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Bear in a marijuana leaf headdress: Alberta artist triggers cover art controversy


An Alberta Indigenous artist is apologizing after his artwork, depicting a bear clad in a marijuana leaf headdress, sparked controversy for a Toronto magazine.

“I understand that art and social responsibility should go hand in hand and if some find this approach offensive, I sincerely apologize,” said Jason Carter, a sculptor and illustrator from Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta. “I totally understand how people would be disappointed or offended by it but I approach all of my work with humour and optimism.”

The cover art Carter created for the magazine has been the target of numerous complaints. (NOW Magazine/Jason Carter)

Carter was commissioned by Now Magazine to create artwork for their April edition plus a feature article. Titled Decolonizing Cannabis, the article explores the impact of legalization on Indigenous communities.

Carter submitted two illustrations to the magazine.

Both prints feature a bear wearing a headdress made, not of eagle feathers, but of large marijuana leafs.

“They wanted to use an Indigenous artist because they knew it was going to be a sensitive issue, and I jumped at the chance,” Carter said. “I really wanted to play with the iconography of the bear and the headdress. It went through a few evolutions, but ended up there with something simple and effective to get people talking.”

‘Insulting and diminishing’

The prints were the subject of dozens of complaints on social media. Some readers described the art as racist or insulting, with criticism targeting the magazine for trivializing headdresses, which are considered sacred objects.

“You say that one of the core ‘visions’ for your company is empowerment of all,” reads one complaint from Kaylee Juniper on Twitter. “This cover is not empowering, regardless of the material contained within, it is insulting and diminishing.

“You would do well to apologize immediately and pull this issue.” 

Carter said the art was not intended to be offensive, but a playful exploration of cultural symbols.

While he is apologetic to those he offended, Carter said he has no regrets about his work. Indigenous people should feel empowered to explore their own culture through art, he said.

If Indigenous artists can’t use Indigenous iconography in art who can, he wonders. 

“I think it’s important to reclaim that iconography, that Indigenous iconography,” Carter said. “As an Aboriginal artist, feeling that I can’t explore that sort of subject matter feels a bit silly to me.”

The magazine issued a statement on its official Twitter account on Friday acknowledging the controversy, clarifying the collaboration efforts with Carter and thanking readers for their “continued response.”





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