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Ornate Native American headdresses at Coachella. Sombreros and ponchos on Cinco de Mayo. Mass-produced keffiyehs worn in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance. These uses of culturally significant items from other cultures as adornment or costuming may not, at first blush, send up red flags. However, the use and adaptation of items from marginalized cultures for entertainment purposes can be extremely problematic. Even unintentional cultural appropriation reinforces negative power dynamics.
A quick scan of the news can quickly cue in an individual to the issues surrounding these acts of cultural appropriation. It is important to respect the traditions of marginalized or disempowered cultures and to ensure that negative stereotypes of cultures are not perpetuated for another generation.
Artists are often more aware of the cultural significance of various items due to their studies of art from around the globe. However, artists are not immune from inadvertently appropriating items or concepts. In some instances, artists feel they are given a free pass to use items of cultural significance in their works because of the inherent social narrative that will be spawned when their item is placed on display for the public. Other times, artists lose themselves in their appreciation for the shape, stylistic features, or beauty of an item, and they never consider the cultural message behind it. Artists even sometimes have the tendency to believe that their act of transforming an item within their work sufficiently removes its cultural significance. However, there is a difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.
As you create, assess your work for cultural influences and use of culturally relevant images and themes. Before incorporating them in your work, there are several steps you can take to avoid engaging in an act of inadvertent cultural appropriation.
If you are inspired by an item about which you have no cultural knowledge, it is time to put on your research hat. A quick Google search on the item’s significance can provide you with great context as you continue your quest to understand another culture. However, this surface-level information can provide you great context is not deep enough.
Take your search outside of the internet. Speak to a member, or members, of the culture from which you wish to utilize the item. From online message boards to Facebook groups, and even in your own personal network, there is sure to be an individual willing to discuss the culturally relevant information about a given item or theme. Don’t assume, however, that everyone wants to act as ambassador of his or her group. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable with—or is tired of—explaining things to you, acknowledge and respect his or her wishes.
When the time comes to have a discussion, remember that you should be actively listening and not leading the conversation. Allow the individuals of the culture to explain, in their own words and on their own terms, why the item is valued by their culture. Continue the dialogue as you incorporate the item, and, ideally, allow the individuals to view and provide feedback on your use of the item prior to releasing the piece featuring it publicly.
As you incorporate an item of cultural significance into your art, the most important and proactive thing you can do is remember to be respectful. Using the information that you learned during your research and discussion phase, try to remain true to the heritage of the item. If your art piece is being designed with the purpose of shocking others or in some way utilizes the item in a disrespectful manner for a legitimate artistic purpose, be sure to provide your future viewers with accurate information about the item and the role it plays in the cultural from which you have borrowed.
Ensure that everyone that is going to view the piece comes away with a better understanding of the culture than before they viewed your piece. Merely apologizing for your use of an item isn’t enough. You must be proactive in sharing the cultural significance of the item you have borrowed.
Another effective strategy for avoiding cultural appropriation is to bring on a co-artist or advisor to help oversee your creative process and use of culturally significant items. The co-artist or advisor should be a member of the culture from which you are borrowing. Throughout the creation process, work together to harmonize your artistic vision and the appropriate respect for the item you are using. Not only will you learn an immense amount about another culture during this process, you will get a true understanding of the reasons why the item is important. This learning is invaluable and can be shared with others for the remainder of your career as an ambassador for this collaborative tool as well as for the specific item. The credibility and respect you will receive for having the foresight to involve an individual with first-hand cultural knowledge into the creation of your piece will be appreciated by members of all cultures.
One of the simplest ways to avoid cultural appropriation is to draw from your own heritage. Draw your inspiration from images and depictions for which you have a full and robust cultural understanding. By including your own heritage’s elements, you can ensure that you are not misappropriating others’. If you are unsure about your family’s cultural background, sit down and speak with older members of your family. You may be shocked to learn about a great grandparent that suffered through war or a family tie to a foreign country. Not only will you be empowered to share that knowledge with other members of your family, you will be able to begin the learning process that transforms items of generic cultural significance into ones that are truly part of your own heritage.
If you do find yourself accused of cultural appropriation, be quick to apologize, engage with members of the marginalized community you have offended, and take the piece out of public view. Cultural appropriation is not okay. Be proactive in correcting your mistake.