Sunday, May 1, 2016

Ten + 1 / Cultural Appropriation

Yesterday was Unravelling's tenth birthday. I intended a special post and for a few months auditioned topics/projects/giveaways, drafted posts and looked at photos, but nothing stood out. Because in a weaver's life, I feel, ten years is nothing but an "approach run". (Really? There is not the one word to describe the few steps athletes takes before they do the deed, that short run; or are my online Japanese-English dictionaries bonkers??) By the afternoon not mentioning the birthday looked to be the best option, but that felt... dishonest, so here I am. Thank you for your presence in the last ten years, be it for most of it, since last week, or here and there occasionally.

That taken care of, I want to record a mishmash of thoughts I've collected in the last few months/years which seem to belong to one category/direction, which in the current parlance, could loosely be labeled "cultural appropriation".

Warning: I'm going to consider race and other potentially offensive stuff because I lack the latest appropriate vocabulary but am still interested, also because I believe people involved in "arts" are open to discourse and expressing opinions over politics and being the smartest guy in this tiny room. But if you are sensitive, you might want to walk away.

Let's see how many I can remember:

1) Cultural appropriation in New Zealand art education; I don't know how it is now, but basically the word then was, if you're not from that group, don't use it. This was my first introduction to the concept although it makes the news here from time to time. How about newer, more "international" stuff, though? Hip hop/rap?

2) Before I went to Japan in February, I looked up exhibitions and bookmarked a bunch, the most interesting being one of textiles/garments used in or related to superstition/voodoo and protection. I didn't read the details then, but from memory the exhibition was to be held in a fashion/art school gallery, showing items from Asia or "The Third World". When I finally had time to go, the link was invalid and I could not for the life of me find anything, but the idea of garment as protection and/or infused with magic intrigued me. It also tied in nicely with my pet peeve of textiles (other than symbolic garments/fragments,) not being represented enough in ethnological/history museums because they are often not seen as valuable. (I know, they don't last as well as hard stuff.)

3) General lack of knowledge/research/care of places/people/cultures/things we are nevertheless sincerely interested in/inspired by; what's the right way, how much is enough, and if/when we learn, what's the right balance of sensitivity vs. change/innovation/creativity? Were, for example, cave paintings available to everybody in the respective communities or only to a subset? I've been a fan of Torres Straight Islands' carvings/masks since 2001 but they were hard to find in Australia; do they have tribal/ritual/spiritual/(religious) meaning and/or simply should be hidden to outsiders? I know some West African masks are hard to see for this reason. Is it OK for outsiders to take them out of context/place, be shown far away/traded for money vs educational benefit? How do we reconcile today's technology with knowing what is accurate; who do we ask and who can approve of what we do? How do we know when we've appropriated if something magical was embedded in our subconscious way back?

4) This weekend a couple of issues popped up on Facebook, one being Beyoncé's new video and the other George Takei's objection to Tilda Swindon being cast as a "Tibetan/Nepalese superhero" hat-tipping to the Chinese government/market. I don't know much about Beyoncé nor about yet another superhero film, but I read a few op-eds and free-for-all comments. Is it appropriation, (i.e bad,) when the majority ("Whites") take from minorities but adaptation (i.e. good,) in the other direction? Is it OK if the borrower pays the originators, if this possible? Is there a societal norm/standard to which every member is automagically exposed? Oh, what about all the food we all appropriate and adapt? (Do you know how many neighborhood eateries serve "curry" in Japan??) I tend to favor political correctness because I think it propels us, but re. "art", does it also hinder, perhaps unnecessarily, and if so, where do we place import?

5) My struggle with my own lapsed-Japanese-ness. I loathe "Western" oversimplification: of samurai; of feminine (sexual) submissiveness; of kimono where authentic is more appropriate; of our presumed penchant for minimalism; of haiku, et al; and the recent boro craze. (Likewise I cringe at the entertainment/media/political take on Arab=Muslim=terrorist, including lumping Kiwi and other darker actors in Arab roles, Russia=bad, etc.) Yet in many cases, I don't have much information, I haven't researched enough, and can only tell you, "Because it's not true/it's just wrong or in bad taste/you have to be Japanese to understand." In other words, sometimes it's only my gut feeling. But don't we trust gut feeling of others when their culture is involved? On the other hand, I appreciate the seemingly less-filtered appreciation of Japanese art by 19C Impressionists, or aizome/indigo-dye works and techniques shown together with techniques and aesthetics from other places. I've thought about by feelings but they're feelings and I don't have good answers.

6) How Japanese am I? How anything? Can I, from urban Yokohama, speak for or take part in preserving, (by way of talking about,) say, Ohshima Tsumugi, an ikat tradition from Okinawa? When I "talk" about it, for the most part I look research online, books if I have any, and translate, with emphasis on conveying meanings and nuances rather than accuracy of lexicon, but I'm seldom if ever reviewed by others. (I do correct when I find I've been wrong or misleading.) How responsible am I as a Japanese talking about things Japanese, vs. how important is it for anyone to keep traditions alive any way possible?

How about other people who move around, or have mixed heritage? I'm thinking not only of the ease of travel and ever-handy technology, but also of Japanese who immigrated to Brazil three-to-generations ago, who maintained the culture better than us; Japanese linguists studying Okinawan dialects which has maintained more from Japanese of the Tale of Gendi era, or Swedish scholars who came to Minnesota to study older versions of their language. Is older always more authentic?

7) Japan has, in spite of claiming a whole lot of things as "traditionally Japanese", an astonishing history of bringing in foreign concepts/technology/aesthetics and molding it to our liking. The indigenous population of Japan were Ainu, of whom a handful remain in Hokkaido; the rest of us, we don't exactly know where we came from; a mix of people by land from the Korean peninsula, by sea from around Taiwan and the Philippines, and even up north from Russia, is the going theory. Influences first came from China/Korea, India and Persia, (rice production and Buddhism being two biggies,) and then from the West after 1548, (Catholic Christianity and medicine are of note,) and a whole host of others since 1868. After WWII our education system and contents were dictated by the Allies, so that sped things up considerably. in all facets of life and from a young age. I'm astounded Confucianism stayed, but then we are secular in the main and religion as philosophy doesn't really stick, just the rituals. As a Japanese, am I careless in adopting/stealing? How does this relate to my feeling I never have an original thought?

8) I prefer inclusiveness, so when some NZ schools banned hot cross buns before Easter some years ago, my take was, keep the buns but celebrate other significant celebrations also and get them started early. I used to enjoy the annual Dewali party started by a few Indian families in Nelson, but when I read this year that Passover feast has become a thing among non-Jews as well, I wondered how Jewish people felt, how many people that one label covered; I felt sad for them without knowing why. How would Maori feel about making Matariki, their New Year, an all-of-New-Zealand celebration, how many do we ask, who do we believe?

9) I am also for authenticity, at least for the old stuff to remain alongside the new. Even when Bamiyan's Big Buddha was destroyed, even while museums in Bagdad and Cairo were ransacked, I thought treasures should remain close to their origins, should be actively and quickly repatriated, rather than stay in London, Berlin, Tokyo. Syria of late has shaken this belief: I was working at the Syrian embassy in Tokyo as a translator in '83/'84 when an NHK (Japanese public broadcaster, now government mouthpiece,) documentary team got the first ever permission as as a Western/international (?) team to show Palmyra, even from air with the help of their military. (They even covered the paved highway with sand for us so the approach by car looked more dramatic, er, "authentic".) Everybody was under Assad Senior then, so there's that, but goodness, I learned about the scale and condition of the sites and have intended to visit one day. And now I can't help wondering if someone had pillaged the city even in small parts...

10) What am I allowed to do? And should I change or maintain traditions/styles/aesthetics if I claimed to be inspired by something? How much?

I'd really like to hear from you. Ask me anything you want, tell me anything you like, but if you do, it'd be great if you can give us a little of your background. And let's not take personal/political offence, but feel free to express our honest thoughts. I really would appreciate hearing from you.

17 comments:

  1. This relates to copyrights, too, doesn't it? Can I rearrange, say, Bach and play crazily in a dirty bar? Pop up Gregorian chants and wear revealing clothes, (OK, not me but someone young and attractive)? Can I do that with tribal/ethnic chants? Shakespeare in other languages?

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  2. Here it is the aboriginal art forms that get appropriated. I will occasionally purchase designs but never attempt to incorporate any in my own work. I am not of that culture, I don't understand the significance. OTOH, I have been asked to do textiles for a local Ukranian dance troupe. I researched the 'typcial' textiles and made something that looked as much like what they wanted as possible. I don't doubt that the research done for those 'costumes' affected me to some extent.

    Essentially I don't really have any answers for you. We much each do what we feel is right...

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    1. I have read of First Nation traditions being appropriated. As for your Ukrainian dancers, if they asked, it's not a problem, sure? I am so attracted by many things from other places, though, and I don't really have a whole lot of original ideas. Sometimes I'm not sure what "feels right" to me. Oh, dear.

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  3. I guess you went to the Amuse Museum in Tokyo at some point? As far as ethnological textile museums go. I thought it was really interesting. I didn't know much about the history of boro or kimono before I went there. http://www.amusemuseum.com/english/

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    1. I blame them for glorifying textiles that I'm not sure should be seen in public, especially the futons. That to me is in bad taste, because they deliberately place themselves ambiguously as an art venue in Japanese. I found it astonishing later that in English they call themselves ethnographic. Still, I appreciate Western cultures showing us the technique and modern use of quilting, and I love recycling/repurposing, so go figure. I'm an enigma to myself.

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    2. By lack of presence in museums, I mean very generally, in national and regional museums, where we see more things like coins, statues, things made of stone or even wood. And books/scrolls. In places I've been to.

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    3. One more. From memory, Amuse is owned by someone who owns (a chain of?) bars, ergo the top floor becomes a bar with young women entertaining in kimono. At least that's what we saw advertised when we were there. It's a uniquely Japanese curious mixture of artifacts, art, (ukiyoe,) and low-end "entertainment". That's not me being prude but there are, like many places, finely defined class of entertainment in Japan. It's wonderful Mr Tanaka's massive collection found a house, but there wasn't strong scholarship demonstrated backing the exhibits. Also interesting it appears to be more popular among overseas visitors, but then that, too, is just my gut feeling. Mom thought it was more a amusement facility than a museum.

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  4. Actually going to Japan made me understand so much more (obviously) and one thing I really did not know was that kimonos were worn during the day for outings. One thing I was really surprised to see was women dressed up with so much care and perfection in traditional garb to visit contemporary art exhibitions. That seemed like a juxtaposition to me. I would like to know more about the significance of wearing the kimono. They obviously aren't like 'national costume' that you see in some countries, trotted out for particular days of nationalistic pride. I saw women and men dressed up in (I think) hired traditional costumes to visit temples in Kyoto, but others in Hiroshima, Osaka and Tokyo just out visiting galleries, not so much being tourists.

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    1. Kimono was the only garment until at around 1868 for both genders, though we had other items like mompe pants to augment the wardrobe for physical labor. As late as the 1980's my grandmother had one Western-style dress, but wore kimono almost always. Currently kimono is reserved mostly for: 1) special occasions, so tons at graduation, school entrance ceremony, (the other end of graduation,) many at weddings, Coming of Age Day, (for 20 year old in mid-January), and some at funerals, 7-5-3 days and the first visit of a baby to a temple/shrine; 2) for special occupations, including sumo wrestlers when not wrestling, people in certain performance arts, also tea ceremony and flower arrangement teachers, people in certain hospitality/entertainment jobs. Older generation may tend to wear more often, it's not as clear cut as you might imagine, and I have no idea about regions or urban vs. rural. Most generally they are worn on special occasions, like one's Sunday Best, which can apply to anywhere outside your house. When I was a kid many wore it to department stores or to school on parents' days.

      There was a big resurgence among then-young girls after the industry simplified the garment and made them in machine-washable fabrics and department stores marketed them eagerly. I see that that's worked and proportionately more young girls wear them for casual outings to this day. Possibly those of us, oh, mid-50's upwards missed out the most because during the post-War growth, we were busy and had little money to spend on ourselves and were in some ways coaxed to Westernize the most, and we did so eagerly. But that's just my feeling; although I visit, I didn't live in Japan during high school/college and I've been in New Zealand since 1994.

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  5. Good questions, Meg, and many well-thought points. I have pondered cultural appropriation over the years because here in the US I see it so much with our First Nation people's culture. The most obvious in my mind right now is the way the Boy Scouts dress up and dance/behave like tribal peoples. (Check out this Pinterest board) http://pin.it/UmVUUTT
    Native Americans have had almost every aspect of their culture appropriated by non-natives including their arts, music, sacred ceremonies and even their language. I understand their anger and frustration. Yet as a member of a melting-pot society, a 4th generation American of Irish and German descent, what is my culture? I ask myself that all the time, especially when I am making my own art, or looking at other's art.

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    1. I have thought about the "white" people, especially in the US and Canada. As a student I enjoyed learning all my friends' ethnic backgrounds. Though Western art's isms may or may not be cultural, supposing they are related, they tend to be associated with places, so how about if you felt for a period to look at Impressionism, or me Expressionism? Some Impressionists and especially post-impressionists were influenced by Japanese prints, (<>cltural?) and many Japanese painters went to Paris to study around that turn of the century to study what was going on there.

      I don't know what it's really like to be a painter or sculptor and to try to invent a new way, but on the loom, goodness, we are restricted, and references to forebears include a whole lot of ethnic and regional textiles. ... Yikes.

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    2. And Chinese. My friends in MN.

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  6. So much to think about, thank you for providing such a thoughtful topic. I am an Irish-Italian American, married to an English-German-Dutch American. My granddaughter has had Polish and Native American added to the mix. Being in a country that both celebrates being a melting pot while discriminating against immigrants, these are timely questions. I enjoy going to museums and seeing work from other cultures, yet it bothers me when I sacred items displayed. There needs to ba a respect for the original intent of an object. I'm okay with multicultural influences in music, fashion and art, but we need to acknowledge those influences and value them.

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    1. The US that I knew, (Minnesota in the 70's) was largely about the good parts of the melting pot. In my high school we had Vietnamese and Lao refugees, Native Americans, African Americans, (though looking back, I never asked which part of Africa, and I wonder if they knew,) as well as Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, Irish, English, Scottish, (nobody identified as Welsh that I can remember,) Polish, Jewish and Japanese, (and that's what I can remember 40 years on,) and most could tell me their individual ingredients down to 1/16. I thought that was wonderful. It makes the current tide against newer immigrants all the more despicable because the proponents should know better.

      Your thoughts on sacred objects reminds me of last Saturday when we went to this tiny Indian market/store. I wanted to go to look at their dried beans, (with richer colors and more variety than the local organic or foodie places,) and spices. Most of these were in bulk or in small plastic bags with the computer print out stickers. But hear the entrance were these lovely boxes of what I thought were spices or spice mixes, but thank goodness, there were descriptions in English. Some contents may have been edible, but they were intended as offerings to the god/s. And in deference I didn't get any, but from memory the owner of the shop was open to any questions. (On Saturday I think it was his staff that minded the place. His English wasn't that good, or he couldn't be bothered answering, so we didn't get the info we wanted on teas.)

      I was raised Catholic, in Japan, but I've been an agnostic since around 14, my mom long before that. For me, museums have been a safe place to learn about other religions and believes because I assumed, (and perhaps erroneously,) that public institutions were secular when describing objects related to beliefs. I take your point about sacred objects, but are they OK in their respective institutions? Can/should we ask to be let into religious institutions other than our own to see them? How long do sacred objects remain sacred, in relation to, say, pagan beliefs, which in may places, including Japan, are still embedded in the life and thinking. Where do we position icons? How about repurposing religious buildings? It is endless. But what you said at the end, acknowledging influence, that has got to be easy for the makers, and we should all do it, and ask it of other makers as one small way of valuing what/who went before us.

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  7. Interesting topic, Meg! I should marshal my thoughts for a proper contribution to the discussion, but I wanted to say 'Happy 10th birthday' to Unravelling before the cake is completely eaten. Well done on keeping it going for a whole decade!

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    1. Ah, thank you, Cally. It was another too-many-lime cheesecake. :-)

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