Black culture, appropriated, appreciated, exploited or shared?

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Stella McCartney using African Ankara prints in her 2017 Collection. Credit: TSR/The Shade Room

Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, an appreciation of style or taste. But when are the lines drawn? Cultural borrowing, recently brought to the forefront of the cultural narrative between Africa and the West, draws on privilege. Celebrities, fashion brands, models and influencers often face controversy regarding cultural appropriation. Whether it’s Justin Bieber wearing dreads, Kim Kardashian calling her brand Skims ‘Kimono’, or Katy Perry singing dressed up as a geisha, the relationship has always been unequal.

It’s not the borrowing that’s the problem, it’s the credit that’s the issue. The ignorance of white celebrities and fashion brands appropriating another nation’s culture inadvertently supports exploitative relationships and withholds African countries from being able to take hold or profit from their own cultural material.

Post-Colonialism, Africa has made a name for itself due to its astounding capacity for cultural expression. From music and art to fashion and food, African culture has become more and more prevalent on the global stage.  But while “appreciated”, its history is often left in the background.

In 2016, Marc Jacobs faced intense scrutiny for his runway show, the grand finale for New York Fashion Week. Famous models such as Kendall Jenner, Taylor Hill, Gigi and Bella Hadid walked the runway wearing shiny bright-coloured coats, pastel metallic hotpants and vertiginous suede platforms.

Despite the otherworldly and alien-like designs, what caught the audience’s attention most was what was on the model’s heads: piles of faux wool dreadlocks sewn into the model’s hair in various colours from platinum and pastels to purple, bright pink, mustard and royal blue.

Apart from the sheer lack of Black and minority models, the designer’s response is what seemed to cause the most outrage. Jacobs defended his work, saying he saw only people, not their race.

“[To] all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin colour wearing their hair in any particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair.”

Marc Jacobs 2017

Black women straightening their hair is not appropriation but instead assimilation, a lasting effect of slavery followed by deep-rooted racism, which involves a person or a group’s language and/or culture changing to resemble another to seem more palatable and “fit in” with the majority.

“It’s easy to say let’s just get over the past. But we can’t because the past, and how we feel, is so deeply ingrained in us”

Cape Town artist and photographer Thania Peterson to BBC Africa

African culture is often appropriated by others and repackaged for new audiences or financial profit. However, culture and gain must be taken into account. There is such an issue surrounding cultural appropriation because the trade-off is unequal. Black culture and Black societies always seem to be the ones to lose in the equation.

A White person styling their hair in dreads is seen as “trendy” or “fashionable”, whereas a Black person wearing dreads is perceived as “urban” or “messy”, and it’s the same with fashion. This type of appreciation can lead to exploitation, hurt African pride and creates a sense of shame where Africans now hide their culture while living in the Western world.

“A lot of people, especially in Africa, do not appreciate our own culture. We need to bring the awareness that our culture is valuable.” 

Thabo Makhetha, a Cape Town city fashion designer to BBC Africa

You cannot place intellectual property on cultural heritage, but you can broaden the understanding. To achieve cultural tolerance between races, you need time and open communication. The goal is to balance unequal power relationships, not build artificial cultural walls in retaliation.