Response: Culture is Not Costume: Why Non-Africans Should Not Wear African Clothing http://www.mycoloures.com/2014/10/culture-is-not-costume-why-non-africans.html?m=1
Nneka Okona’s piece on the “wrongful appropriation” of female African dress is an interesting, challenging and well-written read but has a misplaced tone to it. The piece pleads for the Nigerian dress / attire for women to be worn exclusively by Nigerian females because non-Nigerian ladies merely fetishise something dear, central and cultural to Nigerians and the authenticity of their lifestyles.
I bet Nneka drives a car, wears Western clothing, has a laptop, flies by airlines, uses trains, adorns designer cosmetics, needs overcoats in winter, cooks with gas or electricity, is lost without her multi-functional phone, dabbles into many different national cuisines, drinks Pepsi or Coke and speaks English far better than her mother tongue. She even lives in Washington DC a non-Nigerian city.
But why would she use all these items and facilities that are non-Nigerian? Is that not the same “cultural appropriation” of foreign goods she complains about? Even her appropriation rhetoric is foreign. The first time I heard the term cultural appropriation was when the African American jazz musician, Archie Shepp, used it allege how the Whiteman steals the Blackman’s music. What if citizens of nations who made the stuff she uses claim territoriality and exclusive use of them? In our currently ‘globalised’ world claims of originality (sources and nations) are found strictly in the form of patents and property rights.
Nneka’s version of African culture is limited to language, dress, identity, food, ceremonial traditions (weddings, burials, festivals and etiquette). Most Africans are forced by an overriding realism to work only within such limits. But they should do a lot better by going much further and uplift the ‘Ontology of The African’.
The vast majority of fabrics used in making the so-called African attire in Nigeria from the colonial times to present day are imports manufactured in Holland, India and China which are non-African countries. There is some small local production too but considered inferior to imported stuff. How can fabrics imagined, designed and produced in Asia and Europe be African? Even many fashion styles now considered Nigerian were originally suggested or created by the fabric manufacturers to increase their sales. (cf.e Indian dress).
I have always seen the term ‘costume’ for African dress deliberately derogatory but Nneka’s piece gives such credibility by narrowing the importance of Nigerian dress to ceremonial use. Nneka is correct to say that the models parade the Nigerian attire (for commercial purposes) are white and not African. I genuinely feel the absence of authenticity with the consumer / appreciator. And there will be a number of people who would unfortunately say what is “Nigger fashion” doing on the catwalk anyway? I would encourage her to wade into the fashion industry in America and make a success of it by bringing change to it if she has not already done so.
On a final note, I clearly remember 1981 to 1983 in Nigeria when mobile policemen were deployed to keep discipline in urban areas (under a democratic government) anr were ordered to beat or even strip Nigerian any women they saw wearing trousers especially jeans in a public place. An Assistant Commissioner of Police defended the police action by saying that women wearing trousers was a cause of moral decay in society and that such fetishised the Western lifestyle that was not appropriate for the Nigerian women. Women’s lib was slowly crawling into Nigeria then. Is Nneka piece a poetic reversal?