Arts and Cultural Appropriation
August 17, 2009 8:19 PM   Subscribe

How have issues of cultural appropriation, stereotypes, and diversity been tackled in art and popular culture?

I'm in the early stages of working on a performance piece on cultural appropriation and identity in the arts, and I'm looking for inspiration from others that have done the same. So far I am only familiar with Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his Living Museum of Fetish/ized Identities, and the SF/fantasy RaceFail debacle.

I am especially interested in these issues as they occur in burlesque, circus, and theatre, since that's what I'm working with, but any creative field would be good too.
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" comes to mind. I'm no ethnographer, but my sense is that public performance was the actual mechanism (like TV and movies today) of the issues I assume you're tackling, so they may be more likely to have merely eliminated those gears as time went on. It does seem like your mentioned sources are more experimental so hopefully someone can come up with some more on-point references for you. To be sure, I'm bringing up Bamboozled not because it's a movie about the issues, but that the subject of the movie is also a stage-oriented historiography.
posted by rhizome at 9:09 PM on August 17, 2009

Another comedy about African-American stereotypes in arts is the satire Hollywood Shuffle. Similar topics are covered in the Public Enemy song "Burn Hollywood Burn."
posted by Bookhouse at 9:24 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's an episode of 30 Rock where Tracy Morgan pretends he can't read in order to get out of going to rehearsals, and everybody believes him and he berates them for their white guilt.

As far as burlesque and circus, it's a bit harder because they're mediums that depend on certain tropes and stereotypes to set the tone of a performance. almost like a cultural shorthand. I was tangentially associated with some radical leftist, culturally-oversensitive circus kids once, I'll see if i can dredge up anything from them
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:24 PM on August 17, 2009

Not sure if this is the kind of thing you are looking for or not. It is a play about minstrel shows stereotyping, and brings ths subject current into the 21st century. Unfortunately, it is not out on film yet.
The Dance
posted by SLC Mom at 9:47 PM on August 17, 2009

Some would call it theatre.
posted by pompomtom at 10:25 PM on August 17, 2009

You've hit upon one of Metafilter's weaker spots here, but have a look at the work of Damali Ayo.
posted by embrangled at 4:18 AM on August 18, 2009

On the very NSFW side, there is much of Steven Leyba's art, especially the stuff from the mid-to-late 1990s. It deals with, in part, the concepts of art and the intersection of that and Native American identity. He has done several performance pieces, none of which you'll want to emulate but perhaps you can find some twinkle of inspiration. (That twinkle is probably broken glass.)

Perhaps other artists who have 'indigenous' heritage (Native American or Austrailian come to mind?) will be a place to look?
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 4:25 AM on August 18, 2009

There's always Monet's La japonaise.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:19 AM on August 18, 2009

Native American Author Sherman Alexie often writes about appropriation of Native American culture, and popularity of stereotypical depictions of the same.
posted by illenion at 6:36 AM on August 18, 2009

Link to Sherman Alexie's site:
posted by illenion at 6:37 AM on August 18, 2009

This article "The ecstasy of influence: a plagiarism" by Jonathan Lethem is my favorite starting place.

Also, Pygmy Pop! and a Sweet Lullaby for World Music by Steven Feld and Race Music: Bo Chatmon, Corrine Corrina and the Excluded Middle by Chris Waterman are a couple interesting texts within ethnomusicology on the topic.

Pygmy Pop charts a Central African flute melody as it travels from a field recording to a Herbie Hancock track Watermelon Man, to a Madonna track Sanctuary, and beyond.

The Waterman article shows how the boundaries between blues and hillbilly music weren't always so clear, tracing several cover versions of the tune Corrine Corrina, including Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, Dean Martin, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, and the soundtrack and title to a Whoopie Goldberg movie.
posted by umbú at 6:45 AM on August 18, 2009

You might also be interested in Destination Culture by Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett (which features Gomez-Peña on the cover with "please don't discover me!" written on his chest).

The death of authentic primitive art and other tales of progress by Shelly Errington and Renato Rosaldo's article on imperialist nostalgia are useful regarding this issue, especially cases like the packaging of images of Native Americans in much art from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
posted by umbú at 6:55 AM on August 18, 2009

Can you explain more about where you're going with your performance piece? Are you trying to discuss through it cultural appropriation, or am I missing something? I'm not quite clear on what your actual goal is, so I'm not sure how to help. Also, cultural and artistic appropriation, concepts of stereotypes and diversity are such big and complex subjects individually that I think it would be very difficult to accurately discuss all of them through a single piece, if that's indeed what you're aiming to do. These issues are also hugely varied between art and popular culture, which of course always have a relationship with one another, but are only in some cases on the same page. It seems like you might need to narrow your topic down, no matter what your intended, finished production may be.

I've written a couple of small research papers regarding artistic appropriation and cultural diffusion and would be happy to send them to you, but I'm not sure if they would help or provide you with any good sources, considering they're geared toward art appropriation and cultural diffusion through online communities and (primarily) in the digital arts; I don't really know anything about the performance arts, so I don't mention them.

On a side note, though I've seen similar interpretations of RaceFail's definition of cultural appropriation, I strongly disagree with them. Such definitions imply far too much that people of a certain race or region all have one particular culture and mindset, which, quite ironically, is a hugely racist/nationalistic assumption to make. Also, it implies that "original" (if there is much of that at all, considering how many thousands of years we've been here) interpretations of ideas and myths are the only correct or "okay" interpretations, which does a disservice to people who want to genuinely learn about other cultures. Artistic and cultural appropriation has always gone on, throughout all ages, throughout all races. We have a million and one Jesus/Horus/Neo from The Matrix and rags to riches princesses for a reason. Anyway, I thought I might just mention that, as I definitely believe there are less politicized and less agenda-setting definitions. Radical definitions need radical proof to backup their concepts.

Hopefully you can tell us more about your project, so we can be more helpful.
posted by metalheart at 7:00 AM on August 18, 2009

You could look at Nikki S. Lee. She's an artist who dressed and acted like she was from different parts of society; yuppie, elderly, hispanic, punk, etc. and documented her immersion performances just with regular snapshots. I saw her speak once and as she tells it, the groups she befriended knew what she was doing, but she stayed with them so long and mirrored their mannerisms so well that after a while she was accepted as part of the friend group.

Off the top of google is this website, though there is probably better info on her:
posted by jenmakes at 7:12 AM on August 18, 2009

I'm not sure this counts as popular culture, but there was a recent incident involving burning man.

Also, White Shaman and Plastic Medicine Men is a fantastic documentary about the appropriation of Native American culture. Looks like the first two parts are on YouTube, actually - Parts 1, 2 .

You may also want to search the Racialicious archives for cultural appropriation, here. They usually comment on current events and pop. culture.
posted by lunit at 11:52 AM on August 18, 2009

Check out the history of the 1960's pop song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (also known as "Wimoweh").
posted by Asparagirl at 12:01 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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