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Exhibition at Academy of the Arts of the World focuses on cultural appropriation
Ekaterina Degot vor Ulay. Photo: Jan Kryszons.

COLOGNE.- Cultural appropriation has recently become the subject of heated debate. What was until very recently considered a purely aesthetic, vaguely post-modern, individualistic device of free, playful translation and citation of texts from “other” cultures, is suddenly revealed in its frightening political-economic dimension of exploitation and profit. A white dominant majority takes everything it likes to the detriment of indigenous voices, people of color, and others who are culturally and politically oppressed.

Exhibition organizers, however, want to turn to another side of this story overshadowed by recent discussions: the strategy of cultural counter-appropriation used by the underprivileged, in post-colonial Africa or in the Europe of migrants, as well as by those on the margins of Europe in the former socialist world. The thieves, counterfeiters, and resistant appropriators in Stealing from the West show that stealing from the West and faking its glossy products is not a proof of belatedness. Instead, it is a potent tool of cultural resistance and an instrument of post-colonial retaliation. It is also a strategy to demonstrate that all-white “high culture,” paid for by the lives of millions of slaves and colonial subjects, is common property and belongs to all.

An early intervention by Ulay already made this point in 1976, when he stole one of the most popular paintings in the collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg (1839), only to hang it in the apartment of a Turkish immigrant family. The Poor Poet, not really a high culture masterpiece, represents a territory of Western culture even more fiercely protected, the bourgeois value of sentimentality (Adolf Hitler’s favorite), as well as the hypocritical idea of “pure” noncommercial art. By symbolically giving this painting to the relatively disenfranchised, Ulay exposes the fake compassion to the non-threatening poor that is at the core of the mawkish popularity of the painting.

The exhibition opens with some historical examples of daredevil wrecking and looting that duplicates conscious and programmatic political acts, post-colonial assertions of rights, or maybe just acts of vengeance. The “Pink Panthers” are a legendary gang of diamond robbers from ex-Yugoslavia, who, as many journalists argued, take revenge on the West for the destruction of their socialist country. Perhaps the Pink Panthers are a softer and ironical Eastern European version of the Black Panthers who boast their pride in their difference by assuming violence. In the exhibition, a documentary film by Havana Marking ( Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers , 2013) tells their story.

Another cultural phenomenon is Lo Life Crew – a Brooklyn gang, formed in 1988, united by a singular passion to be dressed head-to-toe in Ralph Lauren clothes, shoplifted with artistry and rare panache. The cultural détournement consisted in appropriating Ralph Lauren of all labels, this embodiment of all-white American wealth, this territory of the quietly affluent, busy with golf, skiing, and sailing, - territory that could not be more at odds with the lifestyle of a poor black and Latino neighborhood. (In the show, they are represented by archival materials and Tom Gould’s photographs).

This appropriation of brands is a conscious artistic strategy pursued by young designers from the margins of the “big fashion world”, as Moscow-based Gosha Rubchinskiy, whose fake Tommy Hilfiger logos recently made headlines.
Artist Ines Doujak’s sculptural Looters (2016) are part of her long term Loomshuttles/Warpaths project where she explores the links between textile production, colonialism, and violence. They stand for the universal figure of a rioter whose protest against the capitalist system is immediately translated into the language of consumerism in its radical form: property theft. By stealing from the rich and culturally dominant, the looters who do not fit into the mono-ethnic idea of Europe, appropriate their place under the Western sun as well, like Younes Baba-Ali’s illegal migrant street sellers in today’s Italy who proudly display this country name on their sweatshirts (Italianisation, 2016).

Another mode of “stealing from the West” is represented by artists from the formally not colonized, but nevertheless culturally marginalized outskirts of the “big world,” Eastern Europe or East Germany, who mockingly “counterfeit” the Western modernist canon while confessing openly that this imitation is bad and technically poor. This ironic narrative of the failure to be original is central to Moscow-born Yuri Albert. One of his seminal series, begun in the 1980s, engages in self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek “failed imitations” of international textbook artists’ styles – while proclaiming his originality: I am not Jasper Johns, I am not Lichtenstein, I am not Andy Warhol.

In his new project, View on a Mountain, Albert, together with other artists, visits the St. Victoire mountain in Provence, famously overrepresented in Cézanne’s oeuvre, to paint allegedly naïve views from the mountain towards the place Cézanne might have been staying with his easel.

Another project dealing with inventiveness of the culturally marginalized or those affected by an inferiority complex is The Cabinet of Ramon Haze (a project begun in Leipzig in the 1990s with a book and a series of performative guided tours). Masterpieces by classics of modernism and megastars from today, allegedly collected by an Eastern German art historian, are suspiciously similar to miserable low-tech objects from socialist factories who lost the competition with glossy Western consumerist culture.

Algerian-born, Berlin-based artist Kader Attia and Beirutbased artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan approach yet another figure of the looter of the West – the Rebel, with whom the language of the colonizer might become the language of resistance. Abu Hamdan’s Double-Take: Officer/Leader of the Chasseurs/Syrian Revolution Commanding a Charge (2014) tells the story of how a contemporary version of Théodore Géricault’s Officer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (1812, in the Louvre) was commissioned by a wealthy businessman from Syria, where the French imperial officer was to be replaced with Sultan Basha Al-Atrash (1891–1982), the leader of the Syrian uprising against the French in 1925–1927. Kader Attia continues his ongoing research into the visual archive of mimetic objects in the everyday life of the colonized, where ready-made elements of Western consumer culture (coins or jewelry) are integrated, absorbed, melted into a new whole (sometimes a weapon), mimicking the oppressing power in an instinctive attempt to re-appropriate the freedom from which they have been dispossessed.

In The Crown Against Mafavuke, a new film by London-based artist Uriel Orlow (2016) and based on a real story of 1940 in South Africa, a local herbalist is accused by the white medical establishment of overstepping his “traditional” role. Mafavuke Ngcobo started to produce Western-style medicine very successfully among the white clientele, - a real “crime” for which he then suffered the consequences.

Filmed at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria where the later trial of Nelson Mandela took place, the film constantly shifts gender, racial and language identities, questioning the notions of the “authentic” and the “pure” and demonstrating how the praise of “indigenous knowledge” might work to protect “white territory”: that of professionalism and advanced technology.

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