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.