Cultural appropriation and power
Recently, within the span of a week, my newsfeed, possibly like yours, was filled with stories of cultural appropriation so out of place one’s immediate reaction was to laugh. One story was of boomerangs being sold by Chanel for nearly $2000, one of a didgeridoo being used by a pub for patrons to drink shots out of, and another of a didgeridoo being used as a sex toy in a gay porn film.
Indigenous people around the world are an inconvenience. It would be much easier for the coloniser if we were not present. At the coloniser’s first glance, Australia’s Indigenous peoples were not respected. To the coloniser the Indigenous was a primitive subject to be conquered or helped. Their customs, rituals and motifs were not valued. As part of the colonial project, these customs, rituals and motifs were examined and packaged in a way that told a story about Indigenous people to justify our subjugation.
Cultural appropriation is when one culture takes on elements of another. It is hard to separate cultural appropriation from colonisation and capitalism. The first multinational corporation and company that issued bonds and stock with the general public was the Dutch East India Company. This company had a monopoly on the trade of spices from parts of Asia. Its business was the definition of colonisation.
Whether language, coffee or cuisine, as a settler colonial society, modern Australian culture and life is full of things that came from other cultures. Those who defend cultural appropriation point out that the history of culture has been a history of cultural appropriation. When does it become problematic? Why is it that Italian Australians don’t complain about the espresso culture in Australia – remembering that Italians themselves learnt coffee drinking from Ethiopians, by way of North Africa and Malta?
The thing that separates appropriation from mere exchange is the power dynamic. The ability to exchange implies there is a power parity. What happens when there is no parity? What happens when one group of people are forced to assimilate and what is left of their culture gets pilfered?
In Australia, culturally and structurally, Aboriginal people don’t have a lot of power. We aren’t in control of any political, social or economic institutions. Aboriginal people don’t give things; they are taken. AFL is a good example of this. AFL is derived from a Gunditjmara game called marngrook. This, of course, doesn’t stop Aboriginal people from participating in the sport – in fact, overwhelmingly we support the AFL as spectators and are overrepresented as participants. At what point then does this appropriation become disempowering?
Last year, I was walking someone from my house in Fitzroy to their house in Collingwood. Along the way we walked past two representations of black people. One left me feeling empowered and the other did not. The representation that did was Blaksland and Lawless by Merindah Donnelly, Lorna Munro and Tjanara Talbot, installed as part of the Next Wave festival. There were paste-ups with images of Donnelly and Munro looking fierce around Melbourne, accompanied by a manifesto that begins: “We live in a patriarchal society founded on colonialism, where genocide has removed Aboriginal presence, culture, language kinship and ceremony. In a lucky country, a democratic country, a country with a national anthem that still screams White Australian Policy”.
The second representation was by street artist Adnate. Melburnians have probably seen his work around – big black faces with “tribal” markings in stark contrast with their urban landscape. There is a feeling many blackfullas I know get when we see his art. On one hand there is a sense of pride seeing black faces in places such as Fitzroy – gentrified (read: mostly white) inner-city areas where black people used to live and from where we have been economically forced out. On the other hand, they can make some of us uncomfortable.
There are a number of reasons why Adnate’s work makes people uncomfortable. I’ve heard some people complain about a white man painting black faces and making money from it. But his work is much more problematic than the money he makes from black faces. The motifs employed by Adnate are broad brushstrokes. The same markings that work for his images of pre-adolescent boys on walls in Brunswick or Fitzroy would appear to be appropriate for his portrait of twentysomething model Samantha Harris. These representations are contradictory to how diverse blackfullas across the country really are. For example, white ochre can mean different things to different mobs and different markings can signify different things. In addition, while many of his subjects are recognisably Aboriginal (to non-blackfullas), in reality there are many shades of black in this country. Yes, many of us have darker skin but there are many of us with fairer skin.
There are violent reasons many of us have fair skin – for example, assimilation policies and the rape of our ancestors by white men. Adnate’s work is a white imagining and reduces us to how settlers want to see us – as a singular, harmless tribal subject. Noble savages.
What Adnate does is not new. Portraits have featured in street art long before him, but what is different are his black subjects. When our representations are reliant on non-Indigenous people they are bastardised in a way that is not empowering for us. In a world where we are not afforded representation, where our motifs and elements of our culture are ripped off and stolen, this bastardised representation informs and perpetuates ideas about who we are.
It is not just Adnate who does this. Last year the University of Queensland’s architecture department profiled Julia Nicole Watson, a UQ alumna whose next endeavour was to be, according to the department’s website, “creating a global community and brand that will mainstream spiritual travel to sacred sites”.
A few months later, I visited a sacred women’s site on my own country that was open to the public. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of men who felt empowered to visit this sacred site despite the signage. Its “mainstreaming” doesn’t lead to its sacredness being protected, nor to its protection in an ecological sense. Its appropriation has not benefited those from whom it was appropriated.
Appropriation is not just a moral quandary. It is not just the left screeching, seeking social capital from being the most “woke” in the room. White men with dreads serve a reminder that what is on the black and brown body is okay only on the white body. A look that will get you stopped and frisked by police if you are black or brown will not do the same for the white body. A didgeridoo being used as a sex toy is a reminder that none of our customs are sacred. There are white men who do “didg healing” workshops. There are white men who play didg in malls in cities around the country. The aesthetic theft by the dominant group makes us angry because it is the colonial mentality at play. It is a mentality that makes the settler feel they are entitled to take from the colonised and the impacts of it don’t matter.
There is, as far as I can see, no way to stop this.
Appropriation has material impacts. There is an economic flow that comes from cultural appropriation that does not go to the appropriated. At some point this appropriation is theft of our intellectual property, the only currency left for Aboriginal people when it comes to our authenticity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been pushing for the legal protection of our cultural knowledge since at least the 1970s, when Aboriginal artists started taking copyright cases forward, culminating in the federal Department of Home Affairs and Environment establishing the Working Party on the Protection of Aboriginal Folklore, which reported in 1981. Aboriginal artists have been calling for greater protections ever since.
This is where independent politician Bob Katter comes in. In January this year, Katter announced that he was introducing a private member’s bill to protect Aboriginal artists from the counterfeit stock that floods the art market. Nothing has happened with the bill since it was introduced and following the Chanel boomerang, Katter has again made calls for the protection of Aboriginal artists.
Putting aside the fact Katter doesn’t seem to see a distinction between Aboriginal people and settler Australians – referring to Aboriginal artwork as “ours” – having a way to codify and protect Aboriginal artwork could prevent something like the Chanel boomerang. You cannot legislate respect, however, so it would not protect us against the misuse of our items, such as the didgeridoo sex toy. Colonisation and assimilation have completely eroded Indigenous cultures and we must do all that we can to protect what little we have, particularly when there is material gain made from our culture that does not flow to us.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "White and wrong". Subscribe here.