News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Selling other people’s culture at $184 a T-shirt

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“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:

p.a.m (it’s a white thing too) from art:broken on Vimeo.
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)

36 responses to “Selling other people’s culture at $184 a T-shirt

  1. So are the T shirts made in China and re-labelled as Australian – made? If so, this case should be referred to the ACCC.

  2. Good question Ian. That’s the claim in the video. I wanted to ask PAM that but they didn’t respond to my request to talk to them. If anyone is heading down to the NGV shop, they could check the tags (to see if they do say Made in Australia). Perhaps Javed, who put the video together, could show us his evidence.

  3. It looks like they have stolen from Culture Club for those old enough to remember. That’s the thing with culture, they each absorb each other.

    1. It looks like a complete knock-off of the Malcolm McLaren inspired Hayzie Fantayzie look from the 80’s. Not very original, just regurgitating the 80’s.

  4. Good call, Cathy, but could you do some investigation into who is behind not only PAM but also art:broken? The post-colonial dress-ups seems only part of the issue. Sure Western art has a long tradition of primitivism, but usually there’s someone who is able to articulate the ideas at play.
    Is the absence of comment from PAM strategic or a sign that there’s actually nothing to say and they are just having fun with their brand?
    Do they define themselves against political correctness in the same way that the current government dismisses any ethical constraint on economic growth?
    By contrast, the Punkasila project shows how primitivism today can actively involve those subject to appropriation- see

  5. Hi Cathy. I think technically the label switching that Pam engaged in is legal, as minor modifications were made to their products after arrival in Australia. Pam now claim their labels no longer say this, though the person who told me about the label switching claimed this was happening fairly recently. In their correspondence with me after I released the video, Pam haven’t denied the label switching, which given the potential seriousness of the claim seems to me to mean it’s true.
    However, I don’t see the label switching as the centre of this debate, just a symptom of a certain disregard for the ethical dimension of creative practice, a disregard that also applies to images of black faces, dot paintings, and the Aboriginal flag. The worst part is that this attitude thinks of itself as progressive, as somehow post racial, when of course the only people who can think like that are people naively unaware of the persistence of racism and structural inequality.

    1. Agreed Javed, it’s not central to the debate here (although if correct, would lend some weight to the argument of exploiting non-Western cultures, although is actually exploiting Western consumers by fooling them re provenance of the $184 garment)

    1. Robert, you got me; it was indeed your comment. I was very aware I was writing a story about cultural appropriation while appropriating your point of view. I wanted to reference myself ironically but figures the subs would take it out. How do you feel about being appropriated by Crikey / DR?!

  6. The only thing that is more bored/white than PAM’s fashion merchandise is making a video about how culturally insensitive they are. Critiquing cultural appropriation in the fashion industry = fruitless pursuit.

  7. The mistake PAM made is that they exhibited cutouts of people striking poses taking from cultures that have a voice. David Noonan a far more clever appropriator had the true brilliance to do the very same thing a few years back at ACCA but using mimes instead knowing full well they couldn’t talk back. PAM edgy? If that be the case we would be seeing them raiding Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and muslim brotherhood logos to interweave their almost invisible presence on instead of trademarks of bicycles, krautrock bands and weed. PAM are harmless nice guys and their T-shirts are used by a few kids as a code to feel they belong to and have something special. They may make art but weather it is anything more than their T-shirt formula is yet to be seen.

  8. David Noonan, interesting one. I wonder what other cultural appropriation faux pas are lurking in the deep dark past of Melbourne’s art scene?
    Interesting line of enquiry, especially given Australia’s reemergence as a more aggressive colonial power with respect to PNG, Nauru, Indonesia etc.
    The weirdest thing in the video is that he seems to think a large state funded institution would care about racism.

  9. Lots of interesting comments which have got me thinking. A few points. Wonderwoman – very true. What is the point of this discussion? Surely cultural appropriation is rife in fashion and art (ping Margaret Preston) and will remain so; some examples might be deemed more annoying than others. Is that it for the debate?
    And Gaz and Carmen, it seems that a fair whack of the outrage at PAM is from ‘a bunch of white guys’. Not necessarily many voices from the peoples who are arguably being culturally ripped off / exploited (Javed could fill us in on this). Does this compound the problem? That a bunch of white guys are deciding that a bunch of non-white guys are being culturally exploited, and that ‘we’ feel offence on ‘their’ behalf?
    Interesting parallel with the Samantha Armitage / Sunrise / strippers’ pole fracas, in which some people are offended because Sam should have been offended (but apparently wasn’t).

  10. It totally was like the United Nations on the Facebook comments. Believe it! Such eloquence of real deal issues. The thing is though, my favourite shoes are PAM! They do actually get things right some of the time!

  11. The criticisms of this particular work as racist are unfounded. If you are looking for cultural appropriation you will find it, but are they inappropriately appropriating rockabilly style by using b&w checks?
    I have no idea whether the artists are racist or not as people or as artists, I would personally never spend $150 on any T-shirt, and I don’t find their work particularly appealing.
    But if something has been done once does that mean it can never be done again?
    We live in a global society where all cultures and ideas are exported around the world freely and enthusiastically. Artists are not obliged to be historians, what is one persons “African style bracelet”(your words not mine) to another person means something they saw at the Camberwell Markets.Should every artist or designer do a cultural thesis on the origins of every colour, stripe, shape, pattern or material before using them? No. Not unless they really want to.
    A critic of the work, and the decision by the NGV to display it, is a worthwhile discussion, but labelling a few chunky bracelets and (tribal?)face paint racism is drawing a long bow indeed. As is screen printing a few T-shirts and calling yourself a fine artist.

  12. Cathy, Gaz, Carmen: it is far from a ‘bunch of white guys’ who have been involved. In fact most of the people who come to mind as proponents of these criticisms, including myself, are people of colour, including Indigenous australians who have voiced their anger at the use of culture that they identify with. I think the assumption that anyone who was involved is white is itself pretty problematic, and denying of agency.
    Such criticisms are also ignorant of the limited audience who has access to these kinds of elite cultural materials: of course they’re largely white middle class Australians – traditional cultures get nothing out of these cultural ‘exchanges’. And white artists shouldn’t feel entitled to sit around waiting for some ‘authentic’ voice to approach them and tell them what they’re doing is wrong: they should check their privilege, do some research, and be accountable to the huge amount of criticism of these practices that already exists.

  13. And now I hear you’ve gone on the radio with these unresearched criticisms!
    You want to criticise a real example of white people having a coversation with other white people about race issues? Have a look at your own work, and try spot the hypocrisy.

  14. Jeeze. I am listening back to the RRR show now. What disappointing and offensive stuff. You actually went on the radio with the claims that those who are initiating the discussion are ‘white hipsters’, and that Indigenous Australians haven’t been voicing some of these criticisms, claims you have obviously not researched because they are simply not true. We’re not white. I’m reminded of my non-whiteness nearly every day in this city. And yes, Aboriginal voices have criticised the practices of this label.
    And if you’re really going to critique the centrality of white voices in this debate, why didn’t you contact me, or *anyone* other than white people, in developing your story. What’s that? You were too busy chatting at the NGV to white people about how fun it is to celebrate African culture?
    This is embarrassingly bad journalism, and your further privileging of white points of view in this debate is disappointing. As is your reduction of the problem to ‘offence’ or even ‘sensitivity’, like it’s something for sensitive non-whites to get over, rather than part of representational structures of othering and exploitation.

    1. Not sure you’re taking aim at the right person here Javed. I quoted a chunk from the video you produced, so that’s right there in the story. Hard to see how your point of view has been ignored here.
      Otherwise, I contacted PAM, the NGV, a fashion / art academic, and talked to everyone down looking at the exhibition who would speak to me. Several of whom did provide some criticism of the exhibit, which is in the story. To accuse me of not contacting anyone other than white people for this story is ridiculous.

      1. Wait, so supposedly your quoting (not contacting) of me proves that you didn’t just consult with white people.. But when you quoted me you thought I was white. Otherwise why would you characterise us as a bunch of white guys? How is my suggestion ridiculous when you’re admitting that either its true or you’ve been misleading?
        I’m not concerned with whether you’ve represented *my* point of view. I’m instead amazed that you’ve characterised the whole debate as ‘white’ here and on the radio, and are now failing to be accountable to that. Thankfully RRR are going to allow me to respond to that mischaracterisation on air, after they received several complaints.

        1. Keen to know when this will be on air Javed?
          I thought Cathy’s comments on air re: ‘white hipsters being the only critics’ were dismissive, disappointing.

  15. I’m confused, Javed – Since when did the reproduction of black faces, dot painting or the Aboriginal flag require permission from anybody? – I agree with Scott; you’re taking yourself all a bit seriously, trying to rake up a storm over some not-particularly original Adam Ant-inspired outfits!

  16. Paul, Scott, et. al. – I’m interested in the way you seem to be defending the “right” to appropriate, whilst simultaneously dissing PAM and their “not-particularly original… outfits” which are, as you rightly state, offensively overpriced. If Javed and others are “trying to rake up a storm” that actually doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, then why do you feel yourselves compelled to enter and contribute to that storm, when you don’t actually seem to support what PAM itself does? Your criticisms of PAM ring a bit hollow given you’re effectively defending their right to do whatever they like with imagery from whatever culture, for their own inflated financial gain, with impunity. It’s not a simple, bureaucratic question of getting “permission” to reproduce images of black faces or the Aboriginal flag (to use your examples), but a level of reflective thinking that goes a bit deeper. For example: what is the position of the “artist” / fashion designer / brand-creator relative to the culture whose images and symbols they are appropriating, and how might that reproduction merely be reinscribing histories of domination, assimilation and financial gain from the cultural and physical labor of these oppressed peoples?
    This kind of liberalist lip service pervades Cathy’s article too, sadly. As Javed noted, getting a bunch of vox pops from teenagers in the NGV forecourt doesn’t really suffice as reflective analysis, and the “white hipster storm in a teacup” argument recently re-spouted by Cathy on RRR – in addition to being factually incorrect – is a disingenuous and self-appeasing distraction from the actual politics of this debate. This *is* about race, and racism, and capitalism. The contradiction of a bunch of white people chiming into the debate in order to characterise that debate (however incorrectly) as merely the hot air of another bunch of white people, and in doing so being forced to defend a brand they actually find mildly offensive or at least annoying, speaks to the power of the issues here. I would even venture that it speaks to a guilty conscience on the part of some white Australians (of which I am one) – except that this would open me to the time-honoured “politics of guilt” defence…
    *dons black armband*

  17. You sure are confused Paul. No-one has even talked in terms of ‘permission’. If you want to battle straw men do it at home, and quietly.
    And it’s not simply the ‘reproduction’ of the Aboriginal flag, or images of black faces that’s going on, even though I think those things can be problematic beyond just questions of ‘permission’. But the actual defacement and disrespectful manipulation of those images, which is a problem regardless of permission, given the whiteness of the artists.
    ANYONE who is defending Pam as harmless here seriously needs to look at the link to the ‘natives are restless’ tshirt that I posted further up. If you’re really trying to justify that then you’re too far gone and probably should get your commentary from Andrew Bolt instead of Crikey.

  18. I’m far from confused, Javed. Your main concern appears to be, in your own words, a “certain disregard for the ethical dimensions of creative practice”. You accuse me of creating straw men, and then you suggest I shut up. I find these Thought Police tactics hard to stomach. To focus on the local, there appears to be a school of thought that certain arrangements of roundels, dots, dashes and lines are somehow privileged to Indigenous Australian artists. It simply isn’t the case. They are not unique to Indigenous Australian artists, but rather it is The Dreaming, the story, which is unique and to be respected. I simply don’t accept that the use of “Aboriginal” motifs poses an ethical dilemma, just the same way that the use of canvas by Indigenous Australian artists doesn’t pose an ethical dilemma. It’s time to move on, Javed, and get a life.

  19. Ooh, poor sensitive white guy can’t stomach the ‘thought police’ pointing out his inconsistent arguments. Let’s all have a conservative white cry at how offended *you* are, rather than you using a little bit of imagination to get out of your white bubble and think what it might be like to experience racism in the place that you live.
    Telling me to get a life Paul is really showing up the weakness of your arguments. Unlike you I have both a life and a cohesive argument.
    And you are still very confused. The ‘ethical dimensions’ of practice go way beyond getting permission to use certain motifs. Who is your practice benefiting? Are you further contributing to alienating depictions of non white people, depictions that reinforce existing racism? These are real questions that you are avoiding here.
    Who are you to decide which parts of Aboriginal culture are ‘to be respected’ and which are not? Why don’t you listen to what Aboriginal people have to say about it? Why on earth, when Indigenous people have been forced to assimilate with western culture through the history of colonialism, would the use of canvas in Indigenous art constitute some kind of excuse to further disposses indigenous people of their culture? How can you possibly imagine this to be some kind of equal exchange when it’s white people selling this stuff to other white people, for huge amounts of money?

  20. And seriously, big lol at ‘Thought Police’ (capitalised no less, as if it’s a Real Thing), try going somewhere like Sri Lanka where journalists sometimes simply disappear forever if they say the wrong thing.

    1. So, Javed, what’s allowed you assume I’m a “poor sensitive white guy”? And now you’re interpreting typographical inflections as well: It’s hilarious. You’re so busy deep-reading some cardboard cut-out fashion figures, deconstructing an uninspiring eclectic mish-mash in search of the negative colonialist interpretation, that you fail to recognise your own faux pas.

  21. I saw PAM’s work at the NGV last year and was utterly unsettled by its cultural appropriation in their work.
    We are living in a time when technology has opened up so many other ideas to us. Two minutes on the internet and one can surf numerous images of different cultures, so unfortunately I get why PAM are mashing cultural ideas together. This for me is the real problem – thinking it is ok because work like PAM’s can be argued as an artistic reflection of the times we live in. It’s creating what I think is a superficial society in which respect and understanding is pushed aside. I guess properly researching other cultures would take too long for some people, right?
    Thanks Javed and co for making this video and keeping the conversation alive.

  22. Get a life People. It’s business. Since when do people care wear there T-shirts are from? As a foreigner I feel like you Australians have no leg to stand on to Assert what they think is political incorrect especially when it comes to Australia’s black Hump. This article and video is written by a true hater.

  23. Until I saw Javed’s comments, I really thought PAM had made this video themselves. This discussion is exponentially increasing prominence for them and will only help boost their sales and will likely only explode their current cult status.
    I tend to be a libertarian, and as a person from a mixed immigrant background, I think we should be less concerned about boundaries, because the good stuff happens in mixing it up. With borders cracked open for free trade, the exploitation of all other types of capital follows inexorably.
    Also, sorry for being naive, but why can’t western people love minority culture the way minorities love western culture? Even if PAM’s appropriations are derivative and at times gross, they’re sometimes beautiful and a kind of hommage to ethnic grace. Then again, if I were a member of a minority who have been as diluted and abused as Australian Aboriginal people, it might find it harder to be so liberal.

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