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Appropriation and Misappropriation
Appropriation and Misappropriation

Appropriation and Misappropriation

The big theories are dead, the individual is dead, Culture/culture is dead, Art is dead. Shoot me now, considering in our post-modernist angst everything is dead! In one breath we are told that Otherising is going to save our identity and the fabric of our culture (insert whatever culture you have here). In the next breath, the other (yes with a small cap!) is to be celebrated with pump and ceremony. Summarising the readings from both Borrowed Power and Possessions, cultural identity, seems to be the most important element at stake. It can be gained, lost and created a new.

What seems to be the driving universal need is centred around notions of access and equality (Ziff & Rao, 1997). The narrative that is being explored through the book is not just a modern phenomena. It is an age old story, proclaiming that profits, recognition (fame) and prestige are eroding the moral fabric of our socitety. I have to agree with the authors that the ethical dilemmas we are facing when dealing with appropriation of culture are complex and mind boggling and politically driven (Identity Politics).

“Acts of appropriation happen all around us in a vast number of creative/non creative domains: Music, Narrative, Art, Science, Dance, Philosophy and Theology” to name just a few (Ziff & Rao, 1997). A very good example of positive appropriation was the Genome Project (in which the public institutions pulled their resources in the face of the bad corporate greed to stop our genomes being trademarked for private use only.  The symbolic violence that arises from non-recognition and mis-recognition of minority cultural is a very important issue. Here, not only the material form or expression being appropriated but also the context surrounding this appropriation becomes of paramount importance. In appropriating cultural “things”, we need to be aware of harm to the appropriated community, the impact of appropriation on the cultural object, loss of income to the appropriated community or individual, and the right of sovereignty over cultural goods (Ziff & Rao, 1997).

Through “a narative of succession” motifs and designs of the Maori People were incorporated into the settler colonies. This insistence message amplified the notion that, the ancient customs, legends and art of the “ancient indwellers” were waning. In essence this lead to the marginalisation of the contemporary indigenous inhabitant whose art and evolving customs were being rejected as too modern (Thomas, 1999). A classic case of symbolic violence against a new emergent heterogeneous culture, surprisingly it also worked in the opposite direction in tandem. This lead to the Maori art being accepted to the white-settler community much earlier than its counterparts in Australia, Africa and rest of oceania, bringing with it a certain level of acceptance and reducing the power relations between the two groups.

The idea of cosmopolitanism appeals to me on many levels. Knowledge is there to be shared, respectfully, but shared non-the-less. I don’t believe in losing free-speech for any reason. I am inspired by many cultures, stories, folklores, music and dance. I particularly like the concept of ritual re-interpreted by an outsider, as it brings out commonalities instead of differences. Differences are exciting, but when I am bonding with someone from a different culture, I don’t tend to bond with them over our differences. I bond with them over what we share in common together.  I suppose the one universal fact that we cannot fortunately kill, is that we are all human.


  1. Ziff, B. and P. V. Rao. (1997). Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Introduction, pp. 1-30.
  2. Thomas, N. (1999). Possessions: Indigenous Art/ Colonial Culture. London: Thames and Hudson. Chapter 3, pp. 95-125.


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