Cultural Appropriation: Xanthe Brookes Reports
When it comes to weaving cultural references into trend stories, forecasters often walk a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Xanthe Brookes reports on why ‘borrowing’ should never tip into exploitation in a feature first seen in MIX Magazine, issue 45.
Creatives are by their very nature magpies, perpetually searching for inspiration. From Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to Yves Saint Laurent’s African collection first seen in 1967, it’s often hard to tell where inspiration stops and cultural appropriation begins. The waters are especially muddy in the West where designers, writers, film makers and artists have always been shameless about their fascination with discovering different cultures, stealing and appropriating from all over the world. History too is rife with this cultural appropriation; stretching back from the Romans robbing the Greeks or the Elizabethans delighting in the first Native Americans, to the 20thcentury and the likes of American heiress Nancy Cunard and her well-documented passion for African jewellery.
This borrowing poses something of a problem for those who want to ensure that what they design doesn’t fall foul of the guardians of minority cultures. By its very definition, any Western designer is arguably part of a dominant group exploiting a different culture from its own with no understanding of the meaning and importance of anything from dress to objects. Cultural appropriation in a nutshell. But designers would argue that inspiration shouldn’t be governed by political correctness or ownership. How do you own ideas or colours? Freedom to find inspiration wherever it may lead is one of the cornerstones of creativity.
But when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. A slew of recent ill judged forays into cultural appropriation underlines the dilemma. A case in point, Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video featuring Beyonce came under fire for mining religious imagery for visual impact alone, or take your pick from Madonna doctoring pictures of African and African American leaders for her album or Rhianna posing outside a mosque wearing a hooded jump suit that looked suspiciously like a burqa.
So, while its easy to shrug this off as political correctness gone mad, cultural appropriation is a serious issue, often reinforcing negative stereotypes and failing to give credit where credit is due. Interesting work is being done to codify and clarify exactly what cultural appropriation actually means by the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project, a seven-year international research initiative based at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, Canada. The project sets out to explore ‘the rights, values, and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge and the practice of heritage research.’ Likewise, part of Unesco’s mission is to ‘Encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world’s cultural and natural heritage.’ In the future there may well be legislation put in place to protect and regulate the use of traditional knowledge as intellectual property.
With an increased media spotlight on cultural appropriation, ignorance is no longer bliss. It is essential that inspiration is just that, and not some badly thought out pastiche. Sensitive, informed and intelligent references to different cultures can only be positive. Creatives and trend forecasters alike need to be vigilant and guard against lax thinking; with the nature of global trend gathering, there is an ever-present danger that trends can tip the wrong way.
What remains essential to remember is that borrowing is ok if you are going to create something new, and express something active and positive, if the borrowing is the inspiration rather than the end result. If you are simply stealing another culture’s ideas then any criticism thrown at you is justly deserved. Move away from the bindi now.