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‘If you copy….’

September 06, 2019 - Friday 8:09 AM by Eva Aranas Angel

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It is ironic that an article about cultural appropriation should have title whose first three words are lifted from another article written of cultural appropriation.

In these times where being ‘tribal’ and ‘indigenous’ is in vogue, and there seems to be a bandwagon of designers getting their hands into the fad, I am compelled to give my two cents. 

A recent article by Beth Dreher simplifies the phrase. ‘Cultural appropriation, also called cultural misappropriation, occurs when a person from one culture adopts the fashion, iconography, trends, or styles from another culture. Some of the most controversial and harmful examples of cultural appropriation happen when when the culture being appropriated is one of a historically oppressed group.’

There are two key points from her definition that are worth probing. First, ‘adopts the fashion from another culture’ and second, ‘when the culture being appropriated is one of a historically oppressed group’

Although there are other forms of cultural appropriation, I take issue with ‘fashion’ especially with those from a historically oppressed group, ‘the Indigenous Peoples.' 

In Mindanao, there are several designers who have been passionate and arduous in promoting the Indigenous Peoples’ heritage through fashion especially by exploring their fabrics, their weaving process, their embroidery patterns, and textile.

From Mayan to Aztec to Incan to Inuit to Mangyan to Ifugao and to the Tboli, Bagobo, Tagakaolo, Mandaya, Blaan (yes that’s the spelling), almost all patterns in their weave and embroidery are symbols, some more sacred than others.

Once I lectured in an annual convention held in the City of Golden Friendship wearing a black skirt with Tagakaolo pattern. One of the doctors in attendance was telling me that he could read my skirt before I was introduced for my lecture. Baffled, but in a good way, I said ‘Yes please, read my skirt.' And he did. He said those lines made of beads at the hem symbolize a river. The green lines over it with peaks and troughs are the plants and crops that grow beside the river bed and in the plains and mountains because there is a water source. By this time, the other delegates, especially the women, have gathered around me to inspect the pattern and asked questions about the skirt. The good doctor who explained to me the symbols and what they represent added, as an afterthought, ‘That’s a very nice skirt doctor. Pulido ang trabaho.’

I smiled and went on to tell him that the creative force behind the brand was hands almost always ‘on site,’  in the mountains, crossing rivers to be with seamstresses, weavers, and embroiderers while they make them. I said that he did and continues to do so, for quality control and to be able to acknowledge who specifically among the IPs working with him (note, not for him) did the skirt for proper credit and compensation.

I have to admit, these pieces are pricy, and that’s why I wear them only on special occasions, mostly speaking engagements or art exhibit openings. With the kind of money I pay for a skirt, or a top or pants, or a scarf, all of which are embedded with patterns faithful to the tribe (in contrast to bastardized version like a ‘strip of the river’ sewn into a hem), I could have bought more pieces from high street brands but I choose not to. It is important to patronize these brands because not only they are done with passion and quality controlled craftsmanship but also it gives a livelihood and empowerment to women. I am passionate about ‘women empowerment’ because, in a highly hierarchical and patriarchal society like the Philippines, it is even more hierarchical and patriarchal in the microcosm within the some tribal communities and women are not only relegated to child rearing and doing the house chores but also their voice and worth are leveraged to the amount of economic contribution they have for the household. And since many women have joined the work force and are justly compensated for the hours and hours of labor they put into each piece (an average for two-three weeks for an intricate skirt), then they create a more egalitarian environment within the family unit. The mother and father, the wife and husband are co-equal.

In choosing which brand, I am likely to choose designs made by a brand that gives credit to its local partners and artisans, naming each weaver, beading artist or embroiderer each time a new piece or design is presented mostly on Instagram. One cannot have a brand patterned after the tribe or Indigenous People with them invisible. That would be cultural appropriation. Credit should be given where it is due. In Davao, I can name two brands who do. As much as possible, I wear local now. 

As regards ‘cultural appropriation,' none could have reverberated louder than the Carolina Herrera brand by Wes Gordon who was accused by the Mexican government of copying the patterns of textiles for their 2020 Resort Wear.

In two articles written by Yara Simon, she says the fashion industry is known for taking more than just inspiration from communities of color. And while it was easier for designers to get away with this in the past, people now have several mediums to express their anger and frustration to stop brands from taking what’s theirs.

Through her platform, she echoed the sentiments of the Indigenous People artisans who lamented, ‘If you copy our craftsmanship, we lose our jobs.’ Further, Simon says for Indigenous communities, ‘the struggle to retain ownership over their textiles has been a long-fought battle. With designers – big and small – taking these patterns for themselves, they end up selling someone else’s culture without compensating them. It’s especially disappointing considering that Indigenous artisans do not get paid what they’re worth because of widespread haggling. Yet, people with no ties to their community end up selling this cultural patrimony at higher prices.’

Adopting embroideries of Indigenous communities, ‘one can find this community’s history and each element has a personal, familial, or community meaning.’ We need to respect that too and take the patterns into context. Sacred patterns should remain sacred. 

I believe that the patterns of every Indigenous Peoples’ or tribe is as much of an ancestral domain as it is with their land. One cannot own it. One cannot put a patent to it. One cannot lay claim to discovering it. That would be similar to John Leguizamo’s analogy of Columbus getting credit for discovering ‘the Americas.' He says, and quite hilariously so in his Netflix special, ‘Latin History for Morons,' ‘It’s like I see a wallet your back pocket and now it’s mine!’

Perhaps it is time for designers and creative directors to recognize the contributions of indigenous communities to their brand. They are partners in making the craft. They must have a name. They must not remain faceless. They must not be rendered invisible. And lastly, for the love of God, please do not haggle.