How contemporary Native American artists counter cultural appropriation with artistic appropriation

Google “Native American appropriation art” and the first five pages of results or so are all about negative cases of cultural appropriation. On these pages we can read about how outsiders misuse Native American images and cultural heritage, such as the infamous feathered headdress on a lingerie clad model in a Victoria’s Secret show five years ago. Cultural appropriation, of course, continues to be a problem and something that should be addressed and discussed. However, when typing in that search term I wasn’t looking for Native Americans as victims. I wanted to read about how appropriation is used as a strategy within contemporary Native American art. I was looking for Native American artists as agents of empowerment. To find such results buried under droves of articles about how Native American iconography has been mistreated must feel like a double slap in the face. First whites steal Native cultural practices and use it in a distorted way, then this act of appropriation steals the attention away from Native artists who use appropriation as a way to symbolically fight back.

This makes it very difficult to place the aesthetic tactics of many Native American artists into proper art historical perspective, which is a shame, especially considering how significant appropriation is for many Native artists. Appropriation is, after all, a genre of contemporary art that has perhaps been the most important hub for questions concerning artistic authorship and originality and the contextual relativity of the meaning of images. It is perhaps within the Native art community that the legacy of appropriation art today finds it’s firmest stronghold. At first sight it may come as a surprise to learn how popular Andy Warhol is in this community. I can tell you that it is not because of his “Cowboy and Indian series”, but rather because of how Warhol demonstrated that the specialness of a sign – for instance a Campbell’s soup can – can be emptied by the act of repetition and how the meaning of a pre-existing image or object can be altered by placing it within a new context.

Warhol himself was not a particularly political figure, but the strategy of appropriation, of “copying” images and making them your own, has a history of political uses.
Dara Birnbaum and Sherrie Levine used appropriation to feminist ends. By repeating and recontextualizing imagery by male originators they questioned the authenticity of representations of gender. Appropriation has also been employed to question the commodity value of art and its underlying economic structures.

Even before it was a genre of art, Raphael Montanez Ortiz performed a case of appropriation aimed at exposing the misrepresentation of Native Americans. In 1957 he used a Tomahawk to chop up Anthony Mann’s western Winchester ’73. He then put the pieces back together at random, resulting in a complete scrambling and disruption of the original narrative. “Ortiz considered his shaman-like process resonant with his indigenous heritage. His destructive act also criticized media depictions of Native Americans.” 

As a genre, Native American appropriation art comes across as something self-evident and completely natural. Artists are simply taking images back that were stolen from them. Artists such as Douglas Miles, Jaque Fragua, Steven Paul Judd, Ryan Singer, among many others, consider appropriation a way to take repossession of images that they have lost control over. In short, one might say that appropriation art is a means to combat cultural appropriation.

We’ve written about the importance of graffiti for contemporary Native artists many times here on the blog. In the hands of Native artists, painting with spray cans in public spaces is no petty act of vandalism but a profoundly political gesture. This is clearly demonstrated by Jaques Fragua who wrote “This Is Indian Land” in giant letters on a construction site in Downtown Los Angeles. The act of appropriation is performed in a spirit kindred to graffiti. For Native American artists it is about re-claiming what is rightfully theirs by symbolically taking back their land by illegally writing on it, or redefining images that have been made from an external point of view.

We haven’t written about Jaque Fragua on the blog before, so let’s continue on him. Besides graffiti, Fragua considers appropriation one of his artistic go-to’s. “The Big Chief” is for instance a commercial symbol that has become a recurring character throughout Fragua’s work. Fragua explains: “He’s a chief from a sign that’s near my reservation, at Big Chief Gas Station. If you’ve ever watched Breaking Bad, you’ve see that gas station. I lifted him and I’ve been putting him everywhere—he’s the Big Chief, right? When you put a mirror against another mirror, you start seeing the core of the truths.”

In another interview, Fragua explains the appeal of appropriation more in depth: ”Simply, it’s about imagery that continues to colonize us. By creating fine art out of these visuals and emphasizing the images ad nauseum, it creates the opposite effect. Sort of like Warhol’s soup cans.”  Fragua thus reappropriates his culture’s iconography in a way that conceptually subverts our overconsumption of misappropriated Native American images that has turned into stereotypes.

Some critics fear that appropriation as a artistic gesture has lost some of its meaning in a time when borrowing, quoting, stealing and copying is everyday practice to the point of being ubiquitous. However, for Native American artists, appropriation simply follows the rules of the game set by a white hegemony. It is the answer to a signifying practice already put in place. As such, appropriation is important now perhaps more than ever. With a president that casually refers to people of Native American heritage as “Pocahontas”, and a culture at large that hold it’s racial stereotypes dearly, appropriation as artistic weapon offers a way to strike back. Contemporary Native American artists turn to appropriation not to be trendy or edgy but out of urgency. It opens a line of dialogue that lets Native Americans have the last word on images that they were not in charge of in the first place and thus to let the public know what they think about them.

Further reading about cultural appropriation:


About appropriation art: 

Feathers in fashion


imagesTraditional Native American headdresses have been popping up in all kinds of inappropriate places as of late. Last year alone saw a scantily clad model sporting a war bonnet at Victoria Secret’s annual runway extravaganza, a distasteful No Doubt video, a flat out racist release party for clothing label Paul Frank themed around powwows that involved play-acted scalpings, tomahawks and feathered dress-up, to mention but a selection of cases that went beyond the norms of cultural respect. These events sparked uproars on blogs and in other media, resulting in apologies from all the offending parties. The fashion industry, however, seems to have missed out on the larger lesson as traditional Indian attributes continue to hold appeal for fashion designers less discerning on questions of cultural integrity. One particular blatant example that seems to have passed the radar of most commentators is the Japanese label Neighborhood. The lookbook for its spring/summer 2013 collection features white models wearing prominent feathered headdresses along with other Native American references.

One reason that this case has escaped the attention of sites such as Native Appropriations, Beyond Buckskin and other blogs that are usually hyper-alert to questions of this matter could be that the label is not widely distributed outside of Japan. Yet Neighborhood is not completely unavailable on western shores. It is sold in hip online stores such as Mr Porter and Tres Bien shop. On top of this, and due to the use of exclusively western-looking white models, the campaign is arguably addressed to a western clientele which makes it fair to say that there is a certain ”hipster headdress” tendency at work here.

neighborhood-2013-spring-summer-lookbook-1Now, Neighborhood belongs to a niche of Japanese designer labels  – Kapital and Real McCoy are some others – that are obsessed  with Americana and the historical garments of America’s past. In these labels quests for authenticity, historical accuracy matters down to the smallest stitch. Such sartorial reverence does of course not grant them a free pass to play fast and loose with loaded spiritual symbols of other cultures. It does, however, suggest that at least some thought has gone into the creative process. But just what kind of thought are we dealing with? Chasing after intent is of course often a dead end in these matters as most cultural appropriators will attest to their well-meaning. So let’s proceed from what we have – the photos. They are undeniably beautiful and in comparison to the other photos in the lookbook the Indian themed ones seem to convey a different mood. The model turns down his head in what appears to be solemn introspection. This is a welcome departure from the reigning visual tropes involving Native headdress – the sexy Indian and the proud warrior. Were these art photos they might be interpreted as propositions of the white man’s guilt or at the very least as showing signs of humility. But these are not images of art. Even supposing that the premises were of critical nature, the message is betrayed by the specific context, the purpose of which is to market clothes. What clothes, one might ask considering that there is little evidence of the label’s actual designs to be seen in these photos, presuming of course that the headdress is not part of the collection. A closer look on one of the photos will however reveal something just below the model’s unclothed torso that actually is part of the collection. It is the Thunderbird belt, a beaded belt inspired by traditional Native American craftmanship. The point of the headdress is in other words to reinforce the impression of Indian authenticity. Exactly how a white person serves this purpose is unclear, and extremely problematic.

I myself am a white person of Swedish origin. As a collector of Native American art I have a deep love for the aesthetics and traditions of cultures I am not born into. It is my hope that my passion can be practiced without infringing upon the meaning and symbolic significance that Native cultures ascribe to their objects. I understand that certain objects are sacred and require reverence and understanding at a level beyond mere aesthetic appreciation. One such item is the ceremonial headdress.

images-1As Jennifer Weston (Hunkpapa Lakota, Standing Rock Sioux) explains on the blog Jezebel: ”While ceremonies varied among the diverse plains tribes who produced these headdresses, most involved specific prayers and actions, often relating to EACH single feather. Honor songs and ceremonies, for men and women warriors, come from our languages and represent ancient spiritual practices deeply tied to tribal homelands and their biodiversity.”

To therefore use headdress as shorthand for Native American authenticity is not only reductive and stereotypical but deeply disrespectful to the traditions they are trying to pay hommage to. Sure, the photos look cool and all. But just as you can’t use crosses and other religious symbols without being expected to supply an explanation as to their spiritual significance, it shouldn’t be conceivable to engage with headdress in a manner that stops at mere superficial admiration. That’s how easy appreciation can turn to affront. If only Neighborhood would apply as much care and respect to symbolic matters as they do to the construction of their clothes such self-undermining blunders of appropriation could be avoided.




Ralph Lauren’s Navajo connection


Ralph Lauren's ranch in ColoradoIf I say Ralph Lauren the image will very likely pop into your head of a bratty young white guy, probably belonging to a fraternity at an ivy league university where he spends his family-money-subsidized days making up beer-fueled plans to rule the world, all the while sporting the polo shirt that has become synonymous with the brand. Pretty soulless, in other words. But Ralph Lauren is more, much more. He has a passion for the look and feel of the historical America that runs far deeper than what trends are advocated by the current season of fashion. Lauren has employees whose sole job is to scour through the country for forgotten artifacts and clothes to serve as the inspiration for his vintage RRL line. The resulting designs will end up in stores that resemble trading posts more than those of a high-end fashion designer.


Lauren has a particular affinity for Navajo patterns and ever since the Santa Fe collection in 1981 they have been a recurring motif in his designs. Where other designers might treat the Indian element as an exotic and temporary flourish that is swept away as soon as the wind of trends turn, Lauren has throughout the years remained true to the style. Such dedication, however, has both its up- and its downsides. On the one hand, he is opening up new markets for indigenous design traditions, and with that hopefully raising interest in their cultures. On the other hand, the critics knock him for being an outsider that engages with Native culture in a superficial and diluted manner.


Navajo inspired shirt by Ralph LaurenTo be fair to Lauren, he always made it clear that his was a romanticized version of the old west. He began incorporating tributes to the southwest through his Polo Western collection before ever having set foot in it. Accordingly, his “vintage” line RRL and his “Navajo” designs should be taken to heart with a healthy dose of fiction. It is not for nothing that John Wayne’s hat decorates one Lauren's ranch. John Wayne's hat on table in the foregroundof the coffee tables on Lauren’s ranch, and his vintage collections similarly have the feel of old movie costumes more than historically authentic pieces of clothing. Still, it is understandable that Lauren’s appropriation of Native patterns and imagery might provoke hostility. Lauren’s pieces, however lovingly designed, are mass-produced and hence can never replace or even approximate the experience of genuine Navajo weaving. Behind a real Navajo textile stands a real person, and her labor and sweat is woven into the warps and wefts of the fabric. It is the reality of this person – her history and culture as well as her individuality – that is pushed to the side when the copy is allowed to stand in for the original.


Besides, one can’t help but think that if Lauren really wanted to pay more than lip service to Indian culture, he would at least include some Native people in his campaigns or on his runways.

For real deal Navajo weaving, drop by Kiva Gallery’s new exhibition.