Beyonce, of all people, is the latest figure to come under fire for the crime of ‘cultural appropriation’. This oppressive act has begun cropping up more and more recently, as students, news outlets and certain institutions have led a crusade against cultural appropriation, whether it be Yoga teachers or famous pop stars dressed in traditional Indian garb.
Nishtha Chugh, writing for the Independent, sees Beyonce’s depiction of an Indian ‘avatar’ (as she describes it) as an extension of the Western portrayal of India. This portrayal, such as that demonstrated in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, she argues, is a kind of psychedelic fetishation of Western ideals of India. Nistha implores Western film makers to portray the real, Twenty-first Century India, the India that sent a mission to Mars, or shoot a video in one of India’s swanky 370 malls.
“Who wants to see Beyonce strutting through the Victoria Centre dressed in Adidas joggers?”
This, completely and utterly, misses the point. A music video is meant to be different, and if shot abroad, surely would showcase the kind of sights and vistas we don’t normally get to see in our mundane lives. Who wants to see Beyonce strutting through the Victoria Centre dressed in Adidas joggers? (I probably would but that’s beside the point). If portrayed faithfully, with an attempt to explore other cultures, rather than exploit them, then cultural appropriation does not necessarily have to be controversial or negative.
This is the latest in a long stream of cases highlighted in the media, including a protest at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts against the cultural appropriation of Japanese culture, during an event to celebrate an 1879 painting by French artist, Monet, titled La Japonaise. It invited visitors to try on a traditional Japanese kimono, along with a talk about French exoticism of Japanese culture.
Many viewed this as another example of Western fetishizing Oriental culture, and campaigned against the exhibit. Ken Oye, copresident of the Japanese American Citizens League’s New England chapter, had his own take, noting that, “the painting is rooted in the idea of cultural borrowing, and understanding the debate requires acknowledging the painting’s complex context, including both French infatuation with Japan and the corresponding Japanese infatuation with French Impressionists”.
“The question really surrounds the honesty and intent with which a culture is portrayed, not whether it is portrayed at all”
To me, this seems like another storm in a teacup, where the negative connotation associated with word cultural appropriation seems to have enlivened emotions far past the actual context of the exhibit.
This, in itself, seems to be the underlying issue. Cultural appropriation now has such negative connotations that it is hard to distinguish between genuine cultural borrowing, which can contribute to increased cultural awareness and diversity, and outright cultural theft or malign stereotyping, which is something we should all get worked up about.
For many this dividing line is blurry, but in reality we should be able to distinguish between a gaggle of freshers dressed in cheap Indian garb costumes for Halloween, and the learning experience of trying on a traditional Japanese-made kimono in the educational context of a fine arts museum, or a music video creatively based upon Indian themes. There are clear differences. One is based on ignorance and is culturally offensive, the other, a genuine broadening of one’s cultural horizons, a chance to learn properly about another culture, or at least to highlight certain positive aspects of the culture. The question really surrounds the honesty and intent with which a culture is portrayed, not whether it is portrayed at all.
In this homogenous, westernised world we live in today, doesn’t a recognition and admiration for other cultures provide the dose of mind-opening medicine we need?
Image by Arian Zwegers on Flickr
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