Cultural appropriation: can designers ever responsibly “borrow” from other cultures?

Even with the best will in the world, designers finding “inspiration from anywhere” could unwittingly be complicit in the watering down of marginalised cultures – how can you ensure your work isn’t appropriation?

Last month, a British brewery came under fire when a Hindu statesman branded the identity of one of its beers as “highly insensitive”.

Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, called out Veda, the single hop India Pale Ale, as being “trivialising of the immensely revered body of sacred and serious knowledge”, according to a statement released on his behalf.

Vedas are, according to Hindu tradition, large bodies of text that contain direct-from-the-divine transmission, from beings that are “not of man”. The brewery’s use not only of the Veda name, but also of Hindu iconography, Zed said, was “inappropriate”, given their sacred nature. When Design Week approached the brewery to find out more about the motivation behind the beer, they were unable to comment.

This example is one of many, and it brings up a contentious point: for designers, what constitutes inspiration, and what is appropriation?


The Veda India Pale Ale, brewed by Three Hills Brewing

“Fear and frustration” over losing “desi aesthetics”

Cultural appropriation – the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of practices and aesthetics of marginalised peoples by more dominant groups – is an issue that has gained plenty of attention in recent years.

It is an issue that, at first glance, feels at odds with designers’ ability to find inspiration anywhere. But beyond this, it’s a practice that sparks genuine anxiety over the “watering down” of other cultures, largely for western profit.

It was a combination of “fear and frustration” at just this issue that prompted Indian graphic designer Kawal Oberoi into launching his online Swatch Bharat platform. Designed to identify and promote traditional “desi aesthetics”, meaning indigenous, Swatch Bharat is a collection of images taken by Oberoi and his collaborators that capture the graphic design work of Indian people which is increasingly being lost.

“It began when I was at a station in Ludhiana, Punjab,” Oberoi says. “I saw a beautifully hand-painted sign for Pepsi, but the next time I was there it had been replaced with just a typical Pepsi advert instead.”

Struggling to articulate how the loss of this hand-crafted sign actually felt, Oberoi launched the platform to record other instances of India graphic design that remained. Over seven series so far, the examples collected include shop signs, temples, street posters, statues and even traditional indigenous hand craft, found across the country.

Fried Fish counter spotted in Himachal Pradesh, captured for Swatch Bharat

“People are starting to sit in the boxes made for them”

Pushed out in favour of more western designs, Oberoi says the loss of traditional Indian hand craft has further implications beyond just the country’s aesthetic landscape.

“What has happened is that Indian designers and designs are being influenced by the already-watered down perception other countries and peoples have of us,” he says, giving examples of typically Indian tropes like turbans, chai and moustaches that have been used to condense the view of India, and that are increasingly being accepted by native Indians.

“And what’s happening now is that people are starting to sit in the little boxes that people outside of India have created for us.”

Design for Indigenous Peoples Day 2017, by Sadie Red Wing. Red Wing’s work is also featured in the article banner

Demographics are being “forgotten or misrepresented”

The cultural crisis experienced by Oberoi is echoed by Sadie Red Wing, a Native American student advocate and retention specialist and indigenous design researcher). Her work in higher education institutions, she says, pushes for Native Americans “to be classified as designers instead of ‘primitive’ artists”.

She says that the issue of appropriation is not just a lack of acknowledgement of “source material”, but how this plays into the already-depleting presence of indigenous peoples in wider society.

“When designers use Native American aesthetics in their designed artefacts, without providing reference or research, the history of the Native American demographic is not being documented,” she says. “Many Native American tribes are needing historical documentation to remain existent on this Earth.”

That Native American design aesthetics are rooted in symbols, icons and pictograms, Red Wing says, is certainly attractive to some designers. Playing around with these elements doesn’t inherently cause a problem, but when designs “resemble a family tree or signifies the specific group of people in a region”, they need to be treated with a level of respect, she says.

“I notice many objects use symbolic tribal motifs to decorate something that has no relation to the Indigenous culture,” she says. “When those patterns from historical artefacts are taken without reference to where they came from, the visuals being communicated are not educating the audience on cultural distinction, [which allows] that demographic to be forgotten or misrepresented.”

Products designed by Urban Outfitters, identified by Pater in his book, The Politics of Design

Exposure to non-western design practices

According to Ruben Pater, a Dutch designer and researcher, much of the issue stems from the fact this awareness is not taught in design schools. In his book, The Politics of Design, Pater acknowledges that these conversations have really been commonplace among sociologists and cultural studies academics since the 1960s and 1970s.

But when it comes to design education however, he says these conversations are rarely on the curriculum.

“We tend to separate people and their various fields,” he says. “Those in cultural studies, philosophy and sociology can explain the cultural processes and influences behind a designer’s work, but designers themselves are often not very aware of that.”

This can come at a cost for more marginalised groups who will often see sacred, ancient, unique or otherwise culturally significant aesthetics reproduced for profit without acknowledgement.

But while design students more generally are often not equipped with the critical dialogues to examine their behaviour, Red Wing says that indigenous and marginalised students on the other hand are rarely given the space to develop their tribal communities’ design practices in art and design schools.

“The majority of the curriculum in design research is dominated by European theories, methods, and pedagogies,” she says. “In order to create a greater impression on cultural aesthetics, designers need greater exposure to design practices being done outside of western tradition.”

Design for Indigenous Peoples Day 2016, by Sadie Red Wing

Beyond “because it looks cool”

Both Red Wing and Pater say, however, that this doesn’t mean cultures are outside of one’s own are off limits. Rather, both suggest that with proper acknowledgement, respect and responsibility, inspiration doesn’t have to be appropriation.

“I believe the greatest responsibility when using any cultural aesthetics is conduct the research on visual languages and the culture of their target audience,” says Red Wing.

Pater echoes this: “As a designer, you simply cannot stop yourself from being inspired,” he says. “But are you capitalising on another culture’s design practices without giving back?”

In his own classrooms, Pater says there is an emphasis on finding source material. The idea, he says, is to encourage students to show their design processes: “We don’t need to black box things – we can take pride in the fact we were inspired by and are acknowledging a specific thing.”

On doing proper research, Red Wing ends: “My advice on taking consideration of traditional cultures in design practices is having the designer defend their design choices without the simple answer: ‘because it looks cool’.”

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  • James Souttar March 17, 2020 at 3:00 am

    The problem with this whole issue comes down to the notion of ‘identity’, which is not an ancient conception but an entirely contemporary one. Traditional cultures defined norms and ideals of human life for societies, not differentiators to distinguish one group from another and give them something to belong to. In contrast modern sensibilities come from the belief that there is a sense of ownership which goes with identifying with a culture. This makes it a contest of ‘my culture’ versus ‘your culture’. However cultures have never been fixed or stable, or the exclusive property of a specific group. All human cultures have borrowed, copied, stolen from others. Indeed cultures *are* a process of exchange between peoples, constantly giving rise to new creations — and it is that which gives them their vitality. Without it they would be dead, and deadening, carapaces.

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