Contemporary art and the cutting edge of cultural appropriation

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

Recently, a video on Vimeo by art:broken called “P.A.M.: it’s a white thing too”[1] caused a social media ruckus, mostly in parts of Melbourne, Australia. It’s a video critique of an exhibit in the National Gallery of Victoria by fashion label Perks and Mini (P.A.M.) who the video says “freely use African textile patterns and traditional ornaments, put on performances using didgeridoos and dot painting and casually deface images of Black people” yet are “as white as their $150 t-shirts”. A forum held at a Melbourne contemporary art institution* with other people of colour presenters to a majority white, middle class crowd was the context for which I put together this piece. Pausing throughout my presentation, I briefly projected a series of culturally appropriative artworks with quotes from the artists, their exhibiting galleries or reviewers of their work [2].The quotes in this piece link to the images with image descriptions for those with vision loss who use screen reading software and so people of colour[3] who don’t want to see intense images of anti-blackness, anti-Indigenous expressions and cultural appropriation can avoid them.

Rather than discuss P.A.M. or the individual images, I would like to focus on cultural appropriation’s context and its’ repercussions. I don’t want to pick out P.A.M. as a blemish on top of an otherwise ‘culturally sensitive’ art scene, but instead label them as a currently prominent example within an art scene which embodies, as bell hooks named it, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we live in.

‘Cultural sensitivity’ often seems like a term for white people to feel like they’re consuming people of colour responsibly, while they’re usually still the main benefactors of any ‘cultural exchange’. The conversation around cultural appropriation often seems to focus on how white people can be more ‘culturally sensitive’ in their creative appreciation rather than about prioritising people of colour’s creative expressions un-mediated by whiteness.

“Shields from Papua New Guinea in the NGV collection.. provided an aesthetic catalyst for the artists to develop their own shields…The installation meditates on the form and function of shields from the perspective of a type of reverse ethnography, and allows the artists ‘to incorporate a wide range of responses to making art and being alive now’.”

As an artist practising in the contemporary art world, who is brown, female assigned at birth, and perceived as female, I don’t experience many others who share these experiences represented between the walls of art institutions. Even if I can engage aesthetically and conceptually with the work of many artists, it is rare that I see work that resonates with my racialised, female, experience. This is not surprising given that the majority of artists’ prominent in contemporary art are white cisgender males.

For the majority of artists in the contemporary art scene, white privilege invisibly influences and benefits their work and career yet their work will not be seen as examples of their race nor culture. As a racialised person seen as female, my creative work is thought of as intrinsically related to those identities even when my work doesn’t explicitly explore them. White privilege, especially in conjunction with male privilege, construes to artists a more ‘universal voice’[4], the work able to be engaged with only for its’ aesthetic qualities and intellectual intentions. When white artists appropriate people of colour, their assumed intellectual intention or observational distance lends them greater art world credibility and exposure than the appropriated people of colour.

“It’s a melange of ancient and modern symbols superimposed over epic, colonial-style portraits of “exotic” women. Islamic stars, deaths heads, crucifixes. I know what you’re thinking. But he’s not making a statement on behalf of anyone, or judging colonialists. The women are as much symbols as the other elements are. Everything is laid out on flat planes of meaning. I think it’s voodoo! Or at least documenting the empty vessels of our visual culture that have no will of their own.”

In related contexts where people of colour artists illustrate our racialised experience or reference our cultural forms, our work and our person are subject to an exotifying and anthropological gaze seeking to negate our intellect. This dynamic is amplified the closer our work and, if known, our personal appearance and upbringing, resemble an ‘authentic’ representation of our relevant race. Our subjectivity and supposed instinctual creation of cultural forms seems to make our work less valued than that by white artists who have ‘explored’ outside of their experience to learn, adopt and imitate these forms. The link to colonialism should be obvious when ‘discovery’ seems more valued than lived experience and heritage.

“______’s heavily decorated, highly marketable blue and white paintings borrow from multiple cultures. Traces of imagery lifted from Persian carpets, Islamic tiles and European tapestries all jostle for position with his cross-hatched marks*”
*actually not ‘his’ marks – appropriated from specific Indigenous art

This power dynamic is active throughout the creative arts, though some examples of cultural appropriation get more attention than others. The recent art:broken video critiquing fashion label P.A.M., has engaged many people via internet discussion, with many white people finding it a fascinating and stimulating controversy. I feel it’s important to recognise that, if you’re a white, class privileged person, new to this kind of discussion, it’s not because these discussions haven’t happened before nor that the impact of cultural appropriation hasn’t been felt before. It is likely because your privileges have shielded you and that perhaps the art:broken video was made sufficiently on your terms to be noticed by you. My presence here is as someone who has had access to university education and is class privileged, well schooled in white-dominated, middle class social scenes to translate my experience as a ‘model minority’ person of colour. Not everyone who is impacted by cultural appropriation (and other forms of racism) is able to enter this discussion and translate their experience to people in this privileged space.

I suspect that for many people of colour, these discussions are very far from ‘fascinating’. It is draining to have to articulate how something has resonated negatively with our life experience to people who haven’t thought deeply before about this ‘interesting topic’. Already impacted by the event, we are expected to become even more vulnerable, detailing exactly how what has been done is hurtful and oppressive. Whether the acts are articulated as being done with intention or in ignorance is unlikely to make much difference to their impact.

“With the dots.. I just cant help myself actually”

More likely, we’re reminded of how white privilege allows people to justify de-centring and trivialising the experiences of people of colour– whether that’s through intellectual discussion using academic language that further alienates people of colour with less education and class privilege, or with a ‘Hey, it’s just for fun, lighten up!’ attitude. Focusing on the good intentions of white people makes the act of racism about white experience. There is a long history of good intentions having devastating impact on people of colour, and there is a system that conditions us to prioritise white people’s feelings even when their actions have oppressed us. When white people make art that denigrates our cultures, it reminds us of our position as ‘exotic other’, how our heritage has been affected by colonialism and white supremacy – yet we’re still expected to calmly educate them.

“_______’s sculptures, so suggestive of fictitious primitive artifacts (sic) or future relics of reverence, illustrate her interest in tribal influences as seen through the use of Navajo jingle cones, Maasi (sic) beads and other reconfigurations of ‘tribal aesthetics’”[5]

“infused with voodoo sensibilities, fetishism ideologies and employing an intimate, personal and emotional framework”

So please, white people – don’t ask people of colour to ‘play nice’ and ‘calm down’ about cultural appropriation. This is trivialising of the impact of these violating acts and of what it is to live as a person of colour under white supremacy. It is white people’s privilege to stay calm and supposedly ‘neutral’ in discussions of race. It is easy to stay ‘balanced’ when whiteness is assigned the ‘normal’ position.

Other white artists in an art show, or represented by a gallery, where appropriative art is shown, have privilege to appear ‘neutral’ and not validate the appropriation in the same way as the presence of a person of colour artist. The stereotypes for South Asians are relatively positive and less threatening than those for Indigenous people and Black people from the African diaspora[6] with their heavier legacies of genocide and slavery with colonisation, and as a non-Indigenous person I benefit from the colonisation of the Indigenous lands collectively / colonially called ‘Australia’ – so I have often felt that my invited presence is ‘safer’, ‘less complicated’ proof of white people’s non-racism. I have relative race privilege compared to some, and so I want to be aware that, even when it’s not my heritage being pilfered, my silence condones the appropriation. I left my Melbourne gallery representation because I didn’t want to condone Indigenous art appropriation by a non-Indigenous artist[7]. It should be enough that the Indigenous people whose culture he stole and denigrated called him out to de-validate this artist in the art world.

“A white australian man exposing the seedy underbelly of what has become of the fragile indigenous (sic) population of this country is bound to ruffle some feathers”

However it seems that the way systems of privilege work is that it is not until those of us who are more privileged express concern about the exploitation of those less privileged that it becomes an issue to those with power. A recent reminder of this dynamic is the attention on the Biennale of Sydney over sponsor Transfield’s operation of offshore mandatory detention centres. A letter expressing concern about this arrangement signed by participating artists has seemingly received more media attention and leftist commendation than the continued resistance of people detained inside the centres and the years of lobbying and refugee community support by ex-detainee-run organisation RISE. This can be a disheartening dynamic for marginalised people – to witness the amount of space given in the public sphere to the relatively small efforts by privileged people to speak about others’ exploitation compared to continuous efforts by those resisting their own exploitation. I’m of course not intending to parallel the effect of cultural appropriation with mandatory detention, though they are each different symptoms of white supremacy. Only that, in the context of cultural appropriation, and considering the relationship of capitalism to the arts, it seems that it is privileged people’s responsibility to stop endorsing and consuming culturally appropriative art and fashion.

At any rate, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people about their racism, especially over our own self-care. We are dealing with the effects of white supremacy that manifest in our daily lives far beyond art and fashion, without having to remind individual white people of how they benefit from and exploit the system that oppresses us.

I witness white people sampling whatever they value as ‘cool’ from ‘other cultures’ to spice up their whiteness and transcend their ‘normality’. They may claim they are being transgressive and will be rewarded for their ‘counter-cultural edginess’.

“By mixing primal jamming, worldly influences, and a bountiful release strategy, Sun City Girls spent 25 years defying conventions of structure and taste.”

However, when I make reference to my own cultural heritage my explorations may be seen as ‘natural’ to me and therefore unremarkable or provoke resentment, seen as signs of a failure to assimilate. Yet I was raised in Australia amongst a dominant culture centred on whiteness that encouraged aspiration towards white Australianness over Indianness. After a lifetime of being pitied, bullied, demeaned and exoticised for my brownness, connecting with my heritage comes with complicated emotions and the burden of other people’s expectations of authenticity.

We are so often expected to be representatives of our cultures as if they have been unchanged by the colonialisations of our various homelands, even though we all live on land so obviously changed by colonisation. Witness events labelled ‘multi-cultural’, so often facilitated or funded by white-dominated organisations, where we’re expected to present samples of our traditional dance, music, art, and food, available for consumption by cultural tourists as well as community. Though many of us maintain traditions, there is little room to acknowledge how connection to heritage has been affected by colonialism, let alone for us to be the multi-identitied people each of us are beyond our races.

Witnessing cultural appropriation by white people is re-traumatising of the loss of what colonialism and white supremacy has stolen and altered. When white people indulge in our cultures as if they’re untouched by this reality, as if our heritage has just been ready and waiting for the favour of their post-modern re-hash, they choose to act in denial of their heritage as white people – their connections to colonialism and white supremacy. Like their colonial ancestors, they uproot what they value from its cultural context, without benefit to people connected to that heritage. Yet they often seem to believe, whether ‘celebrating other cultures’ or showing people of colour the same disrespect they show everyone else, that they are proving their ‘post-race’ distance from history and their transgression against structures of power.

“Nothing is sacred, and shouldn’t be treated as such. We believe that as soon as it’s put out there, it opens itself to interpretation, criticism, cynicism, appropriation, ridicule, praise, whatever.”

“It’s no longer a black face. And to begin with it was a face. That’s more important that any projections of race.”

Free from acknowledgement of their privilege they believe they are ‘ruffling feathers for fun’, rebelling against ‘political correctness’ or engaging in their own ‘freedom of expression’. When people of colour ruffle feathers, the consequences are not usually fun. We are not choosing to be ‘politically correct’ when we are affected by cultural appropriation, we are responding to having our experiences of oppression reinforced by others’ ‘freedom of expression’. Cultural appropriation does not equal counter-cultural cleverness, it enables the commodification, de-validation and de-politicisation of people of colour’s creative forms of expression, and of resistance, in the face of racial oppression.


*If you are a white person who learnt something from this post or were at the forum at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces (GCAS), and remember that several POC couldn’t fit in because of your presence, please consider donating some money to the link below because people of colour shouldn’t have to continue to educate for free. The donation bucket, to raise funds for a group of people to get to the World Indigenous People’s Conference and for RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees, stayed empty throughout the event. By the way, the panel was conceived and mostly organised by Javed de Costa of art:broken, not GCAS, including the selection of the panelists who agreed to participate unpaid i.e. there was a lot of free POC labour involved.

Donate to RISE here.


[1] The title is a reference to Richard Bell’s “BELL’S THEOREM: ABORIGINAL ART – It’s a white thing!”

[2] I have deliberately not named most artists featured for several reasons – so as to not give them more space than they already take up in the world; because by naming them they may gain more cultural capital for the ‘controversy’; because when people of colour are appropriated, consent is not often sought / the cultural source is often not credited, and it is rare that individual credit is given; and because this piece is not about naming individuals as sole culprits but about illustrating exploitative dynamics that exist widely throughout contemporary art. To my knowledge all artists are white Australians except for Sun City Girls who were a USA based white cismale performative musical trio whom I have named partly because they had been brought up by a white artist as ‘mind-blowing’ ‘cross-cultural fertilisation’ in a post about P.A.M. and the art:broken video.

[3] Obviously I don’t speak for all people of colour ie non-white people. I acknowledge that within ‘people of colour’, some races experience relative structural privilege, and benefit from and often enact anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity, including myself as a ‘model minority’ brown person. Though all people of colour experience cultural appropriation, the relative severity of structural violence that Indigenous people and Black people from the African diaspora experience is reflected proportionately in their cultural appropriation.

[4] Hennessey Youngman : How to be a Successful Artist Warning: gender essentialism (biology=gender myth)

[5] Jingle cones are part of Jingle Dresses. Read about their significance on the website of the Indigenous Institute of the Americas.

[6] For people not Australia-wise – many Indigenous people in Australia also reclaim the word ‘Black’ so I have written ‘Black people from the African diaspora’ for the Australian context.

[7] Please don’t contact me with praise for leaving the gallery. When non-Indigenous people call me such things as ‘brave’ and give focus to my personal repercussions I feel it minimises the experience of the Indigenous people whose culture has been thieved, and enforces the racist idea of non-Indigenous people as saviours of Indigenous people. And of course Indigenous people don’t need to thank me for doing what should not be a remarkable choice. If you are non-Indigenous, please spend that energy you might have directed at me on holding accountable the artists and institutions who stay complicit in the exploitation of Indigenous art and artists.

I’m new to making images accessible. If the image descriptions (thank you Grace) or format they are in are not appropriate, I’d appreciate feedback, preferably efforts from people without vision loss. Thank you.

Minor changes have been made and footnotes added since the original presentation and more small edits may be made. Thanks to Takiaya Reed for reading the quotes aloud during the presentation.

I currently have chronic repetitive strain injury in hands and other health problems so please don’t expect timely responses or quick comment approval.



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