featured image: Bazaar in the Stockholm Stock Exchange 1885 in favor of Artur Hazelius and the Nordic Museum. The participants are dressed in ancient Nordic costumes.


By Brigitte Vézina, Intellectual Property and Cultural Heritage Advisor at Brigitte Vézina – Law & Culture

Have you ever thought about cultural appropriation and what it means for your creative practice? Read on to find out how to identify it and avoid it.

How can I tell if it’s cultural appropriation?

First of all, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what the term “cultural appropriation” really means. The phenomenon has attracted a huge amount of attention but the term itself has been used and abused to mean everything and anything, often describing situations that are perhaps culturally insensitive but not strictly “appropriation.”

Unfortunately, there’s no agreed definition, but I have come up with four factors to guide us in determining whether we’re facing a case of cultural appropriation:

  1. Use of a cultural expression (a legend, a dance, a song, a pattern, an embroidery, a design, a textile, a piece of jewelry…) in a different cultural context
  2. In a situation of power imbalance (the taker is from a relatively dominant culture)
  3. Without any involvement of the source culture (no acknowledgement, no payment, no permission…)
  4. That results in harm to the source culture (economic, social, cultural harm…).

Beware though that there’s no magic formula and deciding what amounts to cultural appropriation is done on a case-by-case basis. Real examples include:

  • the use of traditional embroideries originating from the Mixe people in Mexico by French designer Isabel Marant
  • the wearing of a Native American feathered headdress during a lingerie fashion show
  • the copying of an Inuit parka design on a sweater by a British fashion label

Why should I care about cultural appropriation?

As societies evolve over time, some practices in the creative sector that might have been common and acceptable a few years ago are today greatly criticised because of the deep offense that they can cause. When dealing with traditional cultures, creatives, artists and designers need to seriously rethink the design and creation process, how “inspiration” is handled as well as making sure that everyone benefits financially and reputationally. That doesn’t mean that any form of cultural exchange should be banned. If anything, cross-cultural practice should be encouraged as all stand to gain from mutual influences. The key is to be mindful and use cultural elements with respect for the underlying culture and community.

What can I do to avoid cultural appropriation?

As a creative, you can follow these four steps to avoid engaging in harmful practices:

  1. Use with respect – research the culture and make sure you understand the meaning embedded in a cultural expression and do not distort that meaning
  2. Give credit where credit is due – acknowledge the source
  3. Use as little as possible and add a lot from your own imagination
  4. Ask for permission from the source community, engage in a genuine dialogue, enter into collaborations and share in mutually beneficial ways.


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