Cultural Appropriation in Design Projects

Choosing a theme for a self-directed project is always difficult, even now, when I know a simple starting point is going to be far more fruitful than a complex topic. Constraining the scope of the investigation will always force me to be more inventive but I still get lured towards bigger ideas, but the bigger the scope, the more room to flounder and the greater the likelihood of gathering a body of disjointed, confused research. Understanding the value of constraints is a key part of an art and design Foundation course and early degree projects. When given the freedom to choose their own subjects, so many students choose vast, unwieldy subjects, ones they consider meaningful, like feminism, domestic abuse, capitalism. (For the purposes of this discussion I’ve chosen to ignore students at the other end of the spectrum who choose to study rust, decay or leaves…) In projects lasting only a few weeks or even months it is so hard to do justice to such subjects, to adequately research and interrogate them to sufficiently move past facile interpretations and cheap stereotypes. Projects exploring cultural themes are similarly problematic for their tendency to stray into the realm of stereotype and thoughtless appropriation of symbols.

As an example of both the unwieldy and culturally problematic, a few students have suggested “East vs West”, despite having never travelled outside of Europe. How could they gather a sufficient body of research about the East and another about the West to be able to adequately compare and contrast them? With so many countries constituting ‘the East’ and the same with ‘the West’ how can the broad scope of this project possibly end up anything other than a stereotyped, facile pastiche? This example exaggerates the issue but even projects about one country – usually Japan – face the same issues, with the same inevitable, though beautiful, mood boards of geishas, kimonos, cherry blossom and Hokusai. To move beyond obvious cultural signifiers and avoid the potential for crass stereotyping requires broad and deep primary and secondary research, both visual and theoretical. This research requires thorough analysis and interpretation through the generation of a vast quantity of visual responses and critical analysis to inform their contextual understanding of the subject. (This is the same for any project if students are to move past the obvious connotations…)

The issues with such cultural projects boil down to two key problems: 1) the students familiarity with the place, the people, the era and their ability to gather primary, as well as secondary research; and 2) the sensitivities surrounding the use of cultural signifiers.

I shared an article from the Guardian by Callum Marsh with students last year about the wearing of Native American headdresses at festivals. Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festival had banned the wearing of  First Nations headdresses at their event, citing the need to “respect and honour” First Nations people. This was swiftly followed by many other festivals requesting, though not banning, visitors from donning headdresses. I have seen students develop beautiful projects from cultural clothing, like headdresses or kimonos, but rarely are they underpinned by an interrogation the cultural context of the items. They love the aesthetic and theatre of such garments but they don’t understand the context . To develop this understanding they need to research not just the aesthetic of what was worn but why it was worn, both historically and in contemporary society. What are the functional, social, ceremonial roles of these items? What do they mean or signify, to whom and why? How have they been used or appropriated in the past? The information that would emerge from this would be political, social, anthropological and philosophical, and subjective, objective and highly emotive, which to sensitively synthesise in the context of a design project would likely derail the whole endeavour.

Should educators consider banning exploration of such subjects? As humans, we are by nature magpies, absorbing and reusing the things we like that we see, hear, feel, sense to create new experiences, artefacts and interactions. Where do we draw the line between acceptable exploration of cultural artefacts and cultural ‘appropriation’? I was reminded of these thoughts when reading Adam Gopnik’s recent “A Point of View: When does borrowing from other cultures become ‘appropriation’?” article on the BBC News website, in which he responds to the current US trend in festivals, museums and liberal arts education to ban the use of cultural items in way that could be considered ‘appropriation’. Gopnik cites examples from art, cuisine, language and fashion to show how our contemporary lives are the result of past and ongoing cultural hybridisation and that we are richer as individuals and societies as a result.

“Cultural mixing… is the rule of civilisation, not some new intrusion within our own. Healthy civilisations have always been mongrelised, cosmopolitan, hybrid, corrupted and expropriated and mixed. Healthy societies seek out that kind of corruption because they know it is the secret of pleasure. They count their health in the number of imported spices on their shelves.”

As an example of the bi-directional and oscillating nature of cultural influence, he discusses 19th century Japanese prints by the likes of Hiroshige or Hokusai, the prints which had such a huge influence on French Impressionism. The style of these Japanese prints was the result of a Japanese “infatuation with Western perspective drawing and graphics”. The prints which inspired the French Impressionists were themselves inspired by Western art, the Western perspective adapted and applied to Japanese subjects to produce prints that looked wonderfully exotic to the Western audience.

Gopnik’s article is an enriching reminder of how important looking, feeling, experiencing and using this new knowledge is. “We are mixed in nature, many in our very essence. We can’t help it. To be human is to be hybrid. It is as close to a rule of life as you can ever hope to find.”

Whilst we might argue that using elements of and referencing other cultures is valuable on the basis of Gopnik’s argument, in the case of the First Nations’ and Native American’s garments we have to also consider not just how the items were used by those peoples but also by their aggressors. Marsh quotes Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba: ‘ “People have been dressing up like Indians for 150 years,” he says. “It’s about celebrating the conquest of indigenous people. People don’t understand how degrading it is to have a sacred object within a culture stolen and appropriated and misused in an inappropriate setting.” Many indigenous people want to enjoy a music festival just like anybody else. “That’s impossible to do that when you have people celebrating genocide standing right beside you.” ‘

“Innocent imitation is always the engine of cultural innovation.” opines Gopnik. I agree: imitation, mimicry and copying the techniques, aesthetics and material-use was the bedrock of traditional art and craft education, but we have to understand the context of our subjects to ensure our imitation is not only innocent but also informed, sympathetic and compassionate.



Marsh, C. (2015) Osheaga’s headdress ban shows festival’s zero tolerance towards cultural appropriation. The Guardian. [Online]. 17th July 2015. [Accessed: 21st March 2015]

Gopnik, A. (2016) A Point of View: When does borrowing from other cultures become ‘appropriation’? BBC News Magazine. [Online]. 17th July 2015. [Accessed: 21st March 2015]

A Point of View can also be listened to online.

Accompanying images “Shower Below the Summit” by Hokusai and “La Japonisieme” by Claude Monet have been copied from Adam Gopnik’s BBC News article.


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