As I carelessly skimmed through a recent news report, engrossed in the labyrinths of the virtual world, a certain article, in a matter of seconds made me lose my sangfroid, something which is highly common amongst us – the knee jerk reaction givers of the 21st century – we holler and hasten towards an unthinking emotional reaction without giving a solid thought to why the situation is the way it is. Immersed in our angst and anxiety, we love swimming on the surface of all kinds of happenings taking place around the girth and the gamut of our existence. People say, honest communications are the ‘operative word’ but what does one do when the so-called honest communications are reduced to a cacophony of ‘you are a cheat - NO you are a cheat’ kind of brawls on most mainstream mass communication mediums.
So the article that triggered a reaction within me is – don’t laugh and don’t judge – is that Kim Kardashian was recently called out for wearing a ‘mang tikka’ and bangles in one of her Instagrammy type pictures. For those who don’t know what a ‘mang-tikka’ is, just for clarity, it is not a gourmet version of chicken tikka, it is in fact a traditional piece of jewelry worn by South Asian women and it extends from the head to the forehead because of its chain-like structure. She was seen wearing a long grey maxi skirt along with a crop top, teamed with chunky gold bangles and the intricate piece that caused quite a Twitterati stir - the ‘mang tikka’. She was accused of ‘cultural appropriation’, blamed for committing a theft - for using someone’s culture in order to make a mark in the star-spangled land of fashion and style.
Now, I don’t give two hoots about Kim, never did, never will, as she’s not the kind of content I usually consume, but the knee-jerk reaction was a result of espousing an ideology that signalizes - why isn’t anybody allowed to wear whatever they want to. I got a little livid, then a little passionate about the cause, followed by slipping deeper into the whole mystery.
What is cultural appropriation in the first place? Here’s the technical definition.
The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of a certain section of people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
You can also check out this lovely video link which explains cultural appropriation in a simplified way.
The conundrum here is how does one draw the line in art – art is experimentative, art is constantly going beyond the boundaries, art is usually the perfect paradigm of freedom, a bird spreading out its wings in the most elegant manner. Does art also need to be accountable and responsible? Responsible in the kind of a measured way, in which the artist is constantly tweaking and modifying so that no one gets hurt.
This is where rationality stems and grows like a sturdy vine – we live in a real-world and even a creative, feisty and a free speech spewing artist is never going to be untouched by how the world functions. If you are displaying your work and your individuality upfront, you are answerable no matter what – this step doesn’t get eliminated. But the question is what after this? Do we just keep shouting ‘free speech’ and ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘censor this’ and ‘censor that’ from our comforting rooftops, or we try and have really tough conversations, bare our souls and acknowledge people who feel pain because of our artistic actions. Kimmi’s style could be someone’s sentimental values, and some other artist’s style could be some community’s struggle to represent themselves and be heard and seen.
We need to ask ourselves some tough questions too - are we celebrating diversity or simply appropriating cultures and using it out of context.
Maybe the onus is on every privileged person to detect an imbalance because of his/her artistic work, whenever one arises, of course, followed by elevating people affected by it rather than turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to them. You may ask why is anyone even obliged to do all this painstaking work. The thing is we are all interdependent, believe it or not. The kind of social practices we indulge in is directly proportional to the kind of society we are creating for ourselves and our future generations. In fact, the kind of leaders and influencers society produces also hinges upon this very crucial fact.
Representations matter, and the way art represents communities also matters because from kids to adults – everyone is influenced by it. We need to choose, do we want to injure them for life or have some tough, authentic, and genuine conversations with people who have been hurt because of an artist’s representations. Actor Marlon Brando exemplifies this situation perfectly. In 1973, the actor boycotted the Oscars ceremony and refused to accept his best actor award for ‘The Godfather’, he instead sent Sacheen Littlefeather – a little-known actress and the then president of National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, in his place. The reason was that Brando was disappointed with the way Native Americans were represented and portrayed in movies. They weren’t just used constantly as extras but were also refrained from playing consequential roles. It was his form of a meaningful protest that goaded the film bigwigs to think in a certain direction.
In this minefield of tension-filled history and contemporary sneaky versions of ethnic destructions, art is bound to lose its way somewhere in incomprehensible connotations of what constitutes the meaning of the word ‘ownership’. Maybe we can talk about inclusive programs along with horrific pogroms too, maybe we can blissfully make those cornrows, make those scrumptious sushis, drape sarees in the most creative way, and wear pretty mang-tikkas too, but with a sense that we are here to personalize and not decolonize. Maybe we can create more trust rather than shattering trust one tweet after the other, one Instagram post after the other.
What are your views on cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, how does one bring about a sense of balance, is it just the artist’s responsibility to have a healthy dialogue or the virtual world needs some guidelines too when it comes to taking responsible actions?