Friday, November 29, 2019

Cultural Appropriation Redux

Since our dinner with Deb, the subject has been on my mind somewhere towards the back of my mind, until it pushed its way forward for a selfish reason. I follow an FB page that lists NZ exhibition and residency opportunities; I saw one that for whatever reason interested me. It was for a residency not too far from Auckland and yet way out in the beachy New Zealand wilderness, where I could well imagine all kinds of ideas/clues run/fly/swim freely if only one could sit long enough or breathe deeply enough to capture/glimpse even just some.

I wondered what sort of application I would write, in order to justify my sitting amidst native trees and listening to native birds. With minimal weaving equipment at best, I imagined my being the only human in my immediate vicinity, (the venue actually sits in a small community,) and because I was working with the elephants at the time, I imagined working with weavable motifs based on leaves. (Even though nature doesn't motivate me as much as humans and human-made stuff, leaves and sometimes trees interest me.)


Am I, as a relatively recent immigrant, (25 years the week I was thinking this,) allowed to use native New Zealand anything? Who do I consult, how do I find these people, what I do think/feel in the first place? I imagined a Japanese, having spent a formative decade in the US, now living in New Zealand, proposing to cogitate cultural appropriation would make an intriguing application. (I didn't apply, though, because I was frantic about the elephants, not to mention I've never applied for anything in the arts, this was due in 4 days, and I would need time to huff and puff about what/how to write and then consult friends experienced in these rituals. But I solicited and got some good reading recommendations.)

I recall a decade ago, hanging around art school teachers, it was a burning issue. It's made the regular non-art news from time to time, often about the rest of the world appropriating Maori images and words. These days my vague and unscientific observation is, generally/theoretically, just don't steal; the problem becomes... problematic when applied to individual instances; inevitable, since the issue won't exist without individual instances. :-D

(Rabbit Hole warning: Air New Zealand's abject stupidity this year, a wee "nice" recently - although using Maori language in wider community creates another problem, some MSM being astoundingly terrible. Since we came to New Zealand, it's great much more Maori language, words, is heard in the public sphere, but the opposition in a way have come louder as well.)   

I've wrote about it once more here. I have read a few articles and listened to a few podcasts on the issue over the years, but I'm not (re)reading today; I want to put down what I know/feel before further reading/influences. (There will be race-related stuff.)

* One end of the spectrum tells me anyone can use anything. The other end is stickier: don't use unless it's yours, or, you are of it. But what is it one owns? Who owns it? Who is the rightful arbiter? In my case, I was born Japanese, spent a formative decade in Minneapolis, and started cogitating culture in art context only in the last 20 years in New Zealand. Growing up in Japan, I didn't pay much attention to the arts/crafts but lived there, consuming craft according to personal preference. There, craft tradition is strongly related to region, (e.g. pottery, textiles,) "schools", (e.g. floral arrangement, tea ceremony,) and in my days one had to be born into it or apprentice to become a proper practitioner. So, what of Japanese removed from all these? Expats? Or Japanese-(insert-national-adjective)?

* If I am not of it, if I don't own it, am I not allowed to use anything at all? Had I adhered this end of the spectrum, was I allowed to use elephants in the Sri Lankan context? In this world today, is it possible to avoid "foreign influences"?? And if we are to stick with our own thing only, goodness, wouldn't our making, our lives, be utterly... narrow?  

* In the most general sense, non-White/colonized/weaker communities protesting/complaining loudly is a good thing. As a Japanese Ive been fed up with Hollywoody take on all things Japanese since I was a kid, but we were so used to grinning and bearing without the concept/language for cultural ownership. Cultural appropriation, at its worst, conveys/normalizes/sustains racism/classicism. And then there is the issue of monetary value, which commands more column inches.

On the other hand, how did I learn, and what do I know about, well, anybody else? How do I know I know the right stuff? Who do I ask? And here's a very modern conundrum: if the majority of websites, in English or Japanese for me, says one things, is it closer to the "truth"?

Japanese versions of Western things, unless/until we know better, we understand as "translations" of the original; literature does well on the whole, but I can only speak of originally-English stuff I've compared. Dubbing of films shown in cinemas are trickier. And how about this for your amusement today?

* How much does "culture" contain? For example, I can related to, without knowing the minutiae Maori ownership/love/anxiety of nature-based visual motifs, as Japan has similar attachments, although probably less spiritual. Or do I just imagine I understand?

* Because my end-product from my making is visual in the first instance, am I allowed to read stories/histories/myths and listen to music for inspiration, rather than designing based on something I see? Alternatively, am I allowed to use materials connected to someone's culture if I don't imitate the visuals?

* Where is the line between borrowing and appropriation, or are they the same? Where does appreciation fit? How about things I don't know I remember, something I saw a glimpse of, or more often, can't remember in its "entirety" but only in bits and pieces, which I didn't realize originated in or were connected to someone else's culture?

* * * * *

This week I saw the Met Opera film of Turandot. I looked forward to the music and dreaded being force-fed something nasty over some weeks. I confess I cringed a lot at the multi-cultural mishmash of costumes; I saw proportionately greater Japanese influences, and then was struck how little I know of Chinese sartorial tradition. It wasn't so much Puccini that disappointed me, but that it's the Met, in New York, in this century, this decade. But then, if one doesn't want to "appropriate"/replicate, what does one do? Is modifying enough and if so how much? Where does creativity/originality fit?

Later in the season, there is Madam Butterfly; I've already been squirming for weeks; it is the one example I cite most often as horrifying-est appropriation. Shall I go and cringe at what I see, or not go and imagine the worst?

1 comment:

  1. Above-mentioned Kabuki Star Wars starts around 12 minutes in here:


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