Cultural appropriation: a modern theme with roots in the past

White ‘celebrities’ with black hairstyles, fashion giants inspired by ‘ethnic’ clothing for the latest collection, or hip entrepreneurs who profit from all the yoga hype: A quick Google search provides countless examples. In the public debate and on social media, they get many assaults and the concept of cultural appropriation el cultural grant on. According to Daan van Dartel, curator of popular culture and fashion at the National Museum of World Cultures, cultural appropriation is the use of elements from a culture one does not belong to, to use as one wishes, she writes in the chapter ‘We’. re a culture, not a costume ‘in’ Global Wardrobe – the worldwide fashion connection ‘, the publication that accompanies the exhibition of the same name in the Art Museum.

Cultural appropriation is exhausting when there is a balance of power, where members of a dominant culture take over elements from a marginalized group without understanding and respect for the culture. For example, something that is seen as primitive in its original form and context may suddenly be considered cool because it is acquired by one from a privileged position. What it subsequently provides – for example, profit, admiration, prestige – is awarded to the person who has acquired it, without compensation or recognition of the origin of the cultural heritage.

Style anthropologist Carmen Hogg discussed cultural appropriation in fashion on the Oneworld website in 2018. Hogg finds it incomprehensible that major fashion brands are still guilty of overt cultural appropriation. Especially when you consider that within such large organizations, so to speak, you first have to sign 36 people before a campaign is sent out. For Hogg, this is a signal that cultural appropriation should be put even more on the national and international agenda.

Not everything is automatically yours; for people in privileged positions it is good to think of that self-proof and that privilege

Take over without a doubt

Whether it is about fashion, music, dance or a spiritual tradition: the origin and ‘ownership’ of cultural heritage can of course not always be precisely identified – cultures do not exist in isolation, and there is always contact and exchange. Yet the idea that everything can simply be used or adopted according to one’s own desires is too naive and shows arrogance.

According to Judi Mesman, professor of the interdisciplinary study of social challenges at Leiden University and author of the book ‘Growing up in color’, it is primarily about ‘uncritical copying of something, simply because you think it’s fun, when in fact it is a cultural thing. for another. meaning ‘, which bothers many people about cultural appropriation. This is true of large corporations and celebrities who profit from or gain their fame from acquiring elements from marginalized cultures, but even with individuals, a little accountability can not hurt. ‘Not everything is automatically yours; for people in privileged positions, it’s good to think about this self-esteem and that privilege, ‘Mesman explains. “Anyone who’s ever been to a large garden center has undoubtedly seen Native American masks or figures,” Mesman cites as an example in my garden, where I know nothing about the marginalized culture and it does not help people it really comes from – there’s something strange about that. ‘

According to publisher and author Anousha Nzume, cultural appropriation can also seem offensive, hurt people and erase the whole experience of a marginalized group of people, she argues in the book ‘Hello White People’. Skin color and cultural background still matter when it comes to opportunities in life. For example, while their hairstyle for many black women has caused discrimination and exclusion for generations, the same hairstyle that white models have on the catwalk is launched as a fashion trend. It’s hard to say the least. Especially when these women have always had to adapt to the prevailing norms of a dominant culture, and because black women are still little represented in the fashion world.

These stories are important to tell, precisely because they are so painful

Intertwined past

Appropriation can therefore not be separated from social relations, power structures and common history. And because cultural acquisition knowledge, labor, and cultural heritage are exploited for the benefit of dominant groups, Van Dartel argues, these prevailing socio-economic relations are maintained. Numerous examples – both historical and recent – are collected in the Global Wardrobe exhibition at the Art Museum in The Hague. Original hand-printed Javanese batik, both cultural heritage and technique, was used as early as the 19th.e century acquired by a Dutch merchant who had a successful trade in imitation batik and eventually found a large sales area in West Africa with these growing pressures. These and more stories are important to tell, precisely because they are so painful, explains curator Madelief Hohé from Global Wardobe in Volkskrant. Power structures that play an important role in our common history have thus been revealed, and their impact on society has now been revealed.

Consciousness accelerates

From Javanese batik in West Africa to authentic motifs of the Tarascans from Mexico on ponchos by fashion designer Isabel Marant: Cultural appropriation is by no means new. But where large fashion houses 20 years ago could still ‘borrow’ from other cultures without comment, there would now be considerable criticism. According to Van Dartel, there has been a big change in thinking about this. ‘Public discourse is moving pretty fast,’ Mesman agrees, ‘in recent years we have taken steps on a topic that we have not discussed in the Netherlands for decades.’ “In fact, consciousness has picked up in the last five years,” Mesman explains. “Kick Out Zwarte Piet and Black Lives Matter, movements that have been around for some time but have been prominent in the news for a few years now, have played a big role in that.” The great thing about social media, according to Hogg, is that everyone now has a voice and can be seen and heard. Cultural heritage is no longer just a matter for a white Western elite. What is clapped, what is discussed and what is not, what is allowed and by whom , what is critically questioned: this is much more open to interpretation from all corners of society and is no longer determined by one homogeneous established order.Young people and other cultural backgrounds also have a voice in it.

For those who like to borrow, it may be advisable to immerse yourself properly

Time for reflection

“Cultural acquisition is complex and it has many layers,” Hogg sums up, “What is your place in society? How do people look at you? What is the cultural significance of a garment? How was it worn? Are all relevant questions to “Unfortunately, there is no decision tree with a finished answer at the end. Do your research and keep talking about it to keep each other sharp,” she argues. Mesman emphasizes that it is useful to regularly reflect on privileges and quiet. questioning the obviousness of things.In her book Education in Color, she calls for restraint when it comes to ‘borrowing’ from other cultures.And for those who like to borrow, it may be advisable to dive right into it.Reflection, deepening and genuine interest paves the way for appreciation, because appreciation of each other’s music, food, and artistic expression is also a way of connecting. grant is there after all appreciationsays Hogg. Recognition of a culture and awareness of social relations, their historical context and your own position in it is crucial to this.

Photo: Paul van Riel (exhibition The African Art of Appearance, Amsterdam 2020)

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