It's a New Type of Colonialism

It feels like cultural appropriation is on the rise, but what is it? Janine Jellars peels open the glossy skin to reveal the rot within.

It’s Saturday morning at the salon and the white woman at the next stylist’s station is chatting animatedly as she has hot pink braids installed. “This looks so cool,” she announces. Pop culture imagery from the last few years immediately comes to mind: Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, Katy Perry in a kimono, Die Antwoord’s cover art, Drake rapping in patois, Kasi Mlungu wearing isicholo. Deep discomfort.

Whether it’s western holidaymakers fashioning their hair into faux locs, festival attendees adorning their bodies with henna, or white rappers adopting Ebonics, many people of colour can conjure cringeworthy moments of culture vulturism. Now, the collective unease has a name: Cultural Appropriation.

“[Cultural appropriation is] the use of a culture's symbols, artefacts, genres, rituals or technologies by members of another culture,” writes North Arizona University’s Richard Rogers in the Journal of Communication Theory. To Danielle Jacobowitz of the University of Washington, it goes beyond “offending people”. “[Appropriation] continues patterns of disempowering groups of people who are already marginalised,” she writes in her master’s thesis.

Simply put, cultural appropriation is informed by power dynamics. “Those who see appropriation as cultural exchange fail to understand gaps in economics and power,” says Yanisha Teelock Lallah, a researcher and postgraduate student in Languages at the University of Cape Town. “Appropriation is about handpicking parts of a culture, whether it’s dress or food, without acknowledging the experiences, rituals and procedures of the originators of that culture. The privileged person is usually not criticised for experimenting with the culture from which they’re borrowing.”

As I watch the woman with the pink braids leave the salon, I can’t help but agree with Lallah. She’ll no doubt garner compliments at the office for her “edgy” look, while many black women are criticised for being “ghetto” for wearing the same style.

“This is our culture and we have people from our culture who are also producing luxury goods. Why are we waiting for someone from overseas to tell us that our culture is valid?”

Colonial booty was taken without compensation

It’s been five years since the concept of cultural appropriation took the proverbial elevator from its ivory tower and hit the ground floor of pop culture conversation. According to Google Trends, the term is at the peak of its popularity and it’s easy to understand why: social media gives people from various backgrounds the platform to analyse imagery and cultural product in real time.

The listicles and think pieces might seem new, but aggressive cultural borrowing goes back centuries. For Africans, it stirs up a painful history. A visit to western museums reveals rooms filled with artefacts from a colonial past. Alongside natural resources, colonial powers looted iconography with impunity. One case is the Benin Bronzes, seized in a 1890s raid that resulted in the fall of the Kingdom of Benin. According to Olufunmilayo Arewa of the University of California, around 3 000 bronzes, carved tusks and oak chests were taken to Europe and sold on the art market. Fast forward a hundred years and one Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million. “This colonial booty was taken without permission or compensation,” says Arewa. “Some people argue a similar dynamic exists in contemporary use of African cultural symbols, creations and products.” Calls for reparations are now also affecting fields such as archaeology and botany.

It’s a new type of colonialism

For designer Thabo Makhetha, appropriation is not theoretical. “It’s a new type of colonialism,” she says, emphatically.

Earlier this year, Makhetha, originally from Lesotho, was thrust into a global conversation around cultural theft. The designer, in celebration of her Basotho culture, started creating trendy coats and capes using Basotho blankets six years ago. The blankets, which tell stories about the Basotho people’s history, are a key cultural signifier.

In 2012, luxury brand Louis Vuitton released a menswear design featuring large scarves directly inspired by Basotho blankets. This year, Louis Vuitton again looked to Lesotho for inspiration, releasing its Basotho Plaid range. A silk shirt, priced at R33 000, caused a global outcry and led to thousands of headlines comparing it to Makhetha’s authentic items. The shirts sold out at South Africa’s Louis Vuitton stores within two weeks.

“Lesotho has manufacturing capacity, but, as far as I know, no one from Lesotho was involved in creating the Vuitton shirts,” says Makhetha. “This is our culture and we have people from our culture who are also producing luxury goods. Why are we waiting for someone from overseas to tell us that our culture is valid?”

All they see is money

Misappropriation isn’t a victimless crime. “While we’ve narrowed it down to bindis and dreadlocks, it’s about anti-blackness and profit-making,” says Lallah. “People with economic privilege come to underdeveloped countries, pick what they like and profit from that.”

Nigerian visual artist Laolu Senbanjo has worked with everyone from Beyoncé to fashion brand Kenneth Cole. He recently criticised Damien Hirst for appropriating Nigerian traditional art, the Ife bronze heads, at the Venice Biennale. “What he took is the Ori Olokun, it’s something that Yoruba people use as a rite of passage in Ile Ife and it’s deeply connected,” Senbanjo told Okayafrica.com. “[Hirst is] in a position with so much influence, so much power and wealth, so a lot of people seeing this for the first time will never ever think about the origins.” It’s this erasure that African artists are fighting. “I’m tired of people who see Africa as a business, they don't care if they understand or don’t understand us, all they see is money,” says Senbanjo. “As an African, my culture is everything – so it’s just crazy when people see it as a commodity.”

No one can steal what is mine

Given the greater spotlight on misappropriation, what recourse exists for cultural originators? Not much. Cultural product is difficult to codify in legal terms and, even when copyright is violated, small players hesitate to take on big business. “I don’t have the finances to take on Louis Vuitton,” laughs Makhetha. “It’s not going to work for me.” For her, the answer to appropriation is collective responsibility. “Money talks,” she says. “The solution is in the consumer’s hands. Our retail culture is informed by big brands and international designers will keep doing this until we demand better.” But, there is room for optimism: “The one positive that’s come out of this is that conversation around my culture is spreading and African brands are getting the attention of markets that want our authenticity.”

It’s this export of product on an equal footing and compensation that excites Lallah. “I think the solution is to see privileged artists creating a space to discuss the originators of culture. If a designer like Stella McCartney could say ‘these are the places I went to, these are the women who inspired me’, she’d be creating a platform for them.”

Some brands are heeding the call. BMW, for example, has a history of collaborating with Ndebele art legend Esther Mahlangu. Two decades ago, Mahlangu was commissioned to customise the BMW 525i sedan and she recently worked with the brand again, adding her intricate artwork to the BMW 7 series. This year, luxury fashion house Bvlgari collaborated with Senbanjo on a limited-edition fragrance inspired by Africa. Senbanjo adorned the bottle with black and gold Yoruba art. Following the announcement, he posted an image of the packaging to Instagram with the caption: “No one can steal what is mine”.