Cultural Appropriation and the Street Art movement

Yep, me again. Dragging out my bruised and battered soap-box again. I’ve been biting my tongue and sitting on my hands a bit lately with regard to public art (unlike me I know!). You see, I’m new(ish) to the community, having painted my first wall only 3 years ago. However I am so glad I have, because I’ve found the most amazing community and through them, the importance of Public Art. This community, that at first I felt intimidated by, I’m now privileged to call many of them friends and colleagues. And they’re a bunch with a ton of grace; generous with their time and knowledge. I have also never done as many collaborative works as I have with artists I’ve met in the street art community, and collaborations help challenge artists to take their practice to the next level and for that I am grateful. But I am a latecomer, I don’t have the lived experience of growing up spraying trains and tagging and enmeshed within the street art movement. I still struggle to call myself a street artist, and let’s be real – if the new kid swans in to their new school and starts pointing out all the things their peers have been doing wrong, they’re probably gonna have a bad time. But the standard that you walk past is the standard you accept. No one wants to be that guy, but here we are. And if this relates to you as an artist, stay with me because you might just see things from a new perspective.

Whenever the issue of Cultural Appropriation comes up, it’s often met with eye rolls, sighs and mutterings about political correctness. And people often dismiss it before they understand it, as with most discussions of race, racism, appropriation and privilege. But before you dismiss this and keep scrolling, I challenge you to read on, because the inherent problem with dismissing Cultural Appropriation as a concept, itself comes from a place of privilege. It means that because of the benefits afforded to some over others, it’s easy to ignore the effects of Cultural Appropriation because it doesn’t effect you. Understanding why it harms us takes a certain level of compassion, empathy and understanding.

For further reading about White Privilege, I particularly like this article:

Also my two-part blog post about power, race and privilege:

So what is Cultural Appropriation? I’m so glad you asked, so pull up a stolen milk-crate and get comfy.

In it’s most basic definition; Cultural Appropriation is “when someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own” (Johnson, 2015)

However, a far more deeper understanding on how and when this becomes problematic is more to do with power imbalance; when aspects of a culture that has been systematically oppressed, are adopted by members of the dominant culture that has oppressed them. (Johnson, 2015).

Scafidi (2015), defines Cultural Appropriation as; “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive.” (Scafidi, 2015)

Usually at this point, someone throws around vague notions of “honoring” a culture, or ideas about “cultural exchange”; yeah nah, I’ll get to that too. But why is Cultural Appropriation a problem? The truth is, it’s a multi-faceted issue that has many different contexts, as it effects every Indigenous group differently. So I’ll try and keep it as relevant to the Australian context as possible, and as relevant to art as possible, bearing in mind that some of the most blatant examples come from other contexts and other First Nations groups.

Obviously, I love art. Art is important. It’s important to me because it’s how many of us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people engage with our cultures, learn from our elders and pass our knowledge down to our children. I also love public art and think it’s crucial to the modern discourse, especially in this neoliberal age we find ourselves in. Street art is the original form of protest and the original form of social documentation, and we are the original street artists. Our cave art is many, many thousands of years old. I love that public art is inclusive, and makes art accessible. It takes it out of the galleries and off the walls of the wealthy, and places in in the public realm where everyone can enjoy and be challenged by it. I want to be very clear that I’m not seeking to suggest that Aboriginal Art is more important or more valuable than art from non-Aboriginal artists. What I do acknowledge however, is that Aboriginal Art is underpinned by 60,000 of culture – and that is significant. Aboriginal people are largely missing from the modern Australian narrative, so increasing the visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture through public art is something that we all should embrace and an agenda we should all further, but it must be authentic, and built on mutual respect.

But wait, haven’t you got the right to paint whatever you want? No one owns any one style of art, right? Well see this is where it gets murky. Because while you might think you’re honouring us, we feel differently. When you do attempt to paint (or wear/sing/speak/be or use) styles of art built on Indigenous cultures, what you’re actually doing is taking sacred cultural symbols and relegating them to largely meaningless gentrified hipster art, or trite fashion accessories as the case may be. A common example is the Native American War Bonnet – a gendered and sacred object, reduced to a “on trend” fashion accessory, home decor or photo-prop for ignorant hipsters. The irony of this is that often Native American and other First Nations people are denigrated for wearing their traditional dress. This shit is only on trend when it isn’t worn or used by its traditional owners for its traditional intent. Women don’t wear war-bonnets, and every feather is earned. They are sacred items that are handed down between generations. Art that features women wearing war-bonnets is increasingly common and I get it, women are warriors and all that. But not only is it appropriative, it’s inaccurate. And if it’s inaccurate, inappropriate and its value lies only in its aesthetic, then how much artistic merit does it actually have…?

Colonisation has stolen much from us as Aboriginal People. We’ve have had our land, the lives of our ancestors, our children, our families, our ability to share and practice our culture and hour dignity taken from us. Often by force, with much bloodshed. My grandmother who was forcibly removed from her family, was smacked whenever she spoke anything other than English. The connection between culture and language is immense, so removing her ability to speak her language has enormous implications for the loss of our families culture. Cultural Appropriation is an example of ongoing theft of our sacred cultural symbols. Not only has it been taken away, it’s been taken away and used by the dominant culture who took it away in a manner that is inappropriate and shows a complete lack of understanding around what it is and how it ought to be used as well as a huge sense of entitlement over the ability to use it at all.

Cultural Appropriation perpetuates stereotypes – there’s more to Aboriginal culture than just boomerangs and dot-paintings. There is more to Native American/First Nations people than feathers and teepees. There is more to Inuit culture than igloos and fur. You’re seeing where I’m going with this, yeah?

Dismissing our feelings here, trivialises violent historical oppression and genocide. And it prioritises the feelings of people of privilege and ignores that of marginalised people, further perpetuating systemic oppression.

In most instances, Cultural Appropriation fails to remunerate Indigenous artists for their designs, ideas and intellectual property. Not only that, but non-Aboriginal artists are profiting from our culture. From the stories and iconography of our ancestors. “Aboriginal Inspired” designs are everywhere. Some of the companies that make these products are ethically sound and commission and remunerate and credit Aboriginal Artists for their work; that’s absolutely fantastic and I unequivocally support this. Here, the artist is giving their permission to share the artwork with the consumer in whatever medium they collaboratively agree to. They’ve been paid for their intellectual property and for the accurate and appropriate use of sacred cultural symbols. If however non-Aboriginal artists are using Aboriginal symbols, style and iconography to make money; that is money that will not go back to empower Aboriginal Artists. It won’t go to Aboriginal families to help them assert their right to self-determination. Not only are non-Aboriginal people profiting from Aboriginal culture, stepping on the backs of Aboriginal Artists in the process; but my culture is being appropriated, and my art and stories; which are enmeshed in my very personhood, reduced to culturally meaningless aesthetic. And for what? Had you commissioned an Aboriginal Artist, the aesthetic may well be different, but the meaning behind it will be so much richer.

If you are a stakeholder in public art, and you want Aboriginal Art in a public space; I implore you to commission an Aboriginal Artist. If you want authentic, meaningful Indigenous art that pays respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which you seek to place the art, commission an Aboriginal Artist. Remember also that we are not a homogenous monolith with a hive-mind. Aboriginal Art is as rich and varied as we are. We work in countless mediums and in countless styles. I for example, can’t paint things that look like things; so I don’t often paint animals, but Brother Luke Patterson is your man if you want wildlife! I also can’t paint portraits, but I can crack out a collaboration, as I’ve done with 4 other portraits, or you could find an artist like Jandamarra Cadd whose portraits are next level amazing. I also don’t do graff, but sister Nish Cash and Budda Hampton are killing that scene! I also can’t sculpt but I reckon Allan Sumner’s wood carving is incredible, and I’m sure there would be some amazing Aboriginal metal-smiths out there too if you chucked it into a google search.

Many of us love working collaboratively with other artists too, bringing our culture to new heights in new ways, but remaining steadfast in the knowledge that the cultural aspects of the artwork is authentic. So if it’s Aboriginal Art that you want as a stakeholder or wall owner, or Aboriginal culture that you want to honour as an Artist; consider first if what you seek to do is based on genuine cultural exchange and mutual respect, or if it’s (albeit unintentionally) perpetuating harm to an already marginalised group. Consider then if perhaps you could achieve the same thing by collaborating with an Aboriginal Artist, and remunerating them accordingly.

If you’re reading this and reflecting on previous works that *maybe* skirted the boundaries, don’t stress. Know better, do better. If you’re still not convinced; there’s enough walls, enough spaces, enough styles and pretty much enough of everything to go around, as the global hunger for public art gains momentum. Please don’t step on Aboriginal Artists to get the next gig. Collaboration might just help you take your practice to the next level and you’ll definitely be on the right side of history.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s