Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Are Perks and Mini ripping off or riffing off African culture?

An exhibit by the Australian fashion company Perks and Mini (PAM) on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as part of its Melbourne Now exhibition has been accused of expropriating and exploiting…

PERKS AND MINI, Melbourne (PAM) (fashion house) Australia est. 2000. Misha HOLLENBACH (designer) born Australia 1971 Shauna TOOHEY (designer) born Australia 1976 Black Gold 2013 spring summer 2013 (still) Collection of the artists. Max Doyle

An exhibit by the Australian fashion company Perks and Mini (PAM) on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as part of its Melbourne Now exhibition has been accused of expropriating and exploiting African culture.

The display features large cardboard cutouts of a white woman dressed in an African style costume. She is posed as if she is performing the steps of a complicated native dance.

A video made by a group calling itself “art:broken” accuses PAM of ripping off themes from other cultures without regard for context or history.

PAM, described by the director of London’s Tate Modern as “one of the strongest fashion designers in the world right now” is known for its playful use of designs and motifs from African, Asian and indigenous cultures.

The critics of PAM are voicing complaints often made against artists, musicians and fashion designers who use styles, patterns and themes from the cultures of indigenous or non-Western communities.

Some critics accuse these artists and designers of theft. In their submissions to a report commissioned by the Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1990–2005) Aborigines complained about the appropriation and marketing of their cultural heritage.

Some supporters of Aboriginal rights think that intellectual property laws should be extended to include ownership of designs, music and legends and other folklore intrinsic to the cultural identity of Aboriginal communities.

Other complaints about appropriation centre on the commercial rewards that white or Western artists and designers reap from the cultures of others. Black musicians in the segregated American South got no recognition for their musical heritage. White boy Elvis Presley was able to make their style of music into a commercial success.

The critics of PAM are particularly incensed by its lack of connection to the cultures from which it draws its material. The implication of this critique is that works based on this material must be inauthentic.

Criticisms of cultural appropriation run up against widely held beliefs about artistic creativity and freedom of artistic expression.

Westerners value artistic creativity and think that it should not be impaired by religious and political restrictions or cultural boundaries. We think that artists should be free to make use of whatever inspires their creativity.

Good artists copy, said Picasso, great artists steal. He made use of African motifs in his paintings. Monet and many other Western artists were inspired by Japanese and Chinese art.

Borrowing does not go in only one direction. Bessie Liddle, Kantjupayi Benson and many other Aboriginal artists in the NGV’s collection of indigenous art make use of Western artistic styles or materials. Black musicians were inspired by Elvis’s style of performance.

Visitors at the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Elvis at 21, in Canberra. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

There is nothing wrong with getting inspiration and ideas from other cultures and traditions. Artistic borrowing enriches cultures. It encourages people to appreciate the culture of others. It challenges traditional ways of doing things.

The proposal to extend property laws to include symbols and themes assumes that cultures are identified by their traditions and are undermined by appropriation. It ignores the benefits of appropriation. It ignores the ability of cultures and heritage to adapt and change.

Borrowing from other cultures is not itself a moral wrong. But that doesn’t mean the critics of cultural appropriation have nothing to complain about.

Works of art and design in Western societies are commodities bought and sold in a world marketplace. Indigenous and non-Western artists and communities are often at a disadvantage. Their heritage can be exploited by those who are well placed to make gains.

It is not surprising that critics regard cultural appropriation as part of a long history of exploitation and expropriation.

Picasso borrowed … and stole. Warren Joel/PR image

Artists and designers are not responsible for this history. They cannot be blamed for taking advantage of commercial opportunities. But the fact they gain from it gives them a moral debt to those individuals or communities who contribute to their success.

They ought to give credit to those individuals and communities who were their source of inspiration.

Elvis Presley was careful to acknowledge the debt he owed to black musicians.

Those who benefit should also make a contribution to the cultural communities that inspired their works. They should consider how they can encourage or add to opportunities of their members for cultural expression.

Another problem identified by critics of appropriation results from a conflict of values. Not all cultures value free artistic expression. In some cultures artistic activity is bound up with religious rituals or ideas about the sacred. It is not difficult to understand how borrowing cultural symbols and patterns can be offensive and disrespectful.

Artists and designers have a responsibility to appreciate the meaning of what they are borrowing and to ask permission when they are in danger of giving offence.

Are the designs of PAM morally offensive? Its critics accuse it of an irresponsible and thoughtless use of cultural motifs. But there is an edge to some its works that belies this criticism. The poses of the woman in its NGV exhibit are studied and awkward, inviting us to recognise that she is playing with a cultural identity that does not belong to her.

The work is about cultural appropriation. It encourages reflection on the very issues raised by its critics.



Melbourne Now is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria until March 23. More details here.

Join the conversation

25 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Give me a break........in art and culture - life probably - everyone steals from everyone else.

    Otherwise culture would be static.

    These arguments of stealing art and culture are just precious attempts to gain attention.

    report
  2. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "Australian fashion company Perks and Mini (PAM) on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as part of its Melbourne Now exhibition has been accused of expropriating and exploiting African culture."
    What on earth is "African culture"? And you have to love the irony of the person complaining about this cultural expropriation and exploitation by exploiting the global reach of Vimeo, a classic sacred expression of US east coast white boy entrepreneurialism and capitalism!

    report
  3. Javed Deck

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Andy Cameron: no, you really don't have to 'love the irony' of someone using Vimeo to critique western capitalist culture. It's pretty superficial. Would you be happier if it was on youtube, where you could get some ads along the side too?

    Stephen John Ralph: Gaining attention, really? By releasing an anonymous video? And nobody – nobody at all – is calling for some lockdown of intercultural exchange here. Just for a bit more responsibility. So your observation that appropriation happens everywhere is really beside the point that is at stake here.

    Janna Thompson: Don't you think that your ability to judge wether the work of PAM is morally offensive is structured by your experience as a privileged, white, university professor? What do you say to people of colour who are morally offended by this? That their experience isn't real? That they don't understand that the artists had 'good intentions' in selling alienating imagery to other white people for hundreds of dollars?

    report
    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Javed Deck

      Dear JD,

      I was responding to suggestions of
      "expropriating and exploiting African culture."

      If a white woman in the West wears a turban is she expropriating and exploiting another culture.

      If anyone but a cowboy wears a pair of jeans ( or a pair of chaps) are they expropriating and exploiting another culture.

      If an African man or woman wears clothing from the West are they
      expropriating and exploiting another culture.

      Get real.

      report
    2. Javed Deck

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      If an African woman wears clothing from the west she is exploiting the west? Really? What if their ancestors were forced to assimilate to western culture? Is that still exploitation? I think the term exploitation is useful when it picks out ways that the taking of something unjustly robs one of something. I don't think anyone in the west can rightly feel robbed if African women wear jeans, that's quite weird. Is that what you're proposing?

      (Plus I think you should research the history of denim before using it as an example ;))

      report
    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Javed Deck

      You're just being sensationalist.

      Who cares who appropriates what.....no-one owns the right to clothing or artistic style.

      Fashion, art, music, and so much more is derivative.

      and btw.....

      >>>>>Jeans are pants made from denim or dungaree cloth. Often the term "jeans" refers to a particular style of pants, called "blue jeans" and invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss in 1873. Starting in the 1950s, jeans, originally designed for cowboys and miners, <<<<<<

      report
    4. Javed Deck

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Plenty of people care who appropriates what. PAM have appropriated the Aboriginal flag, and angered Aboriginal people in the process. You don't care about that?

      And again, for clarity: it's not about an opposition of being derivative versus not being derivative. It's about taking responsibility for what the consequences of appropriating something might be. Pointing at other examples of derivative practice is totally and utterly missing the point at stake here.

      report
    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Javed Deck

      So on Australian Day I see plenty of appropriation of the Oz flag.
      The Union Jack and American flag are everywhere on t-shirts, billboards etc........

      Again it's all so precious - you need to get out more.

      report
    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Javed Deck

      Not at all. But without those there baddie white east coast guys, and their western masculine entrepreneurialism and capitalism these art:broken peeps would be sitting around grass huts all day, with the same faces, day in day out. No exploiting and expropriating white devils to obsess over all day.

      report
    7. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Javed Deck

      Javed your points are examples of the Fallacy of the Deepest Offence.

      report
    8. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Javed Deck

      Javed: "Don't you think that your ability to judge wether the work of PAM is morally offensive is structured by your experience as a privileged, white, university professor?"
      Reply - So what?
      "What do you say to people of colour who are morally offended by this?" Why are yo upset? Harden up.

      report
    9. Paul Miller

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Javed Deck

      "It's about taking responsibility for what the consequences of appropriating something might be"

      I am assuming in this context that 'appropriation' means using, adapting, borrowing, referencing etc, and that if I choose to learn how to play the didgeridoo I am in some way appropriating something from australia's aboriginal culture? Is that correct?

      What would the consequences of my choice be? And in what manner should I take responsibility for that choice? Would those consequences be different…

      Read more
    10. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Paul Miller

      passing it (the didgeridoo) off as your own is the appropriation

      report
    11. Paul Miller

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      "passing it (the didgeridoo) off as your own is the appropriation"

      In what sense do you mean?

      If I claim a valid legal title to the specific instrument I bought or made, are you saying *that* it is the appropriation or that the appropriation only occurs if I somehow pretended that I had invented the overall class of instrument?

      If the former, what are the consequences of my appropriation and in what manner should I take responsibility for them?

      If the latter (although it's such a far fetched idea), again what are the consequences (aside from being laughed at by everybody) and what form should my responsibility take?

      report
    12. Andrew Marshall

      Small Business Owner and Operator

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Yes too right stephen! When people who aren't real aussies get about with an Australian Flag on on AUSTRALIA Day where are these latte police then?

      report
    13. Andrew Marshall

      Small Business Owner and Operator

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Sitting around in grass huts with their dole cheques too! I cant believe how much these people whinge when we Aussies pay for their lifestyles.

      report
  4. Javed Deck

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Janna: Did you actually speak to anyone non-white about this article? Because the way you present criticisms of appropriation is very haphazard, like you are responding to criticisms you imagine people to hold, rather than actually examining any particular critique.

    report
  5. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    having no imagination (or culture) they steal others 'change it by 10%' and volia, it becomes theirs ...

    report
  6. Andrew Marshall

    Small Business Owner and Operator

    Exactly. There is way too much of this anti-white policing going on in the arts these days. When it's obviously not AFRO culture that's under threat, it's AUSTRALIAN culture! In this left-biased climate Aus culture practically needs to look ethnic to get any funding from these ethnic-loving art elites. And who can be angry at a more advanced culture improving on primitive 'art' like simple dot painting?

    report