CULTURAL APPROPRIATION 101
Cultural appropriation is harmful for Indigenous Australian people and culture. But we know that sometimes it’s hard to tell where appreciation ends and appropriation begins. That’s why we developed this guide in consultation with Glenn Iseger-Pilkington (Wadjarri, Nhanda and Nyoongar), written by Education Intern Camille Horton and Museum Educators Lauren Maupin and Fenella Belle.
What is cultural appropriation?
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group uses an element of a marginalized group’s heritage without their permission.
The two main issues involved are power and permission:
Power: When the British invaded Australia, they enacted numerous policies that stole land, livelihood, identity and culture from Indigenous Australians. This created a systemic power imbalance between the dominant group (the British) and the marginalized group (Indigenous Australians). In spite of this imbalance, Indigenous Australians continue to strategically use their artwork to assert their identity, raise awareness about social inequalities and communicate the value of their culture to others.
Permission: While receiving permission from an entire group is impossible, permission given by an individual representative from a group can sometimes be achieved. For example, Djambawa Marawili AM, an esteemed Yolngu leader, artist and custodian, has visited Kluge-Ruhe on several occasions. While here, he led an art-making activity in which museum visitors practiced painting with handmade hair brushes and natural ochres. He gave Kluge-Ruhe permission to educate American visitors on this technique as a way of learning about his art and Yolngu culture. In this case, permission involved:
- the artist’s presence, guidance and consent,
- an environment explicitly dedicated to learning and appreciation,
- context that explained the sacred nature of the patterns and symbols, and
- the allowance for visitors to practice the technique of art-making, but prohibited the borrowing of patterns and symbols.
Read more for more guidance on what is acceptable.
Why is cultural appropriation harmful?
Cultural appropriation is a kind of theft and sacrilege. It contributes to the erasure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture.
Cultural appropriation is a kind of theft because the dominant group is taking the marginalized group’s culture or heritage and using it for its own purposes without permission. Permission is required because of the power imbalance, historically and currently. When this kind of power imbalance doesn’t exist, then groups may be inspired and borrow from one another within the bounds of copyright law. Click here to read our copyright guide.
Cultural appropriation is sacrilege when the sacred meaning of cultural elements or objects is disregarded.
Cultural appropriation erases the contributions of the marginalized group. Once an element of culture is stolen, the dominant culture receives credit (financial, media, social) for that contribution, rather than the original artist or maker and the marginalized culture as a whole. It removes the marginalized group’s authorship and control over their own work, heritage, traditions and stories. Parul Seghal suggests that this leads to “the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible.”
Cultural appropriation can:
- Publicly reinforce the power of the dominant group over the marginalized group.
- Value the cultural material of the marginalized group without valuing or respecting the people themselves.
- Perpetuate harmful and factually inaccurate stereotypes of the marginalized group, which creates misunderstanding and division.
- Prioritizes the dominant group’s opinions over the marginalized group’s self-representation.
- Oversimplifies the marginalized group’s culture.
- Frames the marginalized group as “strange” or “other,” sometimes even implying that they may be threatening.
- Lead to physical violence. Research has shown that forms of cultural violence like cultural appropriation can sometimes lead to and inspire more physical forms of violence and genocide.
Example 1: Copying Aboriginal symbols
Art classrooms and workshops around the United States commit the crime of cultural appropriation daily by encouraging children and adults to use Aboriginal symbols in their work. Often the teacher or workshop leader will reference a common but misleading worksheet of Aboriginal symbols without providing proper context or further information. Because these symbols (concentric circles made with dotting, U shapes, etc) have many meanings, are sometimes sacred and are specific to Western Desert cultures, it is considered cultural sacrilege and theft to use them. No permission is granted in these cases, nor would it be.
Example 2: Mitjili Napurrula and Urban Outfitters
Commercial businesses have been culturally appropriating and profiting from Indigenous designs for many years, often without repercussions. In April 2020, Urban Outfitters released a new outdoor rug that clearly stole its design from Pintupi artist Mitjili Napurrula. Click here to see a list of ways that Urban Outfitters has stolen the designs of others.
Example 3: The Netflix original 'After Life'
The Netflix original After Life was criticized because it prominently features a large painting that clearly appropriates the symbolism of Aboriginal art from the Western Desert. Many fans searched the internet to track down the artist, assuming it was Aboriginal art. Members from the community of Papunya accused the English artist of stealing their technique and cultural iconography. In this case, the English have historically been dominant over Aboriginal people, creating the power imbalance, and permission was not sought from Aboriginal artists, nor would they have granted it.
How do I avoid cultural appropriation?
Where is the line between appropriation and appreciation? There is not a simple answer. The line is constantly moving and it depends on the circumstances. Here are some questions to help you identify whether something is appropriation or appreciation:
- Are you involving Indigenous people or their voices in what you are doing? If there is a way to involve Indigenous people from the group you are representing (hire them as a guest speaker/artist/participant), we suggest this be your first course of action. It is always better when people are representing themselves and their own culture. If this is not possible, we suggest you do research on the artist and their artwork, and incorporate direct quotes or videos whenever possible.
- Are you perpetuating stereotypes or challenging them? There is a long history of non-Indigenous people representing Indigenous as “backwards,” “primitive” “uncivilized” and other factually inaccurate and derogatory ideas. If your project supports these deeply troublesome stereotypes, you might be committing the offense of cultural appropriation.
- Are you giving credit where credit is due? Crediting the Indigenous artist or movement whenever possible allows you to be inspired while simultaneously respecting the culture and promoting the artist, language group or movement.
- Have you done research on the art form to discover what is sacred and what is public? You should read about the artist, artwork or movement before using it as a starting point for inspiration. If you read anything that addresses the subject matter or patterning as sacred, or secret/sacred, or ceremonial in nature, you should not be using that material as inspiration.
- Are you copying directly or using something as inspiration? Representing one’s own story, using one’s own symbols and iconography, and trying, exploring or learning about the art-making techniques of another culture is a way of appreciating that culture. Copying symbols or copying the entire composition of an artist’s work is considered cultural appropriation and potentially breaches copyright law.
- Are you being specific or general? There is not one “Aboriginal art style” — Aboriginal art is very diverse! If you are inspired by “dot painting,” then you are not inspired by “Aboriginal art” but rather by the Western Desert art movement that was founded at Papunya in the early 1970s, which is often characterized by the use of dots. Your exploration of this style should include learning about the specifics of the place, time, people and culture.
- Do you think you’re creating “Aboriginal art”? If you are a non-Indigenous person and you’re exploring a technique used commonly by an Aboriginal artist, you are not creating “Aboriginal art.” Aboriginal art is any art made by an Aboriginal person, so only an Aboriginal person can make Aboriginal art. If you thought you were creating your own “Aboriginal art,” then please take time to read the resources below to understand the particulars of Aboriginal people, culture and art before moving forward.
What are some more resources on this topic?
This guide is just a beginning! The best way to avoid cultural appropriation is by deepening your understanding of the nuances and issues around this topic. Interested in copyright and how it relates? Check out our guide on copyright.
- Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property: Arts Law’s Artists in the Black Service
- What I Hear When you Say: Viewing Guide (PBS)
- Fighting Erasure by Parul Sehgal
- Cultural Appropriation Without Cultural Essentialism? by Erich Hatala Matthes (Social Theory and Practice Vol. 42, No. 2, Special Issue: Dominating Speech)
- Cultural Violence by Johan Galtung (Journal of Peace Research Vol. 27, No. 3)
- What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm by Maisha Z. Johnson (EverydayFeminism.com)
- Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation by James O. Young (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 63, No. 2 )