This year, Earth Day fell on a Tuesday, April 22nd. This commemoration of the planet on which we find ourselves began, as many important days do, with a protest. According to the United Nations, it was 51 years ago that the first Earth Day took place, when 20 million people in the U.S. took to the streets to protest the fast-accelerating environmental crisis. Back then, one of the biggest concerns was pollution, and since that fateful day in 1970 our conversations have evolved into multifaceted swathes of activism. Today, to truly grasp the enormity of the climate crisis is to understand how it intersects with other massive systems at play—capitalism, colonialism, globalisation, patriarchy—the list goes on.
For this Earth Day, What Design Can Do teamed up with If Not Us Then Who?, and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests to present ‘Urgent Conversations on Earth Day’, an online event supported by the Ford Foundation. The second of these conversations focused on cultural appropriation in the creative industries. While there’s a huge amount to learn from the design practices of Indigenous communities, which are often rooted in ancient craftsmanship, our current design culture is centred around a mindset of extraction. How can the global creative community enter into a fair exchange of knowledge across cultures, while ensuring that traditional methods and designs give credit to indigenous processes and creations? Rather than replicating colonial power dynamics, what practices can creatives adopt to ensure that this exchange protects and benefits indigenous communities?
AN IMBALANCE OF POWER
To collaboratively respond to these questions, filmmaker and curator David Hernández Palmar; author, activist and linguist Yásnaya Aguilar; and fashion designer Guillermo Jester joined a panel discussion hosted by Plaqueta, a journalist and activist. The first question put to the panel is perhaps the most difficult—what is the difference between cultural appropriation, appreciation and exchange? Yásnaya explains that often people think about cultures in little boxes, which is inaccurate—there’s been a hugely intense cultural interchange between communities. In actuality, we need to be examining power—“unfair cultural appropriation” usually takes place when one party has a lot of privilege, while another party is suppressed. This imbalance of power is what makes the scenario problematic, so for fair cultural exchange to occur, we need symmetry between the elements. She goes on to explain that in Mexico, the government itself is guilty of appropriating indigenous culture, by taking indigenous elements to incorporate into the Mexican flag, while knowingly suppressing these communities. “In design schools these issues are rarely discussed,” she adds. “We should be talking about misappropriation all the time. We need to problematize it.”
The role of the state balloons into an important undercurrent to the conversation. David points out that in the U.S. the government often refers to one’s ‘blood quantum’ (the percentage of indigeneity based on one’s direct line of descent) in order to determine a person’s indigenous status, and thus ethnicity. He questions what it means to be an indigenous person—in Wayuu culture, you need to have ancestors on your mother’s side, for example. Yásnaya explains that the government’s internal classification of people can often promote cultural appropriation. She explains that the national identity of Mexico was built on the idea of mixing races. When famous people dress up in a ‘Mexican’ outfit, they don’t distinguish between the different types of clothes from different cultures within the nation. In Oaxaca, the state forbade the use of indigenous languages, but at the same time used indigenous elements to build the idea of what a Mexican person is. Indigenous identity is homogenised into a conglomerate, so the specificity of different communities is lost. Guillermo points out that the state’s complicity in the simultaneous appropriation and oppression of indigenous peoples sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.
“For fair cultural exchange to occur, we need symmetry between the elements.”
The conversation then pivots to the role of individual designers and brands when collaborating with indigenous communities. Plaqueta posits the question to Guillermo—what strategies are applied to make sure your work is fair? Guillermo collaborates with artisans from Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula to form a non-binary brand that positions Mexican artisan design on different platforms. He explains his approach: “The main problem is when people think that crafts are just handmade objects, without taking into account the history, tradition and cosmovision behind them.” That is why when visiting different communities, he talks to the elders, listening to their stories and learning how these narratives are represented in indigenous iconography. The brand also includes labels with the name of the artisan who made each piece, so audiences can get to know the creators behind the process. Guillermo notes that he is also inspired by the fact that indigenous creators make clothes with zero waste, so the brand implements the same techniques. All of these different efforts unite to embed transparency in the working process.
“The main problem is when people think that crafts are just handmade objects, without taking into account the history, tradition and cosmovision behind them.”
Yásnaya counters that brands need to ask communities how they would like to collaborate—there is a question of agency here. The terms of exchange should not be set by the imposing party. She goes on to explain that while indigenous culture is centred around collective ownership—of the soil, the land, the music—a brand is registered to one person. “The moment you create a brand, even if you work with artisans, it becomes an individual’s property,” she notes. “And so, a good that was communally owned turns into one that is individually owned.”
David agrees that while many conversations begin with inclusion, they are often complicated by collaboration. It’s not necessarily about a single person, but the system that they are operating in. Film, for example, is used to convince populations of certain ideas—we assume things, because we see them visually. Because of this, there is a huge responsibility within cinema, for practitioners to operate in a truthful way. This is especially true for community cinema, which he notes “is not made to compete with Hollywood. It’s made to give options—so that people can interpret their culture for themselves.” When this nuance is lost, a fair exchange becomes difficult. He cites the example of musicians who capitalise on Indigenous or Afro sounds in their music, but fail to speak up when the communities are starving. When you choose to interact with a culture, you’re also taking on their politics.
THE RIGHT PERSON TO TELL THE STORY
While these conversations play an integral role in highlighting issues of appropriation, the panellists agree that these problems are systemic, and that design education has an important role to play in embedding this discourse in the curriculum. David ruminates on the fact that there’s a culture of fragility and fear when indigenous practitioners make their voice heard. Rather than seeing these discussions as a threat, we must use them to better ourselves. There’s a technique often used within the filmmaking industry, when creatives ask themselves—am I the right person to tell this story? Perhaps this simple question will act as a catalyst for cultural change.
Top image: A still from Being Emberá, one of three documentaries presented by If Not Us Then Who? in their short films programme at the same event. Learn more about Urgent Conversations on Earth Day here.