May 11, 2014

On that use of headdress: does New Zealand have a problem with cultural appropriation?

From the Herald on Sunday:

A new series of artworks by Stephanie Key… has been posted online as she prepares for a major moment in her fledgling career. 
But already one of the pop-art style self-portraits — Key wearing an elaborate pink, feathered, war headdress, lacy pink knickers and a pink modesty star over her nipple — has been criticised for being culturally inappropriate.

That Stephanie happens to be the prime minister’s daughter is irrelevant. The issue is the appropriation and abuse of Native American imagery. Artists who create works that appropriate Native American heritage – here the headdress – are conforming with an abusive tradition in popular culture: the misuse of indigenous histories.

Each headdress comes with a story. Often it’s the story of resistance and survival. The short history of the world is that the West has left very little for the rest. From land to resources to culture, indigenous people have been deprived of their birth rights. For that reason, indigenous people guard what they retain – in this case a cultural and spiritual symbol – and they aren’t keen to see it abused… Again.

Artists who appropriate Native American imagery aren't making art on the edges. It’s actually an act of deep conformism and reveals a lack of imagination. In 2012 No Doubt released a video casually appropriating Native American imagery (during Native American Heritage Month no less) and just this year Heidi Klum posted a picture of herself in Native kit:

But it goes back further than No Doubt and Heidi Klum. As early as the frontier wars in the United States white actors would dress in redface to portray the stupid, sexualised and dangerous natives. The history of Native American culture and settler colonialism is one of abuse. Whether Stephanie intended to or not – she may in fact intend to satirise mainstream appropriation – she channels this dark history of appropriation.

I’ve outlined this short history because the context is important. This isn’t just a matter of a young person being a young person. Artists are responsible for their works, especially where that work feeds the hurt that Native Americans feel – and all indigenous peoples – when their culture, histories and spirituality are appropriated. That becomes more important again when the image not only takes from, but feeds an existing stereotype: (h/t MsMoctavia)

I think Desi Rodriguez Lonebear is right, artists who appropriate owe apologies to Native Americans they take from. If you use a peoples’ imagery you are answerable to those peoples. In New Zealand, there is no excuse for ignorance on this count. We live in a country where indigenous people are a fact and cultural sensitivity is something we pride ourselves on. But the fact that Native American appropriation has happened twice in one week might put a lie to that cultural sensitivity.