What is cultural appropriation and how is it different from cultural appreciation? Ballardong Noongar artist Rohin Kickett explores the appreciation and approriation of Aboriginal culture and some questions people need to ask when approaching work from another culture.
Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation
Let's start with a definition of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is taking something from a cultural group when you don't belong to that group, for your own financial gain or social gain. Cultural appreciation is where you investigate other cultures to understand them better, to create a better cross-cultural relationship. Appropriation happens when people step over the line and they start adapting things from that other culture for their own benefit. I like to focus on social gain because monetary gain is pretty obvious. Social gain is very tricky and there's a lot of grey areas that are worth thinking about.
Financial & Social Gain From The Cause
Let's take the example of people involved in a 'Black Lives Matter' march. They're out there supporting Aboriginal people and they are wearing Aboriginal flag t-shirts. They are supporting our community and they're all taking photos to show that they are supporters. A critical person might suggest that this is virtue signalling, but it's a group collective activity and they're not getting anything directly out of it. There is a genuine desire to stand in solidarity with Aboriginal people and justice issues so there is no problem there.
The line comes later if someone is walking along with a banner with a big statement about Aboriginal issues, and then they take that banner and put the image of it into an art exhibition from which they financially gain. They socially gain because their profile has now risen as an artist because of that statement, which was not really theirs to make. There is social gain, financial gain and a boost to artistic profile. There is no benefit for our community and our culture in that transaction.
Using Aboriginal Language In Art
I see it particularly with language. A lot of artists like to use language in their artworks. For me and my practice, when I put a Noongar word or a title in my art piece, I'm using it because that's the language of the culture that these paintings are from. I'll always put in brackets the English name because I'm respecting the English name as well. I find myself wondering, "Why can't non-Aboriginal people do the same? They can use the English term because that's their culture and that's the language that belongs to their culture and what they've created. If they want to respect the Aboriginal name, they can put that in brackets. This way there's no confusion about whether the artist is Aboriginal or not.
Using Aboriginal Concepts In Art
I see other examples where artists are adopting Aboriginal concepts and painting from Aboriginal perspective using their own style. So it's their artwork, but the actual concept doesn't belong to them. The perspective they're painting from is an Aboriginal perspective. That's where they're adopting something that's not theirs. They're getting rewarded by being included in art shows and this is boosting their profile and their social standing.
The Perspective of Story Telling In Art
Let's talk through the questions that people need to ask themselves when they're coming close to culture. Are they respecting the culture without taking anything away from the culture? We have a shared history and it's the third space and we both have the right to create artworks on this shared history, but it all comes down to, what perspective are you coming from? Are you coming from a perspective from an Aboriginal space into the third space or are they coming from their own space into the third space? So when we look at a lot of our history, when it comes to massacre sites and that history on the dark history, non-Aboriginal people have the right to interrogate that history, but from their side and their point of view. As soon as they go over that line and start to tell it from an Aboriginal perspective, that's when it's that grey area and it gets tricky. I'm not saying white artists can't be involved in creating art exploring this difficult past - they can - it just has to be a collaboration. There needs to be a relationship built. You've got to do that ethically. Both people have to be represented equally in that partnership. It's all about telling your story and not telling somebody else's story. There is a logic to it.
Self Discovery Is About Telling Your Own Story
For me, that's the key as an artist. Artists always need to look inside, it's a journey of self-discovery. I question whether an artist is really on that journey of self-discovery when they are telling other people's stories. It's frustrating when I see other artists getting rewarded for telling other people's stories. I feel, hey that's not your story to tell. Why are you being rewarded for doing this?
Desert River Sea
Sometimes this is done really welll. One example that immediately comes to mind was the Desert River Sea exhibition at AGWA. That wasn't non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal collaboration, that was Aboriginal and Aboriginal collaboration. There's multiple different cultures represented there. They all worked together, cross culturally in that big exhibition. I think even the curatorship was Carly Lane and Emelia Galatis and one's is Aboriginal and one is not. That was a beautiful collaboration with the curatorship. I think they went out there and they built the right relationships and they brought all the artists down. We could all meet them. No one was trying to take the limelight away from the artists. They were put forward, front and centre, which it always should be.
The difference between appreciation and appropriation comes down to a series of pretty sensible questions. Whose culture is represented? Whose story is this to tell? Who is benefitting from this expression of culture? Who gets the recognition from this art? In terms of collaboration, what is the nature of the relationship? If something is fair and ethical you can look at it from all angles and it will still feel fair and ethical. In some ways it is surprising that we still see so many examples where people are not asking these questions. It seems there is still a lot of work to do.
Top Featured Image: Rohin Kickett | Yenyenning Lakes #2 | Jap 019847
The Conversation - What is cultural appropriation, and how does it differ from cultural appreciation?
University of Virginia - The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection - Cultural Appropriation 101
SBS - 'Appreciation', 'spiritual connection' ... Nope, you are not entitled to appropriate our culture
Wikipedia - Cultural appropriation
The Art of Education - University - Appropriation vs. Appreciation (Ep. 222) (Audio & transcript)