Appropriation is not appreciation. If you appreciate someone or something, you would never try to steal the person’s identity or their possessions—particularly for profit. You would instead show them respect by better understanding their plight.
To understand this subtle distinction, spend a minute and think about your family. Each of you have rituals, stories, and personal effects that remind you of who you are, where you came from, and what is important to you. Now imagine someone breaking into your house one day and taking those very personal items—whether heirlooms, relics, or photos—and selling them on the Internet for profit.
The person who stole them likely understands their value in and of themselves, which is why they appropriated them for sale; and the buyer who acquires them likely appreciates their beauty as well. But neither the person who stole them nor the person who purchased them truly grasps the history between the individual and the object, the context within which the object came to mean something to the individual, or how that very relationship gets at the nature of sacredness. They are simply objects to be had, sold, and used in ways other than intended.
Now extend that understanding to culture in general. As far back as anyone can remember, human beings have drawn on their surroundings for inspiration and materials to create shelter, clothing, and art. By studying these sources and materials, scholars, students, and curious members of the public can learn not only what is and has been important to a given society but also how they responded to the forces at work in their world. The sources provide the context within which we understand ourselves and another.
The same is true today. The materials we use to make things, and how we choose to communicate about ourselves and the forces at play in the world, inform what we value. In design speak these forces are known as trends, and we see them play out in patterns, materials, and methods of production. They too provide a context for understanding ourselves and others.
With the dawn of the Internet, and the proliferation of sites like Pinterest and Instagram, trends emerge and take hold much faster than ever before. Bloggers and other online voices take this information one step further, curating the rapidly evolving digital world and packaging it into concepts for living, cooking, dressing, communicating, and more.
In this modern process of finding, publishing, and repackaging, oftentimes not only is the source material lost, but also the context within which the object was produced. And when this disappears, so too does the notion of ownership or authorship. Appropriation happens when an object is separated from the people and culture that produced it. In that process, something that once possessed meaning and beauty becomes a shell of its former self, is stripped of its identity, and transformed into an entity to be consumed.
That so much appropriation is happening at such a rapid pace with very little outcry begs the questions: What is worth protecting? What is sacred? And can people (or cultures) actually own designs?
With so many industries (fashion, textiles, furnishings) turning to global cultures for design inspiration, we believe it is time to ask these questions, and to provide some guidelines for how to work with this material respectfully.
Let’s examine a few examples of “global design” at work in the marketplace.
◗ For their 2016 advertisement campaign, an Italian fashion house featured models standing in the Kenyan desert landscape and in a Maasai tribal village wearing dresses elaborately beaded in patterns that read tribal and African.
◗ On home décor websites, one increasingly sees Kuba cloth inspired patterns on rugs and pillows.
◗ Shibori patterned, indigo-dyed fabric is used for decorative throw pillows, bed coverings, and table ware.
◗ A London-based fashion house presents a line of woman’s clothing based on Native American designs, while an American-based dinnerware company sells Native American-inspired patterns.
Each and every instance mentioned above does indeed constitute some kind of appropriation of cultural material, as no further contextual information is provided. No homage is paid to the people, places, materials, or designs that are affiliated with them. The human essence has been stripped away, and hence its part in the design equation goes missing. So, too, does any effort to reinterpret and adapt the design instead of just copying it.
The issue of cultural appropriation is important and complex, and no two issues are alike, but it is an issue worth trying to understand and respectfully address. Consider the following four steps as you look for global inspiration,
1. Ask about the source material: Who made it, what is it made of, what purpose did it serve, what is compelling about it, and why?
2. Respect the source material:Do not copy it, but instead figure out how to adapt it. Change the pattern scale and color, use a vastly different material, and/or apply the design to a different medium.
3. Credit the source of your inspiration: Tell a story about the inspiration material, and place it in the context of the culture that made it. Explain what materials were used and why. Describe what the object was used for and what the design might reference. For example, instead of simply saying a design is inspired by a Congolese Kuba cloth, explain that the Kuba are actually a people who live in Zaire and that the fiber they use to make Kuba cloths come from spinning and weaving the fibers of raffia palm leaves. Provide a link on your website from which your consumer can learn more about the culture that inspired the product.
4. Engage with the maker of the original material: Ask how a mutually beneficial partnership can be formed, how you can help advance an artists’ career, how you can assist a culture or institution by contributing a percentage of sales of your product in support, and how you can provide your customer a link to information about the source material or culture.
If you appreciate a person, object, or culture, you should never appropriate it. You should respect them. That’s accomplished by engaging in a creative dialogue and learning about what is important to someone or about something and why.
With a more complete understanding of culture and context, you can create something unique, beautiful, and respectful. And you will become a full participant of the human community—by standing alongside your fellow human beings, rather than positioning yourself above or outside them.
Pamela Kelly is the vice president of licensing and brand management for the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. She has worked with Smith & Hawken, Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, Cost Plus, and Marshall Field’s, as well as international retailer the Body Shop, in product development, manufacturing, sourcing, retail operations, licensing, and franchising. To learn more about the museum’s licensing program, visit mnmlicensing.org.