‘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.’ ■


Mis­chka Dhu­loo @dopestchiqq Ming-Cheau Lin @mingcheau

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