Laura Gascoigne: Narrow Lanes to Nowhere

Rihanna is in trouble again. This time she has offended ‘the Hindu community’ by wearing a pendant featuring the elephant god Ganesha, a fashion choice denounced on Instagram as ‘mad disrespectful’. The Barbadian singer should have known better. She has previous in the fashion department, having already upset the Chinese community by dressing up in ancient Chinese costume for a music video and the Mexican community by donning ‘chola’ dress for Halloween. 

You know that a point of etiquette has gone mainstream when it reaches the pages of Good Housekeeping. Eighteen months ago the magazine ran a column asking: ‘What Is Cultural Appropriation Exactly, and How Do I Avoid it?’ advising readers: ‘Here’s link how to avoid a cultural faux pas’. Exactitude being hard to achieve in an imprecise science, after a loose definition of the term – ‘when a person from one culture adopts the fashion, iconography, trends, or styles from another culture’, especially ‘when the culture being appropriated is that of a historically oppressed group’ – the author confined herself to advising readers on avoiding American Indian, Rastafarian and geisha costumes at Halloween parties, and attached a list of celebrity examples not to follow. Along with repeat offender Rihanna, they included white American model Karlie Kloss for striding down the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2012 in a Navajo war bonnet and little else – a faux pas for which she later tweeted profound apologies.

You can see why this was offensive to the Navajo Nation. Native Americans have good reason to feel aggrieved at white Americans making light of their culture: when the people who stole your land start raiding your wardrobe, they’re taking the piss. Plus, on top of adding insult to injury, misappropriating fashionistas cause offence by misunderstanding and misusing native traditions.

There’s nothing new in this. Dominant cultures have always aped the dress styles of supposedly inferior ones, from the turbans sported by Regency fops and the tarbushes teamed with smoking jackets by Victorian gents to the tweeds and flat caps adopted by British aristocrats from the local peasantry. But where fashion merely borrows, fine art steals. In the case of so-called ‘primitive’ art, Modernism stands guilty of misuse on a massive scale. What do you do with a problem like Picasso, never mind the self-identifying ‘savage’ Gauguin? Even the mild-mannered Henry Moore couldn’t keep his roving hands off Toltec-Mayan reclining figures. What does a colliery manager’s son from West Yorkshire understand of 9th century Mexican culture? Nowt. If he’d come up before the elders of the Mayan Nation, he’d have found himself on the naughty step with Karlie Kloss.

In the eyes of cultural appropriation hawks, the fact that modernist artists regarded the makers of the objects they ripped off as their equals or superiors does not exonerate them from the charge of ‘mad disrespect’ of their meanings and purposes. Still, you may as well try to hold back the tide as stop art and fashion playing around with other visual cultures. Moves to have indigenous cultural traditions established as forms of intellectual property owned collectively by tribal nations face a legal minefield; for now, the court of social media has to do.

In the case of art, the new strictures cover both style and subject. When the 2017 Whitney Biennial included a painting by white American artist Dana Schutz showing black Mississippi teenager Emmett Till in the open casket in which his mother laid him in 1955 to expose the brutality of his lynching, British mixed-race artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter to the curators demanding the work’s removal and destruction. “It is not acceptable for a white