Each and every instance mentioned above does indeed constitute some
kind of appropriation of cultural material, as no further contextual information
is provided. No homage is paid to the people, places, materials, or designs
that are affiliated with them. The human essence has been stripped away,
and hence its part in the design equation goes missing. So, too, does any
effort to reinterpret and adapt the design instead of just copying it.
The issue of cultural appropriation is important and complex, and no two
issues are alike, but it is an issue worth trying to understand and respectfully
address. Consider the following four steps as you look for global inspiration,
1. ASK ABOUT THE SOURCE MATERIAL:
Who made it, what is it made of, what purpose did it serve, what is
compelling about it, and why?
2. RESPECT THE SOURCE MATERIAL:
Do not copy it, but instead figure out how to adapt it. Change the
pattern scale and color, use a vastly different material, and/or apply
the design to a different medium.
3. CREDIT THE SOURCE OF YOUR INSPIRATION:
Tell a story about the inspiration material, and place it in the context of the
culture that made it. Explain what materials were used and why. Describe
what the object was used for and what the design might reference. For
example, instead of simply saying a design is inspired by a Congolese Kuba
cloth, explain that the Kuba are actually a people who live in Zaire and that
the fiber they use to make Kuba cloths come from spinning and weaving
the fibers of raffia palm leaves. Provide a link on your website from which
your consumer can learn more about the culture that inspired the product.
4. ENGAGE WITH THE MAKER OF THE ORIGINAL MATERIAL:
Ask how a mutually beneficial partnership can be formed, how you
can help advance an artists’ career, how you can assist a culture or
institution by contributing a percentage of sales of your product in
support, and how you can provide your customer a link to information
about the source material or culture.
If you appreciate a person, object, or culture, you should never appropriate it.
You should respect them. That’s accomplished by engaging in a creative dialogue
and learning about what is important to someone or about something and why.
With a more complete understanding of culture and context, you can
create something unique, beautiful, and respectful. And you will become a
full participant of the human community—by standing alongside your fellow
human beings, rather than positioning yourself above or outside them.
Pamela Kelly is the vice president of licensing and brand management for
the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. She has worked with Smith &
Hawken, Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, Cost Plus, and Marshall
Field’s, as well as international retailer the Body Shop, in product development,
manufacturing, sourcing, retail operations, licensing, and franchising. To learn
more about the museum’s licensing program, visit mnmlicensing.org.
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