‘This Is What My Culture Looks Like When It Isn’t Appropriated’
Four women tell it like it is
Thabo Makhetha-Kwinana on her Basotho blanket-inspired designs
A 29-year-old fashion designer of Basotho heritage ‘I was born in Lesotho and, although I left when I was five, I visit annually. It’s important to tell the story of your roots – something I express through fashion.
‘Basotho blankets are traditionally used for various occasions. The Seanamarena blankets are held in the highest regard, often gifted to a bridal couple. The Motlatsi blanket was designed in honour of King Letsie III’s first child. Each pattern has its own story. The blankets are mainly comprised of wool – a rich resource in Lesotho.
‘Moving to big cities, I wanted to keep that tradition by creating items from the blankets that can be part of everyday wear, to tell my story of leaving my home country without leaving behind my heritage. They’re also cross-cultural garments that generate conversation – a way of sharing my culture.
‘I find it upsetting when I see others appropriating traditional clothing from cultures. Who is profiting from this? We need to look at why consumers support brands that appropriate, rather than local creatives authentically using their culture in their work.
‘When you appropriate, there’s a danger of misinterpretation of that culture’s story, which can be insulting. That said, I think it is possible to be inspired by other cultures – the key is to communicate this and the background story clearly.
‘Basotho blankets remind me of home, and of who I am. They are a way I can share my culture and heritage with others – to share the story of the land of my birth.’
Haneefah Adam on henna
A 26-year-old artist of Fulani heritage ‘I’m from Ilorin in Nigeria’s Kwara State. In my culture, henna has been used for years for beautification. Growing up, we used traditional henna – a green powder we’d make into a paste with water. We’d apply it on our fingers, nails and feet; it stains orange.
‘Traditionally, henna is applied on brides-to-be during the pre-wedding festivities. Henna – or laali – is earmarked for day one of the wedding prep, where the bride is also given skin and body treatments and has her hair intricately braided. A henna artist – often an older woman – does the application.
‘I usually only wear henna at special times, such as weddings or religious festivals. Henna has a rich cultural heritage; it commemorates occasions. It’s also about women coming together to celebrate and share stories.
‘It can be upsetting when a cultural component isn’t celebrated in its context, reduced to an exotic practice or to feed a stereotype. Cultural appropriation is often shrouded in misinformation and typically takes advantage of a culture by profiting from it without crediting it correctly.
‘I think it’s possible to be inspired by something without copying it. And it’s always great to talk about where that inspiration has been derived from to promote diversity and an appreciation for its heritage.’
Mischka Dhuloo on bindis
A 21-year-old jewellery designer and influencer of Indian and Hindu heritage ‘As an Indian South African who follows the culture of Hinduism, the bindi has significant cultural meaning for me. For many Hindus, it represents a third eye to ward off bad luck or bad energy. It’s sacred because it’s used to represent prayer: it’s said that since you cannot pray the entire day, the symbol on your head will signify that your prayers are with you during the day. For me, wearing a bindi is special not just for its religious meaning, but because it connects me with my heritage.
‘Nowadays, the bindi has been devalued – used as a style accessory out of its cultural context. I don’t mind inspiration being taken from my culture, but traditional things like wearing a bindi need to be respected and represented correctly. I think sharing between cultures is very important, but the danger of cultural appropriation is misrepresenting a culture and potentially perpetuating racial stereotypes.’
Ming-Cheau Lin on Asian and religious symbolism
A 29-year-old copywriter and food media consultant of Taiwanese heritage ‘I’m Asian-South African with Taiwanese heritage. My family is Buddhist and I have a Buddhist deity, Guan Ying, tattoed on my arm. Guan Ying represents compassion. I also have a pair of chopsticks along my arm as my culture’s food shapes most of my family memories. Asianstyle eating is all about healing and feeding your body what it needs. As a food blogger, I’ve learnt much about my culture’s history through food.
‘I wear my culture visibly as tattoos because I’m proud to be Taiwanese, and of the lessons my parents taught me through Buddhism. When I see others appropriating symbolism, it makes me feel that my culture and home religion get “dumbed down”. Appropriation can cause the representations to lose their deeper meaning. I Googled “chopsticks tattoos” before getting my tattoo done, and so many were pictured as crossed or stuck into food. In the dominant cultures where chopsticks are used, crossing them symbolises “no entry/unwelcoming”, and chopsticks stuck into food represent the incense stuck into bowls of rice that are presented to the deceased. Sticking chopsticks into food is extremely taboo.
‘Cultural exchange is always welcome – that happens when someone from a specific culture invites you to partake in it. I have a rosary blessed by the Pope that a Christian friend gave me. I gave her a jade Guan Ying necklace – that was our exchange. I’d never wear the rosary because I’m not Christian, and doing so doesn’t feel right.
‘My tattoos represent my learning, my culture, my personality, and moments and experiences in my life that have shaped me into the woman I am today.’ ■
SEE OUR FULL #HERITAGE SERIES ON WOMEN CELEBRATING THEIR STORIES FOR HERITAGE MONTH ON OUR SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS Thabo MakhethaKwinana @tmakcc Haneefah Adam @muslimahanie
Mischka Dhuloo @dopestchiqq Ming-Cheau Lin @mingcheau