There has been quite a row for a few weeks now on Cultural Appropriation. Most notably here in the UK when popular chef Jamie Oliver called a rice dish Jerk Rice, and was criticised by Dawn Butler an MP of Jamaican heritage. Now as anyone knows Jerk is usually chicken, or other meat, cooked by Jamaicans at home and often served with rice (and peas). It is spicy and, if you are lucky, it is tender, tasty and perfectly seasoned. I have made it myself, having been shown how by several friends over the years. While I like it my favourite Jamaican dish is curried goat – this wonderful, delectable meal was laid on by my daughter’s mother in law Faye at Ted’s Christening party. For my mother (then 84) it was a first taste, and she loved it.
Oliver was criticised for “cashing in” on someone else’s cultural heritage and also getting it wrong – “jerk rice”??! I remember a Peter Kay sketch where an old working class English man says “garlic bread”??! The first time you put two unlikely ingredients together it can sound a bit like a joke (egg and bacon ice cream for example).
Of course in one respect people were amused by the charge. Surely we all take from other cultures when we are cooking or eating. Tea (like many things), for example, does not grow in the UK but it is now regarded as a British staple. We appropriated it from the Chinese in the 17th century. As well as our menu (which might have otherwise been barley, potato and bacon stew three times a day), our language has been brought in from elsewhere. Without the Germans, the French and the Italians our language would be quite different, and certainly we have the benefit of so many words, and so many varieties of meaning, that we owe to settlers, travellers and invaders. Only the other day I found myself using bungalow, guru, karma and yoga in normal conversation – what a delight these words are. Many of you will know they are of Hindi origin, learnt and appropriated by the British when they ruled India. See this nice article.
And then of course we need to consider clothes – starting with the Indian origins of pyjamas, dungarees, bandana, cummerbund, and of course khaki Jodhpurs. French words like pret a porter, a la mode and haute couture are almost everyday, especially when admiring your chic, petite silhouette. Not just language of course but clothing and style. Baseball caps were never worn in the UK when I was growing up – we didn’t have baseball – but now we have the hats without the sport. While complete outfits rarely translate elements seep in – Nehru collars, kimono sleeves, harem pants, French knickers – and so on. In recent years “African prints” – what my friends of Nigerian origin call Ankara – have been widely used by white girls. I have a special Kente scarf, woven in Ghana, that I wear in London. I have been stopped several times by delighted Ghanaians who recognise their fabric and are pleased to see it paired with a very British, purple woollen, winter coat. I thought this yellow jacket which our Prime Minister wore in Nigeria, designed by 27 year old Nigerian designer Emmanuel Okoro, head of EmmyKasbit, was wonderful. (I cannot say that about her dancing, but no one is perfect). I love those military uniforms too, don’t you?
In the British Isles we of course have lots of cultural heritage of our own – the Kilt of course is Scottish. Tartan is very popular the world over. English country clothing is very much in evidence in the country – Wellington boots, waxed or tweed jackets, flat caps, brogue shoes, corduroy, checked shirts, headscarves, lots of greens, browns and sludgy shades. Wales has its fabrics – and styles of dress. There was an English lace, silk and leather industry – all producing beautiful items associated with traditional (and more modern) designs. Like all designers I plunder my own history and culture all the time, as well as seeking inspiration from elsewhere. All creativity is to some extent an act of appropriation – you “take” inspiration from whatever is around you, from your travels, from your peers, from seeing films or photographs, from music, from books etc. Clearly all this is not only OK, but absolutely essential.
So what about the issue of people taking something from rare or endangered cultures and making money from them? Here are a few examples that created anxiety or uproar: Sikh turbans at Gucci, native American headdresses at Chanel, sacred Inuit motifs by Kokon to Zai, Cara Delevingne wearing corn rows.
Of course it is perfectly understandable that Sikhs find the use of their style of turban as a fashion item disturbing or offensive. Seeing a non-Sikh in a turban has a jarring and slightly shocking effect and this is what fashion often aspires to achieve. Something with religious or sacred meaning is often protected by believers, although the widespread use of crucifixes is tolerated by the Christian church as generally harmless – but then they probably feel secure and protected in most Western settings. Context is everything. The British were the first and most successful imperialists – dominating, appropriating (stealing), desecrating, enslaving, annexing, and extracting. Is it surprising that people whose families and Peoples were turned into commodities occasionally take offence?
Oppressed and marginalised groups can often feel angry by their culture being taken and commercialised. Unlike the big companies they don’t have trademarks or intellectual property lawyers to protect their culture and creativity.
I understand why Dawn got cross and I welcome the discussion. But as people who make our own wardrobes, without commercial considerations, let’s not get paranoid. Seek inspiration everywhere – Russian military wear, Chinese New Year, Arctic fishermen, American sports, Mexican colour palettes, Indian bandanas, French fishermen, Inuit anoraks, cooks trousers, sports wear, 1960s Italian films, Beethoven and Welsh dancers. Whatever you see or love is something to be inspired by. take it and to make it your own. As an artist or a designer we need to push our own creativity and style. But always do it respectfully with a learning attitude and a sense of fun.
Here is a useful article from The Week.
What do you think?