I was shopping today and I found Kente print skirts at American Apparel. I’m on the fence when it comes to traditional prints being sold commercially.
On the one hand, exposing the world to these beautiful colours and textures can certainly lead to greater engagement and learning about the cultures which produce them. Whenever I wear the prints that I brought back from Ghana, I always do my best to talk about where they came from and what they mean with my friends. I’m also very careful about wearing them casually; I think I’ve worn my clothing from Ghana twice since I returned eight months ago.
On the other hand, the hipster girl who buys this skirt and wears it all summer probably doesn’t know that each of those squares has a different meaning (let alone what the meanings are). She also probably won’t know that the print she’s wearing is distinct from other kente prints because it was produced by a different tribe. She will be taking part in the commodification of a complex and rich culture about which she knows nothing. That’s the basis of cultural appropriation. Make no mistake: it’s a form of exploitation.
I don’t even know if I can comment on the designing of this skirt. I’m going to assume that it was created by an American (AA is all about sourcing stuff in the states, right?). If that assumption is correct, then this skirt is doubly exploitative, because it represents the use of someone else’s culture to produce money for North Americans. How screwed up is that?
This is why I can’t get too excited about seeing beautiful prints from African cultures in the mall in downtown Ottawa. Just because they’re pretty doesn’t mean you should forget about the people(s) who created and produced them.