Who Owns Culture?

When Tanisha Ford spoke to our class, she mentioned that we need a new way to talk about appropriation. Appropriation has always been around, and will always be around; endless backlash hasn’t stopped Western designers from seeking “inspiration” from other cultures, both from the developing world and in “ethnic” subgroups of America . The problem with talking about appropriation is that we are talking about cultural and social activities as a performance as opposed to a creation.

The Maasai tribe of Eastern Africa are instantly distinguishable by their traditional, and bright garb. Nearly eighty percent of the tribe lives below the poverty line. The  Maasai to distinguish themselves from modern society through their traditional lifestyle and cultural identity. In this sense, the way they use fashion is not unlike its use in African American culture as a “form of cultural-political resistance and creative self-expression.” Massai

^^The Maasai in their traditionally grab– bright colors and lots of bead work

In the US, the mainstream fashion industry appropriating this “politically-influenced soul style”, just as the Maasai’s cultural “soul” has been commercialized by numerous Western designers, including  Land Rover (a range of accessories are under the Maasai name), speciality sneakers from Maasai Barefoot Technology and Louis Vuitton (beach towels, hats and scarves are found in their Maasai line). Pharrells’ GQ England spread is one of the most brash displays of Maasai appropriation <http://dynamicafrica.tumblr.com/post/99475751018/pharrells-gq-masai-inspired-cover-sparks-outrage> .   Christian Louboutin

^^These are Christian Louboutin heels inspired by the Massai


 ^^This is Dior Couture’s “Masai Dress” Pharrell

^^Oh Pharrell, why?

Interestingly, the Maasai are responding to this appropriation by attempting to trademark their cultural creation. The tribe has recently filed an intellectual property suit. Their success is determinate on who can own culture; the community that created it, the community that absorbed it, or the community that purchases it? The Maasai clearly believe themselves to have proprietary rights; Ole Tialolo, a leader and elder of the Maasai tribe, issued a statement saying, “I think people need to understand the culture of the others and respect it…You should not use it to your own benefit, leaving the community, or the owner of the culture, without anything. If you just take what belongs to somebody, and go and display it and have your fortune, then it is very wrong…very wrong.”

If they win, they intend to literally turn their culture into cultural capital and sell it as a traditional commodity. The Maasai’s suit clearly has implications for ethical fashion and mutual benefit globally, it can also apply to American sub-groups. African-American “soul style” is created out of a Marcus-Garvey/back to Africa inspired idea of Africa; one that can be marked through specific patterns, hair styles, and beauty displays. Just as the Maasai’s fashion system is a creation, African-American fashions can also be viewed as creations.


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