Right: Eagle Gala Dress (2013), by Dorothy Grant (Haida).
The Peabody-Essex is really a wonderful museum. I would love to work there someday. An amazing collection of East Asian and Pacific art, the Yin Yu Tang house, and really top-notch temporary/traveling exhibits, especially for a small town museum. Plus, Salem is a wonderful cute little town; I have only ever been there for day trips, but I have *always* had a great time. I’m actually really kind of surprised that I don’t seem to have more photos from Salem; then again, I hadn’t been in many years, so maybe I wasn’t yet in the habit of using Flickr yet.
Right now, all the way up until March 6, the Peabody-Essex is showing an exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which highlights contemporary fashion designs inspired by Native American traditions. Hyperallergic, I guess I should not be surprised, has done a very nice review of the show, so if you want a better summary/overview of what the show actually features/contains, go read that first and then come back here, and we’ll see what sort of commentary I might be able to add.
I do love the dresses, and the more art fashion pieces, but there’s also something wonderful about this very sleek, simple, elegant piece, with just enough of a hint of the Native motif. I can imagine that for a Haida person wearing this, it could feel quite powerful, as an expression of one’s identity – attending a black tie affair, and still expressing their identity, wearing a motif exclusive to them.
I have blogged on here about a few exhibits I’ve been fortunate to see, of high art fashion (mostly by Westerner designers) inspired by China, and of contemporary Japanese fashion. And I find all of this terribly fascinating. Just walking around Tokyo, or Kyoto, or elsewhere in Japan, one can see a huge range of fashions, all of them quite arguably “Japanese”, or “authentically Japanese,” authentic simply by virtue of the fact that real Japanese people are indeed choosing to wear them. Basically, a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to culture. TokyoFashion.com is a great website for this sort of thing, too – though they do tend to focus on Harajuku, there’s a pretty wide variety of approaches and styles in there. Basically, the point I mean to reach in this side tangent is simply to say I do think it fascinating how Japanese (or Chinese, or people of many other cultures) employ, adapt, re-invent elements of their own cultural tradition to make a contemporary statement. That’s what a lot of Neo-Nihonga and such is, and what I find fascinating in that realm, too. And I would love to see a museum exhibit about, specifically, that sort of fashion – specifically Japanese fashion that incorporates elements of “Japanese culture” or “tradition.”
But, returning to Native Fashion Now, in a nutshell, “Native Fashion Now” beautifully exhibits how people can, and do, express their Native American identity, embrace it, perform it, display it, in thoroughly modern ways.
While it may be relatively easy to see the contemporary and the traditional as two parts of Japanese culture, neither less authentic or real than the other, Native American cultures (or perhaps, indigenous cultures, more broadly) tend not to be seen that way, in the mainstream imagination. Conventional mainstream attitudes view, or imagine, Native American culture and identity in a unique way, notably dissimilar from how we understand Jewish, Arab/Muslim, East Asian, or African identities and cultures. Or, if not unique to the Native American experience, perhaps it is something particular to how we approach indigenous cultures, as a category. There are few who would look twice, or protest, if they saw Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Africans adapting their traditional styles and motifs into modern fashions. Cultures change and evolve, and few (I should hope) would have much difficulty imagining, and accepting, that all of these cultures exist in a modern form, and that these people lead fully modern lives. Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. “perform” their ethnic/national identities in thoroughly contemporary ways, adapting and innovating. But, because of the particular discursive constructions surrounding Indigenous Peoples – that is, because of the way 18th-20th century people conceived of indigenous peoples as primitive, as un-modern, as being in need of education & civilizing – mainstream attitudes have a problem with conceiving of how one could be Native American, and also modern. Native American and also “regular” American. In the mainstream discourse, in the mainstream mind, being indigenous means being traditional, and if living a typical modern life means being less traditional, then it means being less Native American, too, right? Wrong. If living a modern life doesn’t make you any less Jewish(-American) or Chinese(-American), just because the traditions have changed or evolved or diluted (weakened, arguably), then why should anyone be seen as being less Native American, less truly or authentically Native American, just because their lifestyle doesn’t match that of their ancestors?
Louis Vuitton Quiver (2007), Kent Monkman (Cree). Monkman plays off of the expectations, the demands of mainstream stereotypes that associate Native Americans so closely with archery, and with feathers. What, as if they all wear feathers and carry a bow all the time? But then he combines this with Louis Vuitton patterning, a parody of sorts of what indigenous modernity should look like. Does being a Native American in the modern world mean having a Louis Vuitton quiver? Or maybe it means not having a quiver at all. I may be totally off-base, but I imagine that perhaps the artist seeks to shock with this very basic concept – what do you mean Native Americans are just like the rest of us, in t-shirts and jeans, or in suits and slacks? How can you be Native American without feathers and bows & arrows?
Maybe it’s just my own experience, growing up where and how I did, not being exposed very much to any Native American presence in my life growing up, that I had come to hold these stereotyped views about Native Americans. But I do get the sense – both from my own experience, and from serious classroom lectures, readings, etc. – that this is a widespread and extensive discourse, growing out of colonialism and racism and so forth of (especially) the 19th century. I would be curious what experiences or impressions those who grew up in other parts of the country – or in other countries – might have had. For those of you who grew up in areas, or communities, where Native American or First Nation culture was much more present, did you grow up having the same ideas about Native American culture & identity, as traditional, as being opposed to modernity? Similar ideas about people being somehow less authentic if they didn’t lead more wholly traditional lives?
Of course, talking about Native American fashions, and adapting them creatively, one can’t easily avoid the question, or issue, of cultural appropriation. After all, Native American culture – like other indigenous cultures around the world – has faced particularly severe assaults, such that traditions and identity, and in some cases entire peoples, have severely diminished or disappeared entirely; so these cultures, as understood and practiced and cherished by Native people, and not as appropriated and re-invented by others, ought to be approached with an extra degree of respect. Further, unlike many elements of many cultures, which have no real sacred or taboo power to them (*achem* like the kimono *cough*), in many Native American cultures, many garments, accessories, motifs, and so forth are very strictly associated only with particular events or rituals, or can only be worn by particular people, or have to be earned; and for anyone else to wear it, use it, or even touch it – let alone to appropriate it – is sacrilegious, a violation. It is taboo in the truest, original sense of the word.
I quite liked the way the exhibit addressed these issues, when it came to designs by non-Native designers. As one gallery label reads:
Totem-pole designs of the Pacific Northwest Coast captivated the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, inspiring him to create this masterfully embroidered dress. … And yet Mizrahi is not Native – so what to think of his appropriation of these motifs?
Cultural borrowing is complex. Fashion designers are renowned remixers – voracious consumers of images and ideas. Mizrahi makes reference to totem poles, but he does not replicate one exactly. He emulates, yet he also produces a new style.
I am by no means saying this is perfect, or that there is (or should be) any one, singular, way that is the only way these things should be addressed. I’m not putting my foot down and taking a stand behind this approach. But, I like it. It acknowledges that appropriation is problematic, but also acknowledges that cultural borrowing is complex (oh my god thank you. yes. nuance and complexity, people. come on, get it together.), and it encourages visitors to think about the complexities for themselves. Artists and designers, and indeed all people, are inspired by all the things around them. And a great many of those things are from other cultures, that are not one’s own, but they are present in one’s life, one’s experiences, and they are inspiring nonetheless. What kinds of derivative works – that is, what kinds of “inspired by” – are okay, and which are not? Who has the right to produce inspired or derivative works? As the label states, all the designers in this show, including both Mizrahi and the Native American designers, are borrowers, are remixers. And, as the Hyperallergic article says, let us not forget that many of these designers “have been consistently told they were “not Native enough” to be lauded as Native artists.” So, what kind of borrowing and remixing is okay, and by whom, and which is not? And as much as many blog posts, academic journal articles, and the like assert that there is a single definitive answer to that question, I’m not sure that’s really the case.
This brings us to another interesting item in the exhibit. A kimono – very clearly patterned after the Japanese garment – adapted with a Native American design. The artist, Toni Williams, is Arapaho, but she’s not Japanese (as far as we are told, on the gallery labels). Is this not cultural appropriation? For those screaming bloody murder about the thing at the MFA, is this not just as offensive? If not, why not? Is it perfectly okay because the Native American designer is a person of color? Can only white people perform cultural appropriation? Are all people of color, from Latinos to Native Americans to Asians to Arabs incapable of racism, even when it concerns a culture vastly different from their own? If the main objection to the kimono at the MFA was that using the kimono as merely a costume, merely an accessory, is offensive because it relates to a notion of simply taking anything you want from any other culture, willy-nilly, then isn’t this the same? Are all Native American cultures or identities one big group, and are they allowed to borrow from one another’s cultures? If a Diné were to appropriate elements of Haida culture for their designs, where does that fall on a spectrum of offensiveness, compared to a Japanese artist, or a Jewish artist, appropriating those Haida designs?
Did the Native American designer Toni Williams get special permission from a professional kimono designer to do this? And even if she did get permission from a professional kimono-maker in Kyoto, well, so did the MFA, so does it matter? After all, the Asian-American experience is not the same as the Japanese one (in Asia), and so how could a Japanese understand how Asian-Americans feel about this? Anyway.. I think it’s worth thinking about, and discussing. Is this okay? If it is, why? What makes it different? What makes this inoffensive, and how can we (others, everyone) seek to emulate that, in order to avoid offense?
Right: Carla Hemlock (Mohawk), Treaty Cloth Shirt (2012). Features the 1794 Treaty between the US and the Iroquois Confederation. I’m a bit surprised that the artist would choose a Treaty that’s actually been consistently honored, rather than the more political art message of choosing one the US has trampled on. I’m also surprised there are any Native American treaties the US has actually consistently honored.
Apologies to have allowed the cultural appropriation talk to dominate this post. It’s really not that central or prominent a theme within the exhibit. Rather, the theme I most took away was one of “indigenous modernity,” though I doubt that term would have appeared verbatim anywhere on the labels. Native American culture is living, and it is contemporary. Native Americans are no more obligated to be traditional in order to be “true” Native Americans than Jews or Chinese or Dutchmen or anyone else is. They are not less Native American for being less traditional – just as I am myself no less Jewish for not observing the same traditions and leading the same lifestyle as my ancestors. And once you “get” this concept, boy, contemporary Native American culture can be really cool.
Native Fashion Now is showing at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. until March 6, 2016. It is included with regular museum admission – no extra charge. A huge thank you to the PEM for that, and for allowing photos!