Reclaim and Renew the Indigenous Image

Dolce & Gabbana face criticism after they debuted these earrings at Milan Fashion Week.

On Halloween people who are aware of cultural appropriation get increasingly squeamish about the slew of “tribal” costumes – Native American headdresses and even blackface. Although Halloween is often blatant in its racist and insensitive displays, cultural appropriation is a regular occurrence in Western fashion, art and media. Recently, Dolce & Gabbana drew criticism after they sent racist “Blackamoor” earrings down the runway. These images are recognizable in the U.S. as “Aunt Jemima” figures and demonstrates blatant insensitivity to their connection to colonialism and slavery.

Approximately 350 million indigenous people – identified as descendants of people who lived in a country before the conquest or settling of dominant groups – live in over 70 countries today. Recognition and protection of indigenous people’s rights is, unfortunately, deplorably low. In Africa, only the Republic of Congo has enacted laws to enforce indigenous peoples’ rights. It is crucial for dominant cultures to respectfully relate to the culture of indigenous groups and for indigenous people to have a voice in contemporary culture.

According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the good news is,

…from community radio and television to feature films and documentaries, from video art and newspapers to the internet and social media, indigenous peoples are using these powerful tools to challenge mainstream narratives, bring human rights violations to international attention and forge global solidarity.

The United Nations recently celebrated the International Day of Indigenous Peoples with the theme “Indigenous Media: Empowering Indigenous Voices.” The goal was “to highlight the importance of indigenous media in challenging stereotypes, forging indigenous peoples’ identities, communicating with the outside world, and influencing the social and political agenda.”

Participants in the UN celebration have developed indigenous media in meaningful ways. They included indigenous leaders from the Americas, Canada and Hawaii who founded organizations such as the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network and The online daily, #Indigenous #Decolonize Daily, is another example of media being used to promote issues that relate directly or indirectly to indigenous peoples.

The cultural destruction that indigenous cultures have experienced in our history of colonialism and oppression cannot be undone. However, empowerment in the media helps minimize the reductionism that indigenous people face today. To use a recent example, high fashion designer Rodarte stole imagery from Australian Aboriginal art for designs in a 2012 fashion show, causing uproar. Not long after that incident, Australia launched its first Indigenous Fashion Week, which featured thirty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers and employed a model who is half-Aboriginal.  This event is transformative in providing an avenue for the direct creative expression by Aboriginal people rather than have their art “borrowed” by Westerners.

This Halloween, let’s begin conversations with our peers about what borrowing imagery from other cultures actually means.

by Ann Bickerton

Leave a comment


  1. Mira Weisenthal

     /  November 1, 2012

    It seems that there are very few exceptions to the rule that “no publicity is bad publicity” within glamor industries, but the effects of cultural appropriation, racism, etc. are far-reaching and reinforce negative paradigms when they are not called out effectively.

    Since it is easy enough for a high fashion designer (like D&G) to write off an apparent lapse or oversight in ethical judgment as conceptual art, what do you think can be done to discourage this kind of a publicity stunt among designers in the future?


  2. Folashade

     /  November 5, 2012

    I remember last year’s debacle with Vogue Italia and the “Slave Earrings” which they apologized and then dismissed as “bad translation”. The disrespect and misappropriation of culture regarding people of color from all over the world has been commodified for consumption for so long, that people don’t even seem to realize when it’s disrespectful unless you call them out on it. I don’t think that this is a battle that can surely be won and put to rest, however, until people are willing to acknowledge the ties between history and contemporary culture and the pain that has been perpetuated through media imagery over time.


  3. Imani

     /  November 8, 2012

    Cultural misappropriation can be seen all throughout the city in some of the popular apparel stores throughout the city. I recently saw geisha mannequins in a store front window and couldn’t to question: Am I the only one seeing the faultiness in this? There is a thin line between celebration and misappropriation. Even of the intent is not meant to be offensive or a mockery to a group’s culture, the impact is largely felt.


  4. Michael K

     /  November 25, 2012

    With respect to the Rodarte statement in which they “stole” aboriginal art, that is a misnomer, but it really depends if they licensed the art before or after the show. Rodarte stated “We deeply respect and admire the work of other artists. Through the appropriate channels, we licensed the Aboriginal artwork that influenced prints in our collection. As a result, the artists will share in proceeds of the pieces inspired by their work.”

    It is a tough line to tow. Artists and designers must walk between a “theme” and “inspiration” to create new and interesting collections for clothing. The world is much more mixed than we think, however, if you consider that clothing draws inspiration inversely since it appears that the dominate western fashion culture is drawing inspiration from other cultures and groups. One other interesting item of note is a NY Times article explaining the more convoluted origins manufacturing and distribution in Africa demonstrating this may not be a new phenomena:


  5. Malika

     /  November 27, 2012

    Michael – thanks so much for posting the link to the NYTimes article. While I was reading Ann’s blog posting I kept thinking back to the controversy that is now arising around the use of “traditional” African fabrics in mainstream Western stores. I agree that there is a fine line between borrowing and paying homage to, versus stealing and diluting a fabric/print/style that is so closely tied to a particular culture. I think where the hesitation really comes in today is knowing that cultural appropriation cannot necessarily be stopped how does one find workable solutions to ensure that these cultures are still an active part of the conversation and are given credit from the beginning? For me, I see the blatant disregard for artistic influence most readily in music. Something is always borrowed and is rarely credited. I am sure many of you remember the Paul Simon incident? If not this should help ( But this is something that happened back when rock n roll was emerging and still happens today with much of the hip hop music that is popular. So I guess the bigger question is how do you give credit where credit is due without fearing that it will make you less creative but instead will showcase a new meaning onto something that is already vibrant and beautiful? After all, isn’t that what innovation is?


  6. Zachi R.

     /  December 3, 2012

    I feel that over the last few years many companies have manipulated other cultures and regions around the world to promote their product. Using the example by D&G, I think there are many ways of being creative and promoting designs and promoting, but using derogatory ways of showing your design shouldn’t be acceptable at all and companies like D&G should be held to their highest standards of class, maturity, and presentation.


  7. Michelle G.

     /  December 5, 2012

    Reading this blog post made me think of another controversy that happened recently on the runway. During the Victoria Secret fashion show about a month ago they dressed one model in a costume that included turquoise jewelry and a traditional Native American headdress. The following day there was a outrage that was echoed all throughout the media by people who were offended by Victoria Secret’s blatant disregard for the native American traditions and culture, instead using the headdress as an “accessory” to a lingerie outfit. This disrespect clearly shows how some corporations do not think about the implications that their choices will have on the global market. Almost immediately after the show they issued a formal apology, and most likely have not seen any kind of backlash in terms of sales due to this “misstep”. Its frustrating to see how this type of issue arises frequently, and yet corporations seem to not learn from other’s mistakes.
    Here is a link to a Huffington Post article discussing the Victoria Secret story:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: