Cultural Appropriation

I have inexplicably become a late-in-life artist (well, a person who makes what I call art). It started during COVID with a lot of free time and accumulated stacks of African fabric. I remembered the beautiful collage paintings I had seen on a recent trip to Tanzania and arrogantly thought, I’m gonna try that. In my middle-age, I am increasingly unafraid to try new things, risk epic failure, spectacularly bomb. Why not.

The one that got away. I still regret not buying this, on sale/display at the Arusha Cultural Heritage Center (and apologies to the artist, I don’t remember their name) even though it was not cheap.

I never exhibited any real talent for art, that was my sister’s area (along with most if not all of the areas in my insecure, youthful estimation). I did take art (involuntarily) in high school and got one of only Bs in a long and stellar academic career.

My first paintings were pretty basic. I tried to use only cloth, but soon realized it was too difficult to make something comprehensible to the eye and brain as anything more than a jumble of pattern and color. So I reluctantly got some acrylic paint and brushes and started using it to calm things down, to integrate color and tame chaos. Gradually things got more and more sophisticated from watching YouTube videos and trial and error and, well….I now spend hours every week creating “art.” (That’s why I haven’t been writing as much–not sure if I should follow that with “sorry” or “you’re welcome.”). You can see more of my stuff on the “Art” tab of this website. I have an Etsy shop…like I said, it’s now fully out of control.

My very first fabric painting, Mt. Kenya.

My latest obsession is painting portraits. Because African fabric works best and makes the most sense with dark-skinned people, I have stuck with African and African American icons. I put quotes on the pieces for additional inspiration and because, let’s face it, I’m not a good enough artist for all my subjects to be readily identifiable. (Looking at this collection, it’s apparent I need to paint more women).

It’s not lost on me that some might find this work problematic, as well as my wearing the many, many pieces of kitenge/wax fabric clothing I have either bought or sewn. They might see a white-girl-pretender, or borrower, or thief. I do think the issue of cultural appropriation is overblown–our world is quickly becoming a melting pot of cuisines and fashion and cultural practices, and in general, I think that is a lovely thing for everyone involved. And, frankly, the kitenge/wax fabric you see all over the continent today is itself the result of cultural and economic exchange and has a complex history. Nonetheless, I am conscious of the arguments against me.

I have told myself it’s because they don’t know me, they don’t know my background, they don’t know about all the years I spent in Africa and how big a piece of my heart I left there and how much time I’ve spent studying the language and history and culture. As if I have earned the right to claim it.

As if my life there was some kind of authentic African experience, rather than a bubble-wrapped life of racial, economic, and geopolitical privilege.

When it started to dawn on me that this was the case, the pain was searing. I felt a sense of loss, of re-obscured identity, of unrequited love. Sometimes I feel like a ghost or a phantom instead of a firmly rooted person. This is not uncommon among missionary kids and other TCKs.

And yet I really do love Africa, or my corner of it, for Africa is not a monolith, and you could spend a lifetime discovering its diversity. I love the vibrant colors and the equatorial sun and the effortless hospitality. I love the simple, satisfying flavors and the musical language and the wide smiles and easy laughter. I love the mangoes and the avocados. I love the night sky. I love the charcoal-flavored air. I love the rust-red dirt and the vast expanses and the fireplaces on a damp, foggy days. I love the busy amidst the slow, you can take your pick. I love the dropped pretense of control. And, yes, I love the fabric, and I love the art. I don’t know if it’s wrong or right, I just know that I love, and I am compelled to at least try to inhabit it and to share it.

Painting the portraits of African Americans who lived in times that separated them from anything African, that literally stole it away, that draped them in European garb–painting them using African cloth and robing them in African clothing is deeply moving to me. I think about what was taken, the places and sights and sounds and colors and beauty of which I have been privileged to catch glimpses. I think about how it came to be that I caught them, the problematic history and the flawed, human systems with the mixed, anarchic results and how it all seeped into who I am, and maybe who we all are. How my life has been spent dipping my toe into a deep, overwhelming ocean from a luxury yacht gliding on its surface.

I think about all the graceful people who have not hesitated to help me construct an identity by willingly lending me theirs. The Kenyans I meet all over the world who push back forcefully when I caveat my story with the admission that “I’m not a real Kenyan.” “You ARE, you are! You are a real Kenyan!” they say, with real love in their hearts.

So I take my fake, plastic Africanness, what little I’ve gleaned over the years, and I consciously and prayerfully give it over to them. To Martin, to Harriet, to John, to Frederick. I think I’ll paint Rosa next, maybe Sojourner. Perhaps Ida B. or Booker T. or Phyllis.

I really, really hope they don’t mind.

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