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Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Cultural and Transcultural Appropriation in the Postcolonial Period

By Elizabeth Mix

Cultural and Transcultural Appropriation in the Postcolonial Period

Contemporary postcolonial theory pioneered by Homi K. Bhaba in The Location of Culture addresses the phenomenon of cultural appropriation from the view of the colonized.  As those who were colonized struggle to reclaim their culture, their efforts are almost always transcultural—most if not all acts of colonialism resulted in a mixing or hybridization of the cultures of both the colonizer and colonized.  Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao, editors of Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, is a collection of essays that reflect the multiple modes and complex nature of issues surrounding cultural borrowing.  The editors provide a visual framework in the introduction that divides what they call "cultural transmission" into broad categories of appropriation or assimilation, as a function of power dynamics (i.e., industrial, ideological, economic, political, institutional, and military) that result in cultural imperialism and cultural erosion.  The essays are then gathered by genre (i.e., music, art and narrative, popular culture, and scientific knowledge); there are also sections on colonial/postcolonial discourse and tangible cultural property.  The majority of the essays treat specifically Native American and African American topics.  Kwame Dawes's essay "Re-appropriating Cultural Appropriation" proposes flipping the script so the nondominant culture is more prominent.

A number of artists use appropriation in their work to enact the postcolonial condition.  Ni Haifeng, a Chinese artist who lives in Holland, has inscribed his body with designs commonly found on the "blue and white" porcelain commonly known as "china" in the series Self-Portrait as a Part of the Porcelain Export History (1999-2001), enacting the complicated trade relationship between Holland and China.  Yinka Shonibare, who was born in London to Nigerian parents, uses mass-produced textiles from the United Kingdom and Holland that appear African (but are not) to clothe mannequins and sometimes live models in staged constructions that address postcolonial hybridity.  Both of these artists, along with Johannes Phokela and Fred Wilson, are included in Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi's Unpacking Europe: Towards a Critical Reading.  This important book addresses the postcolonial condition from multiple viewpoints.  Positioned in two parts—a collection of essays and then a catalogue of artists, the essays treat the role of race, class, and gender in the formation of the Aryan model of Greek origins, interrogate the foundation of national identities based on the concept of the "foreigner," and explore the implications of postcolonial practice on notions of whiteness and borders.  Diaspora and transglobalism are also treated.  The first portion closes with a pair of essays by Jimmie Durham, "Belief in Europe," and Fredric Jameson, "Europe and Its Others."  Among the artists included in the section are several who utilize appropriation (or maybe more appropriately, reappropriation).

Yasumasa Morimura speaks to authorship, the commodification of cultures by the West, gender identity, and the persistent invisibility of the "other" in the history of art, and links postcolonialism to postmodernism.  At the same time, however, he demonstrates a profound appreciation for European artists' works, a condition that characterizes the complex nature of transcultural appropriation, in the nineteenth century and today.  The exhibition Quotation: Re-presenting History included Yasumasa Morimura, David Buchan, Sorel Cohen, Dany Leriche, and Cindy Sherman.  The catalogue includes essays by Shirley Madill, "Constru(ct)ing the Origins of Art," and Linda Hutcheon, "Scare Quotes: Irony versus Nostalgia."  Yasumasa Morimura: historia del arte. Madrid: Fundación Telefónica has a short essay by Pilar Gonzalo, "The Body as Sign," which explains the artist's reappropriation of Western works combined with the artist's knowledge of the Western appropriation of Japanese works.  Paul Franklin, in the essay "Orienting the Asian Male Body in the Photography of Yasumasa Morimura," in Deborah Bright, ed., The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, gives a short, pithy account of the gender and racial plays Morimura makes in his work.

Artist Fred Wilson has completed a series of interventions in museum spaces as a form of institutional critique.  Largely inspired by the artist's years of experience as a museum professional, these interventions typically consist of the rearranging of objects from the existing collection with the goal of creating a new didactic materials to affect a recontextualization.   In these works, Wilson uses curatorial practice to develop provocative juxtapositions of objects to redress the colonizer's appropriation of the cultural artifact as an act of power.  For instance, in The Spiral of Art History, a silver tea service was paired with a Navajo concho belt in a vitrine labeled "nineteenth century American silver."  This enacted the displacement of Native Americans by the English colonists and criticized the segregation of these pieces into two completely different Indianapolis collections (the tea service from the Indianapolis Museum of Art; the belt from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art).  Wilson does not consider his interventions to be collaborations with the host institution, but the specific objects Wilson placed in the exhibition allude to the larger community's historical development and contemporary values.  Wilson's development of these curatorial strategies is documented in Mining the Museum and in The Museum: Mixed Metaphors by Patterson Sims.  Maurice Berger's Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000 provides an excellent summary of the artist's development of curatorial interventions.  James Putnam's Art and Artifact. The Museum as Medium treats artistic interventions in the museum by Wilson and also Herbert Distel, Louise Lawler, Joseph Kosuth, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, Haim Steinbach, and Group Material.

Lothar Baumgarten's installation Unsettled Objects (1968-69), described in Kynaston McShine's The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, used artifacts and photographic reproductions of objects from the unchanged Victorian natural history/anthropological collection of The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England which "evokes the past tale of Western Culture's attempt, through its museums, to represent the lives of cultures that did not share its taxonomies and informing assumptions."[1]  Baumgarten added paired terms to his photographs, such as claimed/accumulated, selected/fetishized, displayed/imagined, and climatized/confined, to help audiences problematize the history of a museum formation that took functional objects, removed them from their context, aestheticized them, and "paradoxically preserved them while also depriving them of their history and life."[2]

Several significant publications have discussed the combining of curatorial and anthropological practices as providing a possible solution for redressing the effects of museum formation in the colonial period.  Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, and Thomas Weski, editors of Cultures of the Curatorial, present Anton Vidokle's article "Art without Artists?" in which he claims that curators have historically and unnecessarily excluded artists from agency over their own work.  Hal Foster made a significant contribution to the shift toward combining curatorial and anthropological strategies in his "The Artist as Ethnographer" in The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the Turn of the Century.  In Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Foster described acts of copying by Louise Lawler, Hans Haacke, Allan McCollum, and Barbara Kruger as subversive signs and the work of Andy Warhol and Sherrie Levine as indicators of cultural resistance.  The Subjects of Art History, edited by Mark Cheetham, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey, has three relevant essays.  First, Stephen Bann's "Art History and Museums" discusses the historical precedent of the cabinet of curiosities (a part of colonial practice) and the "museum effect" that makes objects within the spaces into art by virtue of the institution's role, which, once identified, can then be disrupted by contemporary artists.  To Bann, Barthes's concept of the "death of the author" works differently in objects acquired during colonial conquests, declaring that museum collections formed as a result to be sites of either dystopia or utopia.  Second, Gerald McMaster's "Museums and Galleries as Sites for Artistic Intervention" discusses his own interventions in gallery spaces, specifically Savage Graces and (Im)Polite Gazes installed in an anthropology museum using interventionist curatorial strategies.  Third, James D. Herbert, in "Passing between Art History and Postcolonial Theory," discusses what he calls "colonial appropriation" in the context of Homi Bhaba's and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's theories.  Herbert uses the transformation of the Musée d'Ethnography du Trocadéro to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris as a case study of the shift from colonial appropriation to postcolonial recontextualization.

Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel's The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds is a collection of essays about the role of the artist, museum, and curator in the global period.  The project proposes the reconstruction of identities based on knowledge of the colonial/postcolonial dynamic.  Inspired by Arjun Appadurai's ethnoscapes, it is a relatively new process that integrates anthropological theory and critical practice.  This text defines global art as postcolonial and explains that appropriation in this context becomes a translation or rewriting—a type of reappropriation of the original circumstances in order to change meaning.  Included is a section with a large number of artists whom the authors have determined are engaging in these significant cultural shifts.  This book suggests a possible trajectory for work in the future where an increased transparency and a sense of global responsibility will accompany a re-empowerment of the people who had previously been colonized.


[1] Kynaston McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect.  Museum of Modern Art, 999, p. 8.

[2] Ibid.

Works Cited