Cultural appropriation and representation
by David Leland· November 22, 2018
There are huge issues in need of our urgent attention these days, and the way we deal with these may well determine whether this species can survive on this planet. Hence, it may seem trivial that an old bunch of statues, masks and drawings should be returned to their original locations and originating societies
However, if we look at the world through the lens of ownership, we may extend that idea of dominion and control from the people, to their creations, and all the way to the land they have inhabited for untold ages. Cultural appropriation, or more accurately misappropriation, is nothing more or less than the taking, at the point of a sword or gun, of the social expressions of a group of people. It is just a step away from the taking of the people themselves, on the one hand, and a different step away from enslaving that group of people in place, in the theft of resources from their land.
All of these things were done by the empire-building colonists who spread out from Europe in the “Age of Discovery” from the late 1400s to the late 1600s (Australia was 1770!). They were “discovering” that the world was already inhabited, and that those people already knew much about their lands. By dint of superior firepower and transportation, Europeans seized the day, and seized control of large portions of the planet. We have to recognize that the balance of power shifted then, but we do not need to be captives of that situation for the rest of our time on Earth.
This era we are in now may someday become known as the “Age of Reckoning”, on an environmental level, all the way down to a linguistic level, with diet, culture and style/fashion as aspects in between those extremes. It is up to us, as a species, and as individuals, to come to grips with the legacies we are lumbered with, and set things to rights in the world.
In our efforts to turn wrong to right, we need to be comprehensive, and honest. Where there are items of cultural value which everyone knows have been essentially stolen from other countries by the use of force, we must understand that it is wrong to retain such things. It is no different than looking at stolen items held by a thief, and seeing that they are returned to their rightful owners.
There is much agreement the “Elgin Marbles” should be returned to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, and the items looted from China during the “Century of Humiliation” need to be returned to China. The current stature of these countries may well have an influence on the outcome of decision making about patrimony and repatriation. However, it should not simply be decided by the current balance of economic or military power, whether the items carried out of South America or Africa should be repatriated.
The United Nations has long been a forum where repatriation has been advocated for. Despite the current USA administration repudiating the UN on many levels, it retains its predominant influence on the world as a beacon of hope and an arbiter of the greater good to be had on the World Stage, such as it is.
Although the definition of the World Stage has always been based in the matter of financial wealth and military power, it is recognized that giving overmuch credence to such matters has led the world into repeated carnage and devastation, from which we can only save ourselves if we understand the fleeting nature of might, and the enduring requirement that people from all over the world find positive ways to work together. It is precisely here that the issue of misappropriation of cultural iconography comes into consideration. It gets right down to such matters as the Italians might have with their treasures returned, though may yet be asked to return the four triumphal horses from St. Marks in Venice, back to Turkey, from whence they were taken in 1204.
It is in this situation, then, that we arrive at the present-day controversy over the issue of France’s repatriation of various African pieces, to various nations and societies. How is it that we would want to go to France (Paris and Southern coastal cities) to view African artwork? When we go to Europe to view African, South American, East and Middle-Asian artistic and religious pieces, we do it with the overhanging sense of the dreadful violence which surrounded their placement in these places. It honestly does not feel good, and certainly does not make one feel good about the “host” country, that these things remain in their possession, despite our common membership in the United Nations, in the European Union, and indeed, in the brotherhood or mankind. For this overarching reason, dealing forthrightly and expeditiously with repatriation is what really needs to happen.
The cultural colonialism of Africa has subjected it to such through-going discrimination, that the very imagery with which it is depicted is slanted away from normally healthy depictions of ordinary life, and dominated by scenes of poverty, deprivation, violence and exploitation. While it is true that Sub-Saharan Africa has these things going on, it twists the truth to say that such is all one might see while there.
In order to bring some normalcy to the world’s understanding of African life, a couple of African entrepreneurs have started a uniquely African image bank, AfricanStockPhoto. They are running it in a way that benefits the photographer by allowing them to retain copyright, and the end-user pricing is conducive towards a good volume of exposure. They don’t pretend to be the world’s largest stock photo agency, but they are doing well with their positive cultural mission.
The current focus on Africa is a good sign, that maybe Europe is reckoning with their past in positive ways, and that a better world actually is possible. While we know that a positive development is not forever, and not happening everywhere, some positives are indeed the reality, even with the continued bloodshed, slavery, economic subjugation and resource expropriation which is going on. With some greater understanding, we may work against those wrongs more honestly, faithfully and enduringly. Though the internet is being proven to be a similarly dangerous place, as it is fraught with hazards for children and democracies alike, it can also facilitate greater understanding about and between peoples.