For some time I have been pondering on the issue of cultural appropriation and whether the use of kantha stitching in my work makes me a thief. While I am more comfortable writing about the technicalities of the art of stitching, perhaps the time has come to say something about my unease at copying the patterns of this ancient craft.
Two things have prompted me to explore the idea of cultural appropriation. The first was a question put to British textile artist, Cas Homes, during a Stitch Club question and answer session when she was asked what she thought about the use of Japanese borro and Bengali kantha stitch by Westerners. She gave a considered and measured answer in which she explained that both forms originated out of necessity, where worn cloth was mended and stitched in layers to save worn out clothes and cloth. She suggested that if one was respectful of the origins of the craft it is okay to copy the form.
The second thing that got me thinking was the hoo-haa on social media when the singer Adele was accused of committing cultural appropriation when she appeared at the Notting Hill Carnival wearing a bikini top fashioned from the Jamaican flag, and with her hair knotted into an African hairstyle. The reaction and debate that this evoked was astounding.
There is a rash of online definitions and articles on cultural appropriation so I decided to consult my trusted source, The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. While it has an entry for cultural relativism there is not one for cultural appropriation (too new a term and concept?). The OED defines appropriation as The making over (of a thing) into one’s own or another’s possession; the taking of a thing for one’s own use, esp. without permission. To put it bluntly, the stealing of something. One could argue that culture is not a ‘thing’ and that therefore it cannot strictly speaking be appropriated or stolen. Before I get myself into deep waters, perhaps I should define the term more closely. According to ‘Oxford Languages’ via Google, it is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
A while ago Melanie J. McNeil of Catbird Quilt Studio wrote a post about copyright and cultural appropriation. She gives its Wikipedia definition (in bold) followed by a clear explanation about how it works: “
“Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.” It specifically refers to use of those cultural elements when there is a power imbalance between two groups. In other words, a white person in America using symbolism from Native Americans might be guilty of cultural appropriation, whereas if the reverse happened, it probably wouldn’t be considered inappropriate or disrespectful use. If someone from the US uses Nordic graphics or designs, that probably wouldn’t be inappropriate, but using elements from eastern Africa might be.Melanie of Catbird Quilt Studio
To recap on my previous posts, I fell in love with kantha stitching after attending a course given by Dorothy Tucker at the South African National Quilt Festival in 2019 and have been experimenting with the stitch form by making samplers this year. I admit to knowing little about the Bengali culture and what I do know I owe to Dorothy Tucker’s explanations. What has caught my imagination is how the simple running stitch can be used to produce such varied patterns and effects. So, if a technique is part of a cultural legacy then I am guilty of appropriation.
In literature the line between copying and imitating is clearly drawn. If you copy without acknowledging your sources you commit the crime of plagiarism. If you imitate, you flatter the original creator. Until the eighteenth century writers were expected to imitate the forms and styles of the ancient masters. That famous quotation about imitation as a form of flattery is from Oscar Wilde : “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. I rest my case.
As we are two thirds of the way through 2020 (yes we are!) I felt justified in displaying the month by month samplers made so far this year
With acknowledgements to Carol of Letting Nature Back In for first alerting me to the possible links between cultural appropriation and textile works.