So, a bunch of thoughts have been percolating in my mind since the last discussion on cultural appropriation. Specifically pertaining to two discussions about costumes.
The first comes from one brown woman of woman of (an)other color blog: Halloween: Day of Dead, Day of Red.
The second costume I want to talk about is one that I seem to have seen a lot on websites and over the weekend: the Pocahontas/ stereotypical Native American costume. With regards to the argument “Pochontas is from Disney and I was dressing up as a Disney character” my response is that Disney has racially problematic representations of individuals and helps to perpetuate many stereotypes about particular groups of people. So hiding behind Disney isn’t really going to help justify your costume.
And then from Sara of Sara Speaking: costume appropriation
Since she’s covered in blue paint I can’t say with certainty that this is an example of white privilege, but I definitely think it falls under a more generalised Western privilege, that is, the privilege that says we can pick and choose from the cultures and religions of these other peoples of the world without regard for how the practitioners of those religions and inhabitants of those cultures feel about that appropriation.
All of which furthered my thinking on cosplay, art, and the fine line between homage and appropriation.
And it is with that in mind that I want to talk about cake.
“Cake?!” you say, unable to fathom what my sweet tooth has to do with discussions of cultural appropriation. Yes, dear readers, I want to talk about cake, and I promise to you that it is very relevant to this discussion. Pictures and discussion after the cut.
So, I recently came across the JollyBe Bakery which, I must admit, does some pretty stunning cakes. While perusing their gallery, I was reminded by something I had read in Sara’s thread. To preface her discussion on cultural appropriation, Sara quoted Nicole Magne, the crafter of this costume, responding to criticism:
I also very clearly explained that I created this costume as a tribute, not as a joke. I think the effort I put forth is obvious, and clearly not the result of an ignorant intention. This is art to me, I take it very seriously.
Although I side with Sara on this one, I am not without sympathy for Magne. Art is a hobby of mine, and I take inspiration from a myriad of different cultures. Art movements, like cultures, do not exist in a vacuum, separate and distinct from each other; there has always been, and possibly will always be, cross pollination when an artist is exposed to new experiences and ideas. Where’s the line between homage and appropriation?
Hold that thought and let’s get back to the cakes. The first cake on the bakery site that caught my eye was this one:
It’s called Matthew’s cake and it comes with this description:
Devil’s food cake with vanilla buttercream and vanilla-flavored rolled fondant,
with a painting adapted from a print by the Japanese artist, Toyohara Chikanobu.
It is definitely well crafted and quite a beautiful cake. Like the Kali costume the artist has put in a lot of effort into creating a work of art, but has it crossed the line from artistic borrowing to cultural appropriation?
Let’s now turn to the second cake that caught my eye. I actually find this one to be much more problematic, although it’s a fairly innocuous cake at first glance.
Like the cake above, it’s a beautifully crafted work of art. Just looking at the pattern, it seems to be inspired by some sort of embroidery (perhaps those who know more about textiles than I do could identify the source of inspiration just from looking at it).
It’s the description that pushes this into cultural appropriation for me, though:
Golden butter cake with lemon curd and French vanilla buttercream. To match an
embroidered South Asian wedding costume, it is covered with pink rolled fondant
and fondant appliqués and embellished with royal icing.
The roses are sculpted in white chocolate plastique.
South Asian wedding costume. Now, I’ve mentioned this tendency to label the apparel of other cultures as “costumes” back when I commented on Oriental Barbie, but I’d like to highlight something that one brown woman said in her Halloween/Day of Red post:
Many people seem to choose costumes that are outside of normalcy – there is this combination of stereotyping and further marginalizing and often culturally appropriating communities. This is about exercising one’s privilege by dressing up as the Other – so when I see a white woman dressing up in the everyday clothes of someone from India, for example, there is something that allows that individual to feel comfortable in exploiting and appropriating another culture and identity, while also disregarding the history of that community, for a day that is apparently “all about fun”.
Calling wedding apparel from another culture a “costume” (because goodness knows the average Westerner doesn’t call a white wedding dress a costume) is Othering. Western clothes are “real” clothes while non-western clothes are “ethnic costumes” akin to when children play dress up.
The artist reducing a wedding dress to an ethnic costume takes what is a beautiful work of art and turns it into a clear-cut example of what Sara was saying about Western privilege. It’s not an artist seeing beauty and wanting to share that beauty with others that I see; it’s a conqueror taking another culture’s “quaint” customs and using the exoticism to enhance their reputation as “worldly” and “sophisticated”.
And that thought colours the way that I view the other cakes, even though this cake is the only one I found with such a blatantly disrespectful description. All I can think is that, if the artist can’t give enough respect to the traditions of another culture to put their wedding traditions on the same level as Western traditions, how can I give them the benefit of the doubt to have treated their other instances of cultural borrowing with respect and understanding?
In the end, I don’t think I’m any closer to really understanding what is an appropriate way to incorporate ideas and inspiration from another culture into one’s own art, but I am closer to understanding what isn’t.