Sunday, December 23, 2012

Approbation or Inspiration?

I, like everyone else, have been seeing a lot of this in the last few years:




Heck, I even wrote about how much I was loving "Mexican" and "Native American-esque prints" over a year ago. I still find these patterns beautiful and inspiring... but now I have to wonder: was I being ignorant? Is it not okay for these patterns and textiles to be mass produced and sold by corporations?

Sasha Houston Brown doesn't think so. She wrote an open letter to Urban Outfitters (which you can read on the very cool Racialicious blog), condemning their use of the word Navajo to describe a line of their products, as well as the designs of the products themselves. The word "Navajo" is trademarked by the Navajo Nation, and in Brown's opinion, the Native Nations should be the ones to design, produce, and earn revenue from native-inspired fashion. She makes a ton of good points in an interview on Ecosalon.com, and has me teetering on the edge of a moral conundrum. 

This "print" hat is for sale at Urban Outfitters online. Image source. 


Is there a difference between inspiration and approbation, and where does one draw the line? 

As devil's advocate, I could also argue that Nordic Prints are very popular right now and have been for quite some time. Much like the "Native" products circulating the market, I'm certain these "Nordic" products are devoid of their cultural significance and don't actually reflect Nordic heritage. The same could even be said for Hawaiian prints; the iconic Hawaiian shirt is mass produced, probably without the involvement of Hawaiian designers and craftspeople. Would a person from a Nordic country or from Hawaii find their culture's print on panties offensive? 


There is no denying that these prints are attractive and even inspiring, but when in the hands of a major corporation, are stripped of the soul and meaning they had for the originating culture. Is that okay? Or should using these prints be the sole domain of members of this culture? That seems limiting to other artists...what a conundrum!

What do you think? Is there an appropriate and sensitive way that artists and designers can incorporate traditional images from other cultures? Are major labels being inspired by these popular prints, or flat-out stealing them? Is it inspiration, exploitation, approbation, or something in between? I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

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