WHEN I was an overly eager artist wannabe at 22, I drew a hundred small pictures for a self-learning toy called Dakobijigan. Gerardus Vervoort, a math professor at Lakehead University was developing self-learning tools for commercial use. We first worked on a project called Secret Surprise which was his own creation.

This puzzle project, with only diamond shape pieces, allowed children to easily lay the pieces together. When the math quizzes were successfully completed, the picture on the opposite side gave us a surprise when it was flipped over.

I created a set of characters repeated in ten busy puzzle images, many reappearing in my own paintings and book projects years later.

Secret Surprise never saw the light of day due to technical complications, namely printing the images on material strong enough to take some abuse. Stickers were out of the question. Undeterred, Vervoort wanted to resurrect tools developed hundreds if not thousands of years ago by First Nations Peoples across the country. Without formal schooling, indigenous children learned basic mathematics and other skills from their parents and with the help of these clever self-learning toys, or tools.

One of them was called Dakobijigan. This was a wonderful trick where black lines on the back of a card matched questions to answers on the front of the card. A string had to match the lines when flipped over.

Vervoort asked me to research First Nations imagery that would work for the project. Each of the hundred cards would have a little graphic at its top to distinguish one card from another.

I dutifully pulled out all sorts of books on First Nations cultures in the university’s library and was amazed at the amount of imagery and its diversity. I had a lot to work with.

I read up on the symbology and with the best intentions I was going to get the most dynamic imagery I could find. I wanted the Dakobijigan cards to be entertaining and interesting for children, especially First Nations kids. To be respectful, I thought it best to copy the imagery as accurately as possible. I also created some of my own animal and people graphics.

Vervoort appropriately thought it best to have the project and imagery reviewed by a First Nations elder. In doing so, we learned that we couldn’t use my imagery for the project and he was going to have to find a First Nations artist to start fresh.

It turns out that I had copied symbols and imagery that were sexual in nature, certainly not appropriate for a children’s toy. In my research I had missed the details and didn’t understand the symbology. I saw what I wanted to see rather than what was created with functions inherent in an art form that I didn’t fully appreciate. The sexual symbology wasn’t the only problem. Much of the other imagery I had used was also questionable in relation to the project.

This was a huge lesson for me in terms of sensitivity and appropriation of another culture’s imagery. This doesn’t mean at all that self-learning toys or projects created by First Nations people can’t be used for mass commercial use. As long as the imagery used is applied with the appropriate research and respect is paid to the people who developed the symbology originally, the project can move ahead.

Taking the time to really think and explore options and to learn about something that is not of our own making is not only incredibly beneficial for the individual artist, but for everyone else who views the work. Basically, the lesson is when an artist wants others to think about their work, they have to be the first to commit to that effort honestly.

Duncan Weller is a writer and visual artist. His work can be seen Saturday mornings at the Country Market and at his gallery and studio at 118 Cumberland St. You can write to him at duncanweller@hotmail.com.

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