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“Africa’s Fabric Is Dutch”: Art, Appropriation, And Ordinary People

“But as far as art being inaccessible — everyone has their art, even those people who are less privileged or disadvantaged–?” I was having a conversation with Wanjiku Mungai (Pen and Purple Rain) about the production of culture and art. She was replying to an idea I had advanced that self-articulation in form of art for those that struggled with basics, such as food, housing and healthcare, was complicated. Time and resources to engage in artful self-reflection was in shortage for the poor, and to some extent, even for the ordinary, I argued.

In retrospect, how could I be so wrong? Reflecting on what art is

  • not as defined by the high culture construct that attempts to define high quality in art, to market it, and to fuel the transfer of billions of dollars in its stead. But as defined by the very act of living in which the expression of beauty and emotion in us and around us is not only necessary but nearly mandatory –

and reflecting on what Yakutti does, and will be trying to do

  • the quest at building a platform in which African brands articulate their own stories, and where members in turn access thoughtfully made design items to fill their personal styles and spaces in artfully expressive ways –

brought me here.

 

We all have it

Artful self-expression is indeed accessible to everyone. The young mother that spends hours crocheting beautiful patterns onto her newborn’s socks, the farmer who dedicates a piece of his garden to herbs that have no huge economic returns but which garnish his favorite dishes, the student who is continually accused of lacking imagination in her writing classes but is attached to a notebook full of original rap lyrics, all share a common human quest for beauty, for artfully expressing their lived experiences. The problem is not in their desire or capacity for articulation, the problem is in who society chooses to listen to, to look at, and to define as an artist. The problem is in our ignorance of other unconventional processes that do lead to the production of culture and art.

This is the reason why the debate on cultural appropriation will forever be relevant, albeit tiring. Avenues for accessing an audience to see and hear are skewed against those that are marginalized by virtue of class, gender, geography, and/or race. Implying that actions that take their artistic productions without paying tribute to them are downright unjust.

 

Determining Ownership and Appropriation

Yet, what determines to whom artistic productions belong?

As it turns out, the textile prints we have come to call African, not only constitute Arabic, Chinese, Javanese, Indian, and European artistic traditions, but also owe their popularization to Vlisco, a company that makes them in the Netherlands. What, then, happens when Junya Watanabe, a world-renowned fashion designer, incorporates African style in his collection?

To be fair, Watanabe’s collection had other features such as Maasai-style layered necklaces, but even supposing he had only showcased African prints, should we rise up in arms about the appropriation of a print, that is presently popular among Africans but whose origins are nothing but African?

What of the plaid-patterned bags Louis Vuitton introduced on its catwalk? The Ghanains call them Ghana Must Go bags in reference to more tumultuous times when Nigerians wanted them out of their country.  The English call them Bangladeshi bags in association with Bangladeshi immigrants, the Bostonians call them Chinatown totes and the Germans call them Teukenkoffer or Turkish suitcases.

Both Ghanaian media outlets and Chinese Internet users did accuse Louis Vuitton of appropriation. But do these accusations hold in the context of a bag whose pattern traces its origin to China, and whose cultural ownership could be claimed by Ghanaians, the Turks, and the Bangladeshis? Should Louis Vuitton have paid tribute to the very relevant immigration and asylum phenomenon that this bag embodies, perhaps even declared a stance on Europe’s response to refugees?

 

Choosing To Live In Awareness

There are no simple answers, but many of us can take a stand. Perhaps fashion houses, in addition to setting apparel trends, should set trends in standing for social justice issues and furthering them through their corporate social responsibility and business strategy initiatives. Perhaps Louis Vuitton use of the “migrant” bag should have been accompanied by a pledge to donate to humanitarian organizations working with refugees. Perhaps Watanabe should have partnered with a less renowned African designer to put together an “African inspired” collection. Perhaps….

We can take a stand. It does not follow that all cultural institutions, including fashion houses, will respect our stances. It does follow, however, that we can act on our stances. We can choose to understand the cultural realities characterizing objects we buy. We can choose to be actively knowledgeable about the other cultures and styles we appreciate, and we can choose to live fully in awareness. We can choose to give eyes, and to give ears, to original beautiful artistic expressions by those that society does not yet see or look at.

 

Photo credits:photopin

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