Recently the controversy of Cultural Appropriation has come back into headlines in regards to the heralded Victoria Secret’s annual fashion show and designer Arpana Rayamajhi’s jewelry for using Nepalese beading, worn by the models during a segment of the show. Cultural Appropriation is a hard topic to define and address for any organization. However, Victoria's Secret is not a stranger to this type of controversy. At the company’s annual fashion show in 2012, a model wore a sacred Native American headdress, offending many as this was viewed as mockery and ignorance towards the Native American culture.
Victoria Secret Show 2012 - Native American controversial headdress
Arpana Rayamajhi's beaded jewelry for Victoria's Secret 2016 show
The New York Times interview with Arpana highlights the designer’s views on the connection between art and culture. She views her jewelry as a conduit between her journey from her native Nepalese culture to her current NYC-based environment, her travels, favorite books, and an urge to explore the world. The jewelry she designed for the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is an expression of how she perceives her culture from her landscape of inspirations. Arpana’s idea to use beads in her work was inspired by a sea urchin which she connected to one of Tim Burton’s books, where she inherently felt the sadness the shell exuded. That was the unexpected birth of her idea that evolved to the implication of beading. She accurately mentioned "if we limit the concept of bead making to ethnicities then we can't move forward".
In short, Cultural Appropriation is an aesthetic legitimization of aspects of a marginalized culture by the dominant one, without accreditation to its origination. Perhaps the more egregious form of cultural appropriation comes from the liberal use of indigenous arts for financial gains, where the artisans are not compensated at all.
For all Artists, like Arpana Rayamajhi, the distinction between admiration and appropriation can be difficult. Each Artist has a message and perspective that they weave into every item they make, that is a sum of everything they have experienced and has touched their heart. It is part of what makes each item unique and exciting. And you can’t parse those experiences.
Similar to Arpana, team Shokunin’s “cultural-anthropologist-in-residence” is an avid bead-jeweler and has firsthand experience in cultural crossover. She recently took beading classes in Gerdany (Ukrainian bead weaving) through the Ukrainian Museum and in American Indian bead work taught at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. In her experience, she observed that there is no specific technique unique to any given culture. For example, the Peyote Stitch is as common a technique in both Ukrainian and Native American beaded jewelry. It’s not the only technique these two cultures share, nor are they the only two cultures who use it. They also on occasion share similar color palettes, themes, and designs, especially geometrical designs with color blocking.
Ukrainian style earrings (left) and Native American style earrings (right) both made with Peyote Stitch.
In her jewelry-making quest, Shokunin's team member experienced the richness and dedication to beauty infused in all cultures. She observed that this richness permeates the various aspects of the culture and highlights our shared humanity. At Shokunin, we are dedicated to combating the part of cultural appropriation that speaks of oppression. An artist or an artisan should be able to take inspiration from various cultures and not be limited to using only traditional patterns. The essence of art is change. This change does not mean the end of a particular artform, but instead the creation of a new one. An artist’s idea is limited by oppression when it is labeled as Cultural Appropriation, which in turn reduces creativity to something criminal, instead of embracing the possibilities of creative abundance.
We salute Arpana Rayamajhi for her artwork and for being able to express her voice freely.