Stealing from other cultures

2014-06-01 15:00

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The idea of cultural appropriation is ­actually not that confusing. If you take a symbol, an element, a ritual from a ­culture that’s not yours and use it in a way that divorces it from its cultural ­context, chances are that it’s cultural ­appropriation.

And usually it’s a dominant group “borrowing” from a minority group. And usually to make money off them.

Recently online store Superbalist had a Xhosa initiation blanket (by ­Basotho Blankets) available for sale. The website claimed: “This initiation blanket is created especially for Xhosa ­initiations and other rites of passage ­according to African custom.”

Despite its ritual and cultural importance, Superbalist proudly sold the artefact as a product that is “perfect for use as a couch throw or to add a splash of colour and warmth to your living space”.

After some criticism, the online store renamed the blanket a traditional African blanket, which is just as bad because “Africa” is not a singular thing or culture.

Thanks to poor research, the blanket went from being significant to Xhosa ­initiation to every conceivable African thing. The item has since been removed from the store. It really should never have happened.

Another online store treading a thin line is Noush, which has cushion covers that borrow the prints and imagery of fabrics worn by sangomas and others made from Basotho blankets. Noush says of the Sangoma crocodile cushion cover: “The animals shown on the fabric all symbolise different qualities: strength, wisdom, pride?...?I LOVE the designs and find them extremely ­powerful.”

There is also a cushion bearing the ­image of a peacock with no explanation of what either crocodiles or peacocks ­actually symbolise.

Added to the covers is a ribbon the site describes as “a traditional Zulu ­ribbon that gets sewn on to traditional gear for weddings or other special occasions”. A bit of mixing of symbols to make a neat little cushion cover, but nothing about whether this particular ribbon is worn with the garments used.

Since we’re mixing it up, the ­Basotho Club and Skop cushion covers combine a grey Zulu blanket with aesthetic detail of the Basotho people’s blanket. ­Apparently both blankets are used for lobola, which apparently is “still very common” in South Africa. (“Still”, as in outmoded? Backwards, perhaps?)

Sure, the results are beautiful, but frankly, it’s offensive the way they ­simply take and amend the bits and ­pieces of the traditional attire of sangomas, initiates and traditional cultures that they want.

.?Visit and at your peril

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