This is the first in a set of two articles we’ll be publishing on this topic. Look for the second, by Laura Bellows, in December 2022.
Over the past 10 years, the concept of cultural appropriation has become part of our regular vocabulary in the crafts industry. It’s a complex subject with many nuances. Let’s look at the concept and provide ideas for businesses to move forward with. If you’re interested in learning more and reading first-hand accounts, please see the resources at the end of this article.
A little history
While it was being discussed in academia as early as the 1980’s, cultural appropriation came to the fore as an important topic in the fashion and maker community in 2012 instigated by the lawsuit of Urban Outfitters by the Navajo nation and Karli Kloss’ outfit in a Victoria’s Secret runway show. Fashion is notorious for appropriation and the public critiques of Chanel, Marc Jacobs and other popular designers for their lack of cultural acknowledgement has begun to create change in these influential brands.
This Google Trends graph, shows the search frequency for ‘cultural appropriation’ from 2004-2022
In the fine art world, cultural appropriation has been going on for centuries. It was commonplace for western artists to take ideas from cultures around the world and call them their own invention. Think Picasso, Matisse, and many of the artists who are credited with creating the Modernist art movement. Perhaps most famously, the painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Picasso from 1907 which was directly influenced by African art and considered one of his most “shocking” paintings. Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare sums it up here,
“You’ve had the whole kind of modernist temple, so-called high art, built on the back of the art of Africa. But that’s never really confronted and acknowledged.”
Despite the increased awareness of cultural appropriation today, it continues to surface in fashion, art, food and other consumer areas. Just last summer, the Mexican Ministry of Culture accused several brands including Zara and Anthropologie of appropriating embroidery techniques and patterns from indigenous craftspeople.
Defining cultural appropriation
How is cultural appropriation defined? The definition is often simplified but identifying each of its forms helps to understand the concept.
There are four key forms of that cultural appropriation can take:
- A member of a majority group profiting financially or socially from the culture of a minority.
- A member of a majority group oversimplifying the culture of a minority group or treating the culture of a minority group as a joke.
- A member of a majority group separating a cultural element of a minority group from its original meaning.
- A member of a majority group adopting an element of a minority culture without consequences while members of the minority group face backlash for the same cultural element.
The theme of all these forms of cultural appropriation is that the power dynamics are slanted and equity is just not possible. Kerry Potts, former chair of Native Women in the Arts notes,
“In our consumer-driven, capitalist culture we kind of just have this idea that we can take anything and use anything. For so long, Indigenous people have been part of popular culture – but their image hasn’t been created or controlled by Indigenous people.”
In her New York Times article, “What Does Cultural Appropriation really mean?” Ligaya Mishan points to profiting and benefiting from a marginalized culture as a critical part of the offset power dynamic. American cultural theorist Minh-Ha T. Pham notes that “racial plagiarism is never just about being inspired by but rather improving on an unrefined, unsophisticated, incomplete and, most crucially, unfashionable racialized form.” The idea that the original form has a lower value than a Westernized version perpetuates the marginalization of a culture and keeps inequity as the status-quo.
Top/Left: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was directly influenced by African art. Bottom/Right: Brazilian brand Osklen worked directly with the Asháninka tribe from the Amazon to create their 2016 collection.
What can businesses do to be part of the solution and not the problem? Art and craft inevitably draw from a myriad of cultural influences. The important piece is to research, ask permission, and give credit to influences. Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, has a fresh take on the importance of appreciation and the benefits it can have for a business. She says,
“Designing with both inspiration and respect for other cultures in mind is a challenge that actually requires more creativity and transformative vision than just copying someone else’s culture and claiming it as your own.”
Scafidi recommends that product designers work collaboratively with the community that creates works they are interested in, and she says this can lead to “recognition and economic benefit to both sides.” An example of this is the Brazilian sportswear brand Osklen, who worked directly with the Asháninka tribe from the Amazon to create their 2016 collection. The tribe received royalties and was clearly acknowledged. Businesses can also become fair trade certified or work with suppliers that are fair trade to support artisans they work with. Tiffany Momon founder of the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive focuses on the “hidden landscape,” of who made and contributed to craft from 1619 to the present. She says focusing on the people behind the objects and seeking equity will move us forward. Fair Trade celebrates the artisan and has a high level of transparency about wages.
Authentic cultural exchange that is mutually beneficial creates connections and derails cultural appropriation. As a business works toward respectful exchanges, thoughtfully letting customers know through marketing and written content can help the customer have confidence that they are supporting practices they agree with.
Carrie Miller is the textile artist and designer of the Natural Luxury collection. She specializes in botanical dyes, handweaving, and silk painting. Carrie is also a marketing consultant and writer who lives to be in the mountains near her home in Colorado.