“I’m just so bored of being white!”
So read the protest stickers posted on an African-themed fashion-cum-art exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria. The work, by edgy fashion label Perks and Mini (PAM), has restarted the debate over the raiding of indigenous cultures for white people’s garments.
As Western labels churn out Native American-inspired underpants, do-it-yourself bindis and frocks patterned with “hand prints inspired by [Aboriginal] ancient cave paintings,” critics say it amounts to the plundering — and mocking — of non-Western traditions in the pursuit of profit. Neocolonialism via expensive T-shirts, if you will.
Crikey headed along to the exhibit by PAM — an Australian company — to see what people thought. It’s made up of five large wooden cut-outs of a white woman draped in shapeless garments along what seems to be an “African tribal” theme. She wears African-patterned leggings, chunky metal African-style bracelets and earrings, a cloth headdress and facepaint. She poses differently in each cut-out, frozen in a choppy dance, an intent look on her pretty face.
Here’s what the group “art:broken” thought of the exhibit, in the video posted to Vimeo that started the debate:
The computer-generated voiceover declares:
“For a group of people who have really used African textile patterns and traditional ornaments … and casually defaced images of black people, you might think they have some personal connection to the cultures they have profited from. But they are just as white as their $150 T-shirts … their support by art galleries and institutions like the NGV should stop.”
The PAM figures are in the lobby of the NGV building in central Melbourne (part of the Melbourne Now behemoth). Visitors seemed to like the display, and quite a few posed with it for smartphone pics. No one seemed to find it offensive, although most Crikey talked to could see why some might find it so.
Visitor Matthew Rehrmann, 18, said: “They are kind of stealing another culture, I’m not sure if that’s OK or not.” His friend Freya Lauersen, 16, was less bothered. “I think it’s cool. I didn’t really think about [whether it’s offensive], but if you really think about it, I guess it could be offensive,” she told Crikey.
Cathy Maloney thought the display was “gorgeous, it’s not sensitive cultural material. We have a strong African culture here, I think it’s great to celebrate it in this context.”
An NGV visitor has feelings for the PAM exhibit
It’s a different story online, where there’s some support for art:broken’s concerns from people who believe there is too much appropriation of non-Western cultures in art and fashion. This public Facebook post by artist Nathan Gray gives a balanced insight:
“… I think that to paint PAM as some sort of naïve cultural raiders is to miss the point, PAM are deliberate cultural raiders, whose work intends to provoke. The practice is irreverent ie. it lacks a reverence for any culture, period or style and further more deliberately seeks to cross boundaries, invoke taboos and ruffle feathers for fun … the recent body of work seems to have a special relish for defiling the sacred. This is an intentional profanity, and demonstrates a lack of respect for sources as a part of a working practice … this shouldn’t result in a backing away from other cultures. Cultural cross-fertilisation can be mind-blowing.”
Most commenters on Gray’s post took a harder line. “The issue here is the careless mocking and conflation of non-Western iconography … like making fashionista exotica in the vein of colonialist fantasy,” one said. Another posted: “seems like a pretty flimsy, dated po-mo get-out-of-jail-free card for using symbols from cultures with a history of being defiled and commodified by white folk.”
And that’s where the debate stops, because Crikey found a curious reluctance on the part of senior figures in the art and fashion worlds to comment (PAM declined to say anything). The impression was that people didn’t want to be seen to attack PAM or the NGV, but nor did they want to defend PAM’s display.
The NGV would only say this to Crikey: “The influence of one culture on another pervades all art forms. Cultural appropriation is a highly complex and constantly evolving issue which requires discussion and debate.”
PAM is made up of designers Misha Hollenbach and Shauna Toohey. Most of their merchandise does not borrow from the cultural traditions of other regions, but some items mash up African, Native American Indian, Hindi, Tibetan and Norse images. PAM items are for sale in the NGV shop — T-shirts for $184 and simple tote bags for $99.
A Native American-inspired shirt from a Melbourne shop set up by PAM (left), and a PAM tea towel (right)