Cultural collaboration could help SA heal its divided past

Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu celebrates her 80th birthday by holding a solo exhibition at the University of Cape Town Irma Stern Museum in November 2015. Picture: Gallo Images
Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu celebrates her 80th birthday by holding a solo exhibition at the University of Cape Town Irma Stern Museum in November 2015. Picture: Gallo Images

South Africa is a melting pot of cultures and each one has something that’s unique.

Heritage Month is a time to reflect on the inherited history of our country – and ourselves. Our diverse national community is unique – offering more diversity than most countries – and is made up of diverse individual identities. South Africa has the cultural capital and confidence to collaborate to generate vast amounts of innovative and unique concepts.

In the 1970s Johnny Clegg collaborated with Sipho Mchunu, combining Maskandi with Western folk music. The duo, through their music, merged two worlds in a militant collaboration that undermined the forced racial and ethnic segregation. Clegg, a white man who appreciates Zulu music and culture, has become one of the most globally accomplished Zulu artists. It can be argued that there is an imbalance in power when creating commercially viable brands that incorporate features from minority cultures. Yet many other African musicians have become globally accomplished in their own right – Bra Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo are just two in this group.

With globalisation, multinational corporations are marketing the sale of worldly relatable art and culture to create a unifying global culture. Global culture has expanded our choices, for example, and choice of cuisine on offer ranges from Indian, Chinese, Italian to an array of African dishes. Yet it is still concerning that global culture is indirectly whitewashed, mocking people with cultures and religious beliefs outside Western tradition, to force assimilation for survival. It becomes exploitative when our cultures are used, without consent or understanding, for financial gain.

The Soweto-born musician Sibongile Khumalo has become world renowned for her jazz and opera talent, which she incorporates into her South African heritage. Her background did not stop the opera scene from embracing her. And there was no doubt about her passion.

In fashion, accusations of cultural appropriation go as far back as precolonialism. The batik (wax dye) technique originated in India as a symbol of spirituality, but it spread to Japan and Indonesia where it was perfected by the Japanese. This cross-border trade facilitated a cultural exchange and refined the batik technique.

When the Indonesian island of Java was colonised by the Dutch in the 1700s, the batik technique was introduced into Europe where it became mechanically produced and widely distributed. Africa was an untapped market where the Dutch saw potential. The colourful African wax print became a significant part of our history and identity. We can argue that the Dutch appropriated batik, trading the patterned cloth internationally for profit.

Legal protection for traditional knowledge differs for each country, lacking international consistency. In South Africa the Traditional Knowledge Bill provides benefits for knowledge used for commercial purposes and restricts unauthorised use. The problem is the bill applies only in South Africa.

The Masai tribe, on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, are in talks about restricting the use of their imagery. Louis Vuitton, Jaguar, Land Rover and Masai Barefoot Technology are just a few global brands that have sourced inspiration from the tribe. Thousands of others are suspected of doing the same. By registering their brand as a trademark the Masai tribe would earn royalties through the licensing of their iconography. The difficulty in registering multiple trademarks across differing country trademark laws is that it is an expensive exercise.

Louis Vuitton

The celebrated film, Black Panther, made use of a mixture of African cultures to create authenticity around the fictional nation of Wakanda.

The Basotho blanket, the Ndebele indzila (golden neck rings) and the Zulu isicolo (disk hat) are easily recognisable and understood by South Africans. What is troubling is whether the tradition of the clothing choices is similarly conveyed to the global audience. Designers who appropriate African design tend to absorb the praise.

It can also be argued that the misunderstanding surrounding non-Western cultures has become recognisable to a global audience. A single blockbuster movie has globally disseminated African clothing to become internationally familiar.

Rap music’s affinity to sampling is indicative of the domino effect that occurs from borrowing other artists’ work. What is needed now is more African innovation that can be showcased and appreciated.

The use of elements from other cultures and racial groups should improve our connection to one another. To see our cultures acknowledged on a global platform is rewarding but that’s taken away when our culture is simplified to a seasonal trend without reference to the people who live it. Without recognition and source accreditation there is no appreciation of the value of correcting of Western-held narratives.

Trends should be rich in meaning and stories. Elements of storytelling and beliefs, similar to those impressed on cultural and traditional wear, should become the standard of mainstream fashion. South Africans who do this well are designer Laduma Ngxokolo and artist Esther Mahlangu, who use their creativity to educate. Global culture has altered the identity of the individual away from nationality, as well as race or ethnic grouping, to become focused on our style of dress, the food we eat and the music to which we listen.

Collaboration opens up opportunities and is the key to cultural appreciation. Designers are not lone wolves if their best ideas come from diversity.

Coco Chanel is famously quoted for saying: “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

If inspiration can be sourced directly from a heritage outside one’s own, collaborative efforts, inspiring cultures could expand creativity further. Meaningful cross-culture designs are what global audiences want to see – and pay for.

South Africa is rich in heritage, with eleven official languages and a variety of ethnic groups – Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim and Afrikaner. Embracing our enchanting cultures is a step towards healing our divided past. In Heritage Month we are united by our differences. We may not be able to change our inherited traditions but the amalgamation of heritage brings tradition into modern contexts.

If culture inspires, fashion should teach. When someone asks you the history behind the design of your clothing, regardless of your own heritage, there should be a narrative that is informative and uplifting to the group that influenced it.

Moloi-Motsepe is founder and executive chairperson of African Fashion International (AFI)

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