Cultural Appropriation?

In a previous post I asked myself if I am an evil cultural appropriator for wanting to use traditional ikats in my work. This question came up, in many ways, because of my alternate hobby of bellydance or raqs sharqi.

There is a debate raging through the dance community – quietly for the most part, although it flares up now and again. The debate revolves around the question: “by learning, performing, and transforming this dance, are we appropriating the culture of another people, just because it is exotic, in much the same way as Europeans in the 19th century appropriated the lands the dance comes from?

It’s a valid question, and one that bears deep thought. It can be easy, when you are American, and of multicultural descent, even if primarily European, to say, “Everything around me and my American heritage comes from different cultures, so what’s the big deal?” It IS a big deal to some Middle Easterners, many of whom feel that their entire culture is stereotyped by Europeans and Americans into the word “bellydance,” a word they don’t use to describe what they do.

Now, personally, I don’t see bellydance as much of anything but American. If I am discussing Egyptian dance, I’ll say “raqs sharqi,” if Turkish – “danse orientale” (which is, of itself a European term). “Bellydance” is an American term applied to a dance form imported in the 1800s and transformed into a performance art by mostly Americans, some of Middle Eastern descent, in the 1950s and 1960s, the US’s “Golden Age” of nightclub performances. I’ve seen many women, and some men, too, find peace with their bodies and their emotions as they learn this dance (a wonderful description of this phenomenon by another dance teacher). I respect its origins and try to learn as much about its history as I can. But “bellydance” in the US is as much Middle Eastern tradition as ballet is French tradition. It has drifted so far from its roots that while you can recognize the seeds of the movements as related, they are very different plants. I am not, of course, referring to the myriad of people who try very hard to learn the “traditional” dances (which have also been influenced heavily by colonial expectations, and could therefore be accused as being somewhat tainted even in their own countries. Modern Egyptian raqs sharqi, for example, has drawn from ballet as well as movements from various tribal groups in the region).

Which leads me to textiles. When I or my family travels, I am often gifted or purchase as souvenirs, fabric and embroideries. Sometimes I buy pieces here that were created specifically for export. The question my dance experience triggers is, if I use these pieces in my art, or even the techniques I learn from them in my art, is it cultural appropriation in a bad way? My community has always been extremely diverse. My friends include Vietnamese, Indian, Native American, European American, African and African American, and the list goes on. Personally, when I use a textile or a motif in my artwork, especially if it comes from one of the cultures I am tied to by friendship – it will be used to bring those friends and acquaintances into my work – much as I might use a piece of my grandmother’s dress in a crazy quilt to evoke her life and work. I try to incorporate every textile and image I use with respect. When all is said and done, someone somewhere will probably be offended, whether because I have excluded their culture, or used it.

But hopefully, the people who matter to me won’t be, because they know I respect them as people.

Thoughts? This cultural appropriation thing is a HUGE topic. And one that can fall into any genre, be it painting, dance, writing, textiles, etc.

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