Inspiration? Appreciation? Appropriation?
The recent conversation about inspiration and origination of ideas in quilting is fascinating, instructive, and complex. There’s a missing element though that we rarely have a serious discussion about - the question of cultural appropriation. (And if there has been significant discussion and I’ve missed it, I would love to be corrected, though the only thing that comes to mind is the brief controversy over Tula Pink’s Spirit Animal.)
Cultural appropriation is one of those buzzphrases that we hear in popular culture, usually involving Halloween or sporting events, not so much in quilting. Why has it taken so long to have this conversation? I think there are multiple reasons, but the ones that are immediately obvious are the long history of casual appropriation in art and the fact that the quilting demographic is overwhelmingly white and affluent. In the quilting world, especially the modern quilting world, I’m glad to see we are becoming more aware of it as we become increasingly connected and more willing to learn from each other.
So what is cultural appropriation and what does it have to do with quilting? After all, aren’t we all inspired by the things we see around us? At its core, the difference between inspiration and appropriation is informed by the power structures of the society we live in. Specifically, when a dominant culture takes from a minority culture for its own use, there is an imbalance of power, an uneven exchange, that is obvious and often hurtful to that minority culture, something which is not immediately apparent or noticed by the dominant culture, or the appropriator. Many times the appropriator simply cannot understand why one might be offended.
When a white quilter takes a symbol of cultural and historical relevance to a non-white population and uses it out of context for her own gain, that is cultural appropriation. It can also be considered anything from theft to distortion of something sacred to just plain disrespect. To appropriate is to, as a privileged individual, play in the world of a minority culture without an appreciation or awareness of the daily struggles and discriminations of that culture.
Think about some of the trending motifs in the design world, including quilt and fabric design, in recent years. Tribal motifs, feathers, Day of the Dead calaveras. Quilt patterns with titles that include words like tribal, Mayan, native, with no attribution or context given other than that one word. Do these exist within a greater context of cultural appreciation and education, or are they simply appealing to the décor zeitgeist? As quilters, are we being lazy or disrespectful in our design choices or consumption of goods? As artists inspired by other artists, are we taking without attributing? You can see what a huge discussion this could be, much longer than this blog post can contain. But if anything, I hope readers might start thinking about it.
There are ways to engage with other cultures’ artistic ideas and motifs without appropriating them. I think the key lays in education, sensitivity, and acknowledgment.
As a designer:
Be conscious of the choices you’re making. If you see that tribal motifs are popular in home decor and you think “oh, this would sell a lot of patterns,” that’s a problem. If you’re using a symbol with cultural significance, do your research and find out if you’re paying respect to the purpose of that symbol, if you’re using it in an appropriate and meaningful way.
As a consumer:
Do some research into the patterns or fabrics you’re thinking of buying. The lush, stylized prints from Alexander Henry Fabrics come to mind. As a Latina, I can immediately recognize that the designs come from an authentic knowledge of Mexican art and culture. But even if I didn’t know that, a little digging would show that the artists behind the prints, the De Leon design group, are intentional in their understanding and acknowledgment of traditional motifs. "As a fabric company and as painters we feel tied to the tradition of old world textile design,” the company’s about page states. It’s clear in their attention to every aspect of the design. I would feel good buying those fabrics.
Now take a look at this discontinued print from Benartex. It’s ugly not only in design but in its disrespect of the culture it’s exploiting. It is for the white American eye, which is immediately obvious in that the line is called Cinco De Mayo- a holiday celebrated more by Americans in fake mustaches and sombreros than Mexicans. Notice the motifs give a shallow glimpse of Mexican culture, like a cruise ship docking for some tacos and souvenir zarapes. Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Hola, Fiesta. Okay, maybe this isn’t appropriation so much as laziness. Either way, it’s disrespectful of a vibrant artistic culture.
Practice being sensitive to ideas you may not have considered. If this post makes you uncomfortable, or your first reaction is to argue with it, take a minute and be thoughtful about why. Try and look at this issue from a perspective not your own.
Go look at authentic Native American textiles and learn about what’s going on in that world. Find the history and significance of sugar skulls and ask whether you might be upset if that was a symbol of a sacred ritual involving your loved ones who have died.
When you use patterns, motifs, art from other cultures, acknowledge it. Not just with a word, but with a real explanation. If you are using something only because it looks good, rethink that.
The quilting world is increasingly diverse, someday hopefully as diverse as the different pieces of fabric that we join together to make our quilts. This is a conversation we need to be having. A modern quilting community that is informed, understanding, and equitable will benefit us all.