Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Upon entering homeware stores, one is greeted with rows on rows of colourful furniture, embellished décor, and bold accents. I always feel as though I have entered a bazaar, one from my childhood spent with my aajis, with fresh seasonal produce and barking vendors. However, in these stores, there is a quiet lull of shoppers browsing and employees re-arranging. There is always a sense of familiarity in the mundane experience of shopping – but, it became uncannily familiar during a recent trip I took to TK Maxx.
I saw stacks of wooden and gold frames in lieu of the usual pastel colours. There were tropical motifs on every towel and ‘Indian’ elephant ornaments on every shelf. This was their new summer line of products, that appeared inspired by Vesara temple architecture and different flora and fauna of the Indian subcontinent, E.g. lotuses, palm leaves, peacocks. Each product sported a label, of a similar aesthetic, calling itself the “Made in India” line. The linguistic choices of each label also did not go unnoticed. Buzzwords such as ethnic, oriental, exotic, Asian-style were brazenly used. The scene was familiar to me, yet bizarre. For the first time in my life, I was facing an entire store full of ‘Indian’-style products; cushions, kettles, mugs, and even mirrors. So, I decided to reflect on the mass-debated issue of Cultural Appropriation, and how it seems impossible to ignore in day to day life.
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the taking – from a culture that is not one’s own- of intellectual property, cultural expression or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge”, according to the authors of Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, law professors Bruce Ziff and Pratima Rao. However, the term ‘appropriation’ can be ambiguous and for the active act of cultural appropriation to be valid, Rao states that it “only occurs when a privileged group (a group that has economic, political and institutional power) borrows or steals from a marginalised group”. I questioned my feeling of discomfort – was I attempting to gatekeep my culture to a point of extreme exclusivity? Should a brand not be able to take inspiration? I realised quickly that the issue was not taking inspiration, it was transforming it into trends. Sacred symbols, such as the Om (Aum) symbol – ॐ – were used on coaster designs and picture frames. Here lies the lack of cultural sensitivity, and by extension, appropriation.
In The Tourist Gaze (2002), John Urry theorised about how “gazing upon other cultures and environments, both celebrates and domesticates otherness”. This theory is in relevance to cinematic portrayal of different cultures, not ‘inspired’ products, but it still gives insight into the sometimes-subconscious action of appropriation. In displaying these exotic and interesting items at home, it is somehow domesticating a culture you once deemed visually displeasing. The issue is not the interest in classical Indian décor. There is no sort of ownership of lotuses, palm leaves, or peacocks, in fact, there is a much deeper architectural history behind the different temple designs across a range of areas and religions in the Asian subcontinent. The real issue stems from the fact that when a big company stocks ‘Indianised’ products, it instantly becomes trendy, not foreign. Is it perhaps a method of disciplining this ‘otherness’ to fit within a ‘western’ household? This issue is exemplified by bloggers who have taken to this new wave of homeware, stating phrases like:
“please get rid of any preconceived, clichéd ideas you have about Indian homewares! As this post will prove, all manner of styles and colours of homewares now come out of India…” - (Interiors Addict)
I couldn’t help but wonder how entire cultures could be reduced to a single vendible aesthetic. This is in no means a particularly new phenomenon. In looking back at pop culture, one can cite several examples of blatant appropriation with Katy Perry’s 2013 American Music Awards performance where she used a Japanese geisha themed set or Kylie Jenner’s ‘insta-famous’ photo of her in cornrows. Selena Gomez’s song ‘Come & Get It’ references Bollywood culture through sartorial and design choices, with the singer wearing a bindi, a symbolic aspect in Hindu tradition. What these examples have in common is that they are harmful generalisations, often reducing several cultures into one. They present cultural aspects (kimonos, braids, bindis) which are used as stereotypes against those of the respective culture; but then are somehow transformed into something trendy or cool. Activist and actress Amandla Stenberg (who has called out Jenner in the past) summarises, “Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”
It is easy to point fingers to these celebrities or big corporations who seemingly exist as some form of ‘culture vultures’, but I challenged myself to think about this on a personal level. How many times have I encountered situations of cultural appropriation? I love henna tattoos for the summer; bindis are such a cute festival trend. Have I spoken up about how these types of phrases continue to impact me?
Looking at all the home décor that day, I realise that there is nothing wrong in wanting to take home pieces that are inspired by a rich and vibrant cultural and religious history. Cultures are inclusive, and can be celebrated through education, custom, and practise. However, the next time you want to buy something that is clearly advertised as something from a different country, culture, or religion, please ask yourself: can you distinguish between what is sacred and what is stylish? Do you know the years of practise, technique, and history that precede the object you are buying?
There are several counterarguments that attempt to defend how appropriation is essential for the continuation and spread of a culture. It is deemed as flattery, rather than mockery. It must be emphasised that there is no ‘right’ way to appropriate. There is only space to appreciate. As Camryn Alejandra specified on her widely circulated Instagram post, culture appreciation is when someone “seeks to genuinely understand and learn about another culture – they do not claim another culture as their own, nor do they profit from it.” Seeing diversity in stores, media campaigns, and styles is exceptionally important, but it is not a trend or a token. My visits to these stores have only strengthened my belief that culture is not for sale.
Ketki currently studies Classics and English Literature at King’s College London. She is the deputy editor-in-chief of Strand Magazine, KCL’s ‘Arts and Culture’ publication. She explores what "multi-cultural identity" looks like, in London and beyond, within her writing. This ambition has lead her to interview personalities such as award-winning producer Mira Nair and Canadian-Indian rapper Tesher. She is an aspiring journalist with a passion for cultural commentary and feature writing.
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