So, recently, while decorating a ceramic piece using patterns “borrowed” from Iznik pottery made during the Ottoman empire, I had a moment of doubt and asked myself whether I was guilty of crossing ethical boundaries through acts of “cultural appropriation”? I didn't stop in my tracks but I thought there may be something here to look out for.
For a cultural purist my ceramics may seem transgressive – even though in an admittedly quiet way – but that is their intention. To me purism is the enemy of pluralism and, historically the actuality of cultural purism is marginal (and the idea of cultural purism has most often been used as a political propaganda tool to assert the perceived superiority of one's own culture over that of another culture). Also, very often cultural purity leads to sterility when a lack of new input and ideas lead to solipsistic stagnation. In such cases, the cultural output loses most of its original meaning by becoming a reduced signpost of a culture – merely acting as a cypher or a symbolic representation of a simplistic idea of a culture and its people.
The ceramic piece that brought this question on featured Iznik patterns themselves cultural hybrids as Iznik pottery was heavily influenced by Chinese pottery. The exchange of cultural goods was well established during the 16th century along trading routes connecting East with West. Thus Iznik pottery is itself a result of cultural appropriation. On this specific pot I combined Iznik inspired patterns with slip decoration and traditional lead glazes found on English lead-glazed pottery of about the same era. Both these pottery traditions were, until fairly recently, not well known to me. As I am neither British nor Turkish I seem now to be transgressing on two fronts and guilty of two accounts of cultural appropriation.
Personally I say the more cultural influences, the merrier. I think there is nothing wrong with “borrowing” from other cultures as long as you don’t “steal” from them, i.e. deny them the recognition of origin. Or as bell hooks puts it:
“Acts of appropriation are part of the process by which we make ourselves. Appropriating - taking something for one’s own use - need not be synonymous with exploitation. This is especially true of cultural appropriation. The “use” one makes of what is appropriated is the crucial factor.”
bell hooks, Art on the Mind: Visual Politics,
(1995) New York: New Press, p. 11.
The whole reason why I mix and match pottery styles and decorations from different time and cultures is an attempt to question these boundaries and be transgressive. The outcome are ceramics which both highlight and obscure differences and similarities and which, for me, should lead to a pluralistic understanding of the world.
Suppose, theoretically, I wanted to attempt to limit my choice of influences to “My” cultural domain to secure an appropriate “guilt free” cultural ownership over my work. Where would that take me? Well, in a way this is my process in reverse. A lack of cultural identity and a quest for some sort of belonging underlies my work and is the heart of my very personal quest. I have always felt never quite at home in any cultural surrounding even if, as many others, I have been exposed to many different influences. My exact cultural home is difficult to define. I am a German national who has lived in England for a quarter of a century. My birth country is South Africa. I feel European at a time where Brexit is dominating the headlines. My grandfathers fought on opposite sides of WWI. I was raised within English, Swedish and German traditions and a huge appreciation for Sub-Saharan African Arts. This doesn’t even take into account the sort of influence other European nations give you when you grow up in the centre of Europe nor the all-pervading influence of the USA, a place I lived for year during my mid teens and where two sets of great-grandparents spent part of their lives.
To me this leads me to the choice of two options: choosing one cultural identity over the others to gain a sense of belonging, or embracing multi-culturalism. I have chosen the latter and this has been the driving force in my work which is all about cultural diversity and influences. This moment, me decorating this pot, is in essence what it is all about: extending my cultural horizons by harmonising different traditions while keeping them distinct and without any hierarchical evaluation.
A few days after writing this I accidentally came across a film clip shown on the BBC website about "Whose problem is cultural appropriation?"
As with many complicated issues this has not given me any fixed answers but raised lots of questions. Anyway, I will have to be mindful when dealing with the issues I do but it won't keep me from what I think is right.