Who's offended by Victoria's Secret?

After their 'racist' use of Native Indian headdresses, Victoria's Secret is yet another fashion brand in the firing line for cultural insensitivity. But is appropriation always insulting?

Earlier this month, Victoria’s Secret was forced to issue a public apology after its annual catwalk featured a lingerie model gyrating down the runway in nothing more than her underwear, heels, and an oversized, pseudo-comedy Native American headdress.

Instant outrage followed this rather brazen attempt to use a sacred object to promote an underwear brand. Victoria’s Secret promptly issued a formal apology and removed the photograph from all marketing material.

The incident follows a chain of recent libel suits which saw a slew of fashion brands facing racism allegations for their appropriation of Native American imagery. Urban Outfitters faced legal action from the Navaho nation after printing their name on its products, Paul Frank were forced to issue a public apology after hosting a Native American themed party, and No Doubt very recently had to withdraw their latest music video after they faced a storm of offended criticism for its thematic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ clichés.

Why has this collective outrage exploded so suddenly? Although all the above examples are understandably offensive, they don’t detract from the fact that Native American heritage has long been part of the landscape of popular culture. From Clint Eastwood to Pocahontas, the American Indian image has been subsumed into mass culture - sometimes respectfully, other times much less so. The fashion industry, in particular, owes an unquantifiable debt to this visual culture, but few have yet to be offended by the legions of beaded moccasins in any high street shoe shop.

So, where do we draw the line? When, in other words, does cultural appropriation become cultural misappropriation?

It is, of course, demeaning for popular culture to arbitrarily borrow sacred symbols with no acknowledgement of their correct context. What’s interesting, however, is that the laws of political correctness differ between different art forms.

Consider the music industry – the entire history of popular music is, arguably, an extended exercise in cultural assimilation. Jazz, rap and hip-hop owe their entire existence to the elastic intermingling of alternate cultures. Paul Simon's seminal 'Graceland' album is widely considered one of the greatest records of all time for his open inclusion of South African musical traditions – albeit achieved collaboratively and inclusively, and still mired in racial controversy following Simon’s apparent boycott of anti-apartheid protests.

In our current musical climate, Damon Albarn remains a key example of how to do cultural assimilation credibly. He is currently creative co-director of Africa Express, a project seeking to foster collaboration between Western and African artists, with the intention of gaining a wider audience for the latter. The project has so far been extensively applauded for its inclusive approach and progressive sounds.

Of course, the extenuating factors are obvious. Whether cultural assimilation is seen as a tribute or an insult comes down to whether it is achieved in earnest artistic collaboration (as in Albarn) or flippant superficiality (as in Victoria’s Secret).

Nonetheless, a huge grey area is destined to loom over the issue. No Doubt were recently forced to pull their new music video following outrage at their use of Native American outfits. Its worth asking – had they sampled traditional American Indian music instead of clothing, would anyone have been as offended?

The truth is that nowadays, cultural assimilation has become so all-pervasive it’s almost unnoticeable. Popular culture has always consisted of mining, borrowing from and subverting the cultural heritage of the past. In fact, Frederic Jameson went so far as to see this as a defining factor of the postmodern age. For him, the past and its symbols no longer exist, "except as a repository of genres, styles, and codes ready for commodification”.

This has vast implications for political incorrectness - no symbol can truly be said to be culturally isolated any more. The eagle-feathered headdress which inspired such extensive outrage on the Victoria's Secret runway doesn't belong to the Native American repositry alone. It's origins date back to widespread early cultures, including Aztec warriors, early Gaelic clan chiefs and Slavic hussars. Now it’s been assimilated into contemporary culture and passed into the collective unconscious. Its original meaning is melded and mixed in a sea of new, secular meanings.

In other words, in a postmodern, post-ironic, globalised world, can anyone really be said to have ownership over their own heritage?

Model Karlie Kloss walks the runway during the Victoria's Secret 2012 Fashion Show in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.

@ms_kamila_k

 

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle