What is Cultural Appropriation and its Relation to African Art?

October 2, 2020
cultural appropriation dreads fashion

If you look at certain industries and social media in the past few years, ‘cultural appropriation’ seems to have become a hot topic, particularly in the fashion and music spheres. For all the talk of cultural appropriation, however, it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly cultural appropriation is, and how it can affect everything from the African art market to our individual, day-to-day lives.


Dreads for Marc Jacobs, Sikh-style turbans for Gucci, and Native American headdresses for Victoria's Secret © Getty Images



 Though there are many debates about what constitutes an act of cultural appropriation, a good summary has been provided by Brigitte Vézina, who works for the World Intellectual Property Organisation. She states: ‘There have to be four elements present. The first one will be the use of a cultural element in a different context from its original customary context. The second element will be a power imbalance between the source culture and the culture where the element is being used. In other words, one group will be relatively dominant in relation to the other. The third element is that there’s been no involvement from the source culture. So there’s no acknowledgement of the source, there’s no retribution or contribution in terms of a payment or another non-financial contribution and there’s also been no cooperation, so there hasn’t been authorization that’s been asked [for] or the source culture hasn’t participated in any way. The fourth element is that this causes harm. It can be economic harm; for example, if the sales of the authentic products are harmed by the creation of a product that culturally appropriates.’


cultural a karlie-kloss-in-vogue-march-2017

Karlie Kloss, geisha-inspired for Vogue Magazine, March 2017



With this clear definition in mind, what kinds of acts of cultural appropriation has Africa experienced in terms of arts and culture? Cultural appropriation may come in many forms and degrees of gravity: it could come from ignorance, as in the debate concerning whether or not non-BIPOC should wear certain hairstyles such as dreadlocks, or can be more intricate, as in the case of  Brazilian African heritage, where culture originated from Africa were subsumed by Brazilian culture and took on new forms to adjust. Until today, many of these African-derived influences are either denigrated as ‘uncivilised or devil worship’ or have been gilded with exoticism and trendiness until ‘discovered’ by the ruling class. Like Rastafarianism in Jamaica or Voodoo in Haiti, the rhythm and instruments in the music of these cultures have all been appropriated in some way and made to be ‘trendy’. The extreme juxtaposition of denigration and exoticisation in the case of Afro-religions demonstrates the harm that can derive from instances of cultural appropriation when they are not called out and properly understood.


Voodoo festival (also spelled Vodou and Voudou) at Souvenance, Haiti



On the contrary, many argue that cultural appropriation is inevitable in the globalised world and the multicultural communities we live in today. It is natural to pick up certain tastes and values when surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds, and indeed, not all cases of cross-cultural mixing are instances of cultural appropriation. In many cases, this exposure to multiple cultures and customs is an enriching and educational experience, so when does ‘cultural appropriation’ move from being a celebration and appreciation of a culture’s customs, to a misplaced or malicious stealing?


Some still debate whether Paul Simon’s Obvious Child or Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club were acts of cultural appropriation.



When it comes to fine art, much cultural appropriation stems from ‘inspiration.’ Indeed, the ‘Inspired By Africa’ series on our very own P54 Magazine, which illuminates how certain artists throughout history have used motifs and inspirations from Africa for their artworks, is a good place to start in terms of understanding the long-standing relationship of the arts with cultural appropriation. For instance, Picasso and Matisse are classic examples of artists who were inspired by Africa from their travels or their exposure to African masks and statues in France, but also held a disdain towards such cultures and objects. In these cases, it has been argued that the artists would take styles and motifs from African art without being a genuine lover or supporter of the African artists or makers who produced the original masks and statues. If one considers Vézina’s definition of cultural appropriation, therefore, it appears that each of the four criteria for a case of cultural appropriation are fulfilled in the cases of Picasso and Matisse. On the contrary, many scholars and experts may debate this, stating that the artworks of the two modern masters actually brought attention and prominence to African art, allowing it to be further celebrated.





If one takes the example of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the politics of cultural appropriation changes. As a black man of Haitian-Puerto Rican descent, Basquiat’s positioning to be able to use certain motifs was different from that of Picasso or Matisse’s, as he was tapping into his heritage in order to highlight the life and plight of African-Americans, or other members of the African diaspora. In this case, the second and third conditions of Vézina’s definition of cultural appropriation are not met, as Basquiat himself could serve as a representative of African culture—or at least its diaspora—and one could argue that Basquiat’s works are not instances of cultural appropriation.





The topic of the cultural restitution is also extremely debated and has divided opinion in the art world. Many art lovers have called for institutions to return sculptures, relics, and fragments of artworks or architecture that were looted during colonial times to their home countries. The position of most museums, however, is that they wish to retain the objects in their collections for the sake of educating the public about colonial times and the heritage of other countries around the world. This is a dense topic that will be explored in a dedicated Pavillon 54 article of its own, so keep an eye out!


Benin Bronzes at the British Museum



These examples illuminate that the topic of cultural appropriation is highly debated and complex. It is therefore important for each art lover and culturally-sensitive individual to learn more about the topic, the various opinions and definitions, and make one’s own decision on what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation. What do you think about cultural appropriation in the arts? Would you consider the works of Picasso and Matisse to be cultural appropriation, or do you believe they contributed positively to the celebration of African art? Is cultural appropriation inevitable in today’s society? Comment below and let’s start the discussion!



Further reading:


Brazilian syncretism / Afro-derived religions

Cultural appropriation of fashion

Cultural appropriation of music

The Restitution of Cultural Property

Cultural appropriation and Picasso

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