia, called her copy “Our Home And Native Land.”
After being profiled by magazines and heralded as someone whose art is a ‘celebration of our country’s true heritage,’ Adoneit was challenged by Indigenous artists and community members who critiqued her right to profit off of cultural art forms rooted in spirituality and traditions not her own. While Adoneit acknowledged that “there are so many talented First Nations artists out there who could do a much more beautiful and authentic job than I ever could,” her map continues to be sold on mugs, tiles and as art prints by third-party resellers online.
Adoneit’s piece had so overshadowed the original work that any search turned up her name. When we heard about how it had been Mervin’s piece that had been appropriated, we wanted to do something to put things right.
So, we approached John Velten (Dene) to lend his artistry to RAVEN’s Home on Native Land project. We originally asked him to recreate the original work that had been appropriated.
Rather serendipitously, around this time John saw a post in a Facebook group with a photo of a similar piece of art done by a Heiltsuk artist, Mervin Windsor. John has always practiced bringing new technology and skills to traditional ways of knowing and creating art. And so, John worked with Mervin to restore his piece to prominence.
It was John’s idea to digitize Mervin’s work, as part of his ethos of work has always been to help elders to share their knowledge and wisdom through new technology. Reclaiming Windsor’s “Unity” image is part of Velten’s commitment to restoring and re-storying Indigenous identity and culture through art.
Mervin passed away in fall of 2022, just after his collaboration with John Velten. The act of artistic reclamation is one small way to honour Windsor’s artistic legacy. Proceeds from the sale of Home on Native Land mugs and t-shirts support Indigenous Nations’ access to justice, funding legal challenges to stop pipelines, protect ecosystems, and create better laws.