Keff-what? Art and Appropriation

On the very first day of one of my high school art classes, my Theory of Aesthetics teacher sat us down and asked us a question: “What is art?” Surely this was a rhetorical question – this was an art class after all, and he, the teacher, was supposed to answer that question for us. But it wasn’t a rhetorical question.


Here’s the thing about art: it needs inspiration. The Greeks knew this better than anybody; they worshipped nine muses dedicated to the preservation of the creative spirit. But where we get our inspiration and how we use it can have a big impact on whether art is art, or say, plagiarism.


We all know that plagiarism is a major no-no because it’s a lie. It’s fine to draw inspiration from artists who’ve already done really cool stuff, but downright copying, especially without giving credit where credit is due is not okay.


But what about cultural plagiarism? Does that even exist? Can you steal someone’s culture? Is it even stealing when you do? I mean, we live in America, the melting pot, isn’t that kind of the point? We take everything and make it better?


Well, no. It is stealing when you take someone’s cultural traditions and symbols and make them your own, in whatever sense that may be. In fact, it’s called “cultural appropriation.”


So why do you have to worry about it? Well, let’s look at one form of art I can guarantee you’ve been exposed to on an everyday basis since you were old enough to know what cool is: fashion. Fashion is everywhere and trends come and go about as quickly as boy-bands.  Somewhere in that drive to hop on to the next big thing in fashion, we’ve forgotten to stop and check whether or not that absolutely adorable Aztec print top is buying into the latest and greatest cultural appropriation trend.


What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation you ask? Let’s take a look. The clothing and accessories worn by different cultures are important because they symbolize certain elements of their heritage or their religious practices. A pattern and the colors in it could have a very specific meaning for a group of people. For instance, in many regions of Africa and the Middle East textile patterns were and are used to identify tribes, heritage and political loyalties. When those patterns start popping up on shelves in the U.S. there are a couple of issues. The first and foremost is that no one really understands where the pattern comes from or what it could mean, only that it gets you “that look.”  There’s no understanding about who the original creator of that pattern is, or what cultural implications it has beyond how well it matches your new pants.

Photo courtesy

Ever heard of a Keffiyeh? How about those cute hipster scarves with those cool patterns? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. BAM. Cultural appropriation. The scarf trend draws its inspiration from the Keffiyeh. The Keffiyeh is worn throughout the Middle East, and it carries a lot of significance in countries like Jordan and Palestine. So that cute hipster look isn’t just a fashion forward way to keep your neck warm; it’s a symbol of patriotism and heritage to people clear on the other side of the globe.

Wearing these trends like it’s nothing is a problem because they come from a place of history. There’s meaning and importance associated with a lot of symbols that we have no clue about. It’s one thing to travel somewhere, learn about a culture and bring back a piece of clothing or an accessory as a memory of that trip. In doing so, you are demonstrating cultural appreciation and you actually have some clue what you’re wearing and why it means something.


Going into American Outfitters and picking up the latest in tribal prints is one of the most blatant forms of disrespect out there. When we buy clothes without understanding what we’re wearing, we’re basically telling a lot of people around the world that their cultures and traditions aren’t important to us; that they’re just part of a trend that we can cast off whenever something better comes along.


It’s not easy to avoid cultural appropriation when you’re out shopping. But you can do it. Helpful hint: those feather headdresses you’re about to drop a couple hundred bucks on are definitely not okay. Take a second and research the history and significance of headdresses to Native Americans and you might find yourself thinking twice about wearing one to your next rave. Understanding where these trends are coming from not only increases your knowledge, but helps you to avoid the pitfalls of spending your money on something that disrespects someone else.


In fact, the more you know, the more you can direct your spending choices toward something that can actually help other people. Take the project 3Strands, which employs victims of sex trafficking and produces bracelets that you can buy in stores like Whole Foods and Apricot Lane. Money from sales helps free women from trafficking and employs women who would otherwise be shunned.


Money speaks pretty gosh darn loudly, and you say a lot with what you buy. Art is beautiful and wonderful. It’s great to push the boundaries with what counts as art and what’s acceptable, but when it comes to your closet, make sure you understand the fashion statements you’re making, or else you could end up saying more about yourself than you realize.



Take a look at this photographers’ take on cultural appropriation in fashion.