Local artist draws fire in Juneau


March 1, 2018

A wearable art piece by Haines resident Beth Bolander sparked a national conversation on cultural appropriation after it was taken off the runway in Juneau last week.

Bolander’s piece, titled “Doragon,” was influenced by Japanese artwork and fashion and included a gold dragon-like garment and scaled skirt, silk fabric on the arms and geisha-like makeup and hair.

The piece won third place in Juneau’s “Wearable Art 2018” showcase Saturday, Feb. 17, but was pulled from the Sunday runway show after event organizer, the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, received complaints about cultural appropriation and racism.

Nancy DeCherney, the executive director of the JAHC, met with Bolander, board president Eric Scott and production staff an hour before the Sunday afternoon show to discuss the complaints. Bolander said she agreed to pull her piece from the show.

“There were no specific threats I was told about, just that they were ‘concerned,’” Bolander said. “Also, I was told there was a ‘threat of a walkout and requests for refunds if the piece is shown.’ As an artist, I willingly agreed to not show the piece on Sunday based on this information.”

DeCherney said in an email to a concerned community member she wanted to pull the piece because the council received “virulent and nasty comments” and was not willing to subject model Dani Gross to “potential hostile reactions.”

Christy NaMee Eriksen, a Juneau artist and community activist, said on Facebook that “Doragon” was an example of cultural appropriation, and seeing the piece was like getting punched in the face. The post received hundreds of comments and sparked an online discussion.

Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. That neither Bolander nor Gross are of Asian descent played a part in the backlash. 

Bolander said she would be willing to display her piece in Haines, but hasn’t yet been approached. When asked if Bolander’s piece would be accepted into the Southeast Alaska State Fair’s wearable arts competition, fair director Jessica Edwards said there are still conversations to be had.

“We’ll have a conversation with the artist about her interest and intentions as we keep our eye on that developing conversation and see what we can take away from it,” Edwards said.

Cultural appropriation was recently discussed in Haines and elsewhere in Southeast regarding non-Native individuals using Alaska Native techniques to create art.

“Culture is not a costume. Real life in this body cannot be made up,” Eriksen said. “If the media (or the JAHC, or the community) focuses on me and the artist, they are missing the bigger, actual issue, which is that institutionalized racism let everyone down here.”

Eriksen said the JAHC should be a leader in the arts and “a leader in racial equity” in Juneau. She said when she first brought her complaints to the JAHC, they were ignored.

The council wrote a letter in response to the controversy, saying, “The JAHC is receiving a high degree of criticism from both sides of this debate, and truthfully it is deserved. By allowing escalation to the degree it reached, our organization let the entire community down.”

The JAHC continued to apologize to communities of people of color and individuals who were hurt by the piece, the artist and her family and friends, the model, other artists and attendees, and individuals who complained.

“We are sorry to the individuals who in bringing the issue to light, did not receive the response deserved. It should have been identified and addressed sooner. It was not. That the piece was still judged and awarded is yet one more error made,” the letter said.

The letter also said the council would create new polices and educational materials for future wearable arts entrants “on identifying and avoiding cultural appropriation.”

“We also reaffirm our commitment to racial equity, which includes the elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race. We must resist practices such as cultural appropriation that promote stereotypes that further oppress marginalized communities,” the letter said.

Bolander has entered the wearable arts show in Juneau for the last five years, and has been a featured artist for Haines First Friday celebrations. She also entered another piece called “Eruption” - that looked like a volcano - in this year’s competition. It didn’t place.

Bolander said she thinks the removal of “Doragon” was censorship.

“It’s going to be very hard for me to support the JAHC if they choose to censor art and choose to pin arbitrary blame on artists who are creating beautiful, respectful pieces of art that are ‘appreciation’ not ‘appropriation,” Bolander said.

A story published in the Juneau Empire on the topic was shared in U.S. News, the Washington Times and other national news outlets. Hundreds of comments on the topic swirled around social media

“I have had nothing but overwhelming support from hundreds of people around the state who are upset by the piece not showing at the Sunday show and the JAHC’s knee-jerk reaction,” Bolander said.

Bolander penned a letter to the council’s board of trustees and said she was saddened by the pain the art caused, but glad it brought about awareness and cultural sensitivity. She said she spent hundreds of hours to ensure the piece was “presented with style, grace and respect.”

“I believe we should be able to be inspired by other cultures and have the freedom to create our art without censure,” Bolander said. “My favorite thing about traveling to other parts of the world are the clothing and styles of the different cultures. Am I not allowed to be inspired artistically by these styles?”

The JAHC will meet in Juneau March 9 to continue discussion of this issue.


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